Q: I am a teacher of 4-year-olds in a private pre-K program. In my college child development program, I was told that one should always answer a child's questions, but I'm beginning to wonder. I have a child in my class who asks a constant stream of questions. To tell the truth, most of the answers to his questions are obvious. For example, I'll be cutting out an animal figure with scissors and he'll ask, "What are you doing?" If I then ask, "What do you think I'm doing?", he'll tell me. Under the circumstances, do I have to answer all of his questions? Regardless, how should I deal with this?
A: The basic intent behind the idea that adults should always answer young children's questions -- to reward and promote intellectual curiosity -- is a good one, but there are exceptions to every rule. Unfortunately, many child development programs treat this issue as if there should be no exceptions, ever, which is why you're beginning to get frustrated concerning this little fellow's constant stream of queries.
The answer to your first question is, no, you are not, by any means, obligated to answer each and every one of this child's questions. You are obligated to respond -- with kindness -- but your response can certainly be a firm but gentle refusal to answer.
In the final analysis, it's in this little boy's best interest for someone to help him discover that he can answer many of his questions himself. As it stands, a question occurs to him, and he impulsively blurts it out. You can help him learn to control that impulse and begin thinking through many of the word problems that occur to him.
During a planned private moment, tell him he doesn't need to ask so many questions. He's smart, and he can answer some, if not most, of them without your help if he just thinks a little while. From now on, tell him, you're going to answer some, but not all, of his questions. Where the others are concerned, you're going to help him answer for himself or simply remind him that he can answer for himself and leave it at that.
I'd be sure to hold a conference with his parents beforehand, by the way, so they understand the philosophy behind what you'll be doing. It may be that they're experiencing a similar issue at home and would welcome your guidance.
So, for example, your little interrogator asks what you're doing when the answer is as plain as day. You simply say, "Oh, you don't need me to answer that question," or "You can answer that without my help," or "That's the kind of question we talked about," or something along those lines. You can also ask questions that help him discover the answers on his own.
A number of years ago, concerning a similar situation involving a 6-year-old girl, I recommended that her teacher give her 10 "tickets" (rectangular pieces of laminated construction paper adorned with question marks) per day. If the girl wanted an answer to a question, she had to give up a ticket. When she ran out of tickets, the teacher couldn't answer any more questions. None!
Within a week, this little girl, that everyone had thought was insecure and seeking attention, was asking fewer than 5 questions a day and looking much, much happier for it.
Just like you can either give a man a fish or teach him how to fish, you can give a child an answer or teach him how to think.
John Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 East 86th St., Suite 26B, Indianapolis, Ind. 46240 and at his Web site: www.rosemond.com.
If you or someone you know has parenting problems, call the Parents Anonymous 24-hour confidential Help-Line at 892-2172.