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October 28, 2016

Muskrats and Other Tough Topics

Fostering Community

“Dr. Foster, what’s a hunger strike?” I sure didn’t see that one coming as I walked alongside a Grade 5 on our way to the Dining Hall. The irony of her question coming just prior to lunch was not lost on me. Nor was the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of the answer. A hunger strike is an act of protest – it’s as simple as that, right? But then again, a hunger strike is an individual’s willingness to take his or her own life in a very slow, deliberate, and painful way, causing great distress to themselves and everyone around them, because they believe so strongly that a social or political wrong must be brought to light. Suddenly, it’s not so simple.

Like many experienced teachers (and wise parents), I deftly answered her tough question with another question, asking where she’d heard the term. “A man on the news said another man was on a hunger strike because of a muskrat. So what’s a hunger strike?” For a fleeting moment, I wished her question had been, “What’s a muskrat?” That I could have handled in the 90 seconds we walked together. Her knowledge of aquatic mammals was apparently strong, so I was left to tackle the more delicate topic of personal protest. “A hunger strike is something an adult might do to bring attention to something they think is very wrong,” I told her. “The person they mentioned on the news was refusing to eat because he’s very upset with something called Muskrat Falls. It’s a hydroelectric dam in Labrador. I suspect the man probably likes muskrats alright.” Seemingly satisfied with the answer, she headed off to find her friends for lunch.

Such tough questions from innocent-minded children are a gift. They allow us a glimpse inside the child’s developing mind and reveal their innate curiosity combined with a desire to make sense of their ever-expanding world. Weighty questions can, however, arise at inopportune times – bedtime was always a popular one in our household – but I caution against shutting down questions (particularly tough ones) because in doing so we dampen curiosity. And without curiosity, children become passive receptacles of information rather than avid pursuers of knowledge.

When faced with tough questions, I suggest parents remember three simple words: Clarify, scaffold and share.

To clarify is an easy but not always obvious thing for parents to do. Children, particularly young children, are not always adept at asking questions with clarity, so taking the time to understand the context behind their question is important. My sister at the age of nine asked our babysitter what “consummate” was. After a moment’s pause, the astute sitter asked where she’d heard the word. “On a cooking show,” my sister replied. Of course, the word was consommé, so with that newfound information, an awkward moment was averted and my sister learned the glories of richly-flavoured broth. A simple, “What makes you ask that?” or “Tell me why you want to know” are good ways to ensure you’re venturing down the correct path before you’re past the point of no return.

To scaffold is to move a child slowly and progressively towards understanding. We all know at least one humorous story of a young child’s simple question about the birds and the bees being met with a physiologically detailed, near trauma-inducing response. Whether more traumatic for the child or the parent is usually up for debate, but meting out just enough information to satisfy nascent curiosity is a way to keep future questions coming while not overloading a child with too much adult information. This is particularly important when a topic is abstract and slightly beyond a child’s developmental readiness. Questions about death, war, even the current U.S. presidential election – these can be challenging things to discuss – so providing information a bit at a time, pausing to let them digest it, and then seeing if their interest is sated before answering further, is a good way to go.

To share is perhaps the most important thing a parent can do. Musing out loud and posing your own questions about the world show your child that an inquisitive mind is not only the product of youth but part of being a life-long learner. It also tells your daughter that her opinion is valued. Parents don’t have all the answers – she will learn that soon enough – and having the most important person in her world ask her to think deeply is truly meaningful for a child. Posing big questions, pondering possible answers together, acknowledging the complexity of the world and celebrating curiosity – these are wonderful moments that create lasting family memories.

Muskrat Falls is a particularly challenging and timely topic to consider, so if your family is interested in pondering tough questions about economic development and the preservation of indigenous communities, it’s a great place to start!

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