Questions I Can’t Answer

Kids always ask the hardest questions when you are least prepared and unable to give them your full attention. Lately, this has been happening in the 10-minute car ride to school.

It started this morning with a reminder that President’s Day is coming up and there is no school that Monday, and this segued into a conversation about American Presidents. This reminded me to scold Asher for watching Top 10 Most Awkward Moments of Donald Trump videos on YouTube every time I come down to the basement to check on him or else he’s going to lose his computer privileges. He groans. Then I prompted both children to think about the many US Presidents that have been great leaders, gave inspirational speeches, that helped people in need, and were kind. And even though I’ve been to the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery I cannot recite the first 10 Presidents for the life of me, so instead we talked about Presidential faces they may recognize on dollar bills. At this time Everett interjected that George Washington was bad because he owned slaves but it’s ok because he paid them, and then Abraham Lincoln came along and was the best President because the country used to be called Slavery and now we’re two countries.

Asher now loudly states “Well you and dad have $10,000 why won’t you just give it to us? I’ve seen your credit card statement”. SIGH. “Just because you have a credit card LIMIT doesn’t mean you HAVE the money.” I explain. “It’s borrowed money from a bank and if you can’t pay it back you get in trouble.” Everett screams “You and dad are going to jail??!!” I realize I quickly need to reel things back. I try explaining bankruptcy, but at this exact moment we pulled up to Asher’s school and as he happily hops out in car line, already forgetting everything we just talked about, I say “Asher, I’m not just going to give you $10,000. Ever.”

As we proceed to Everett’s school, he quietly says “But mom, what happens when you file for bankruptcy?” SIGH. I explain that if you borrow more money than you can pay back, in SOME cases you file for bankruptcy and this means you lose everything and have to start over, like a board game. But I clarify that in MOST cases people just owe money for a very very long time and not to worry about it because mom and dad are fine. We have talked about mortgages, school loans, savings accounts, and retirement accounts endlessly at before, usually in other inconvenient moments, but no matter how many times we try to teach the kids about money, every week Everett gets his $5 allowance and he IMMEDIATELY spends it at Marshall’s or TJ Maxx.

But something nagging and incorrect inside me tells me not to give up on the credit card discussion. We have like 4 minutes left of the drive. I explain that using credit cards as a form of money that you don’t have makes it hard to keep up on paying back the bank, and also to save for their future. I DON’T UNDERSTAAAAAAND!!!!!!!! Everett screams. “And what happens to the kids?????!!!”

This leads into a dreaded moment asking myself: Do I take this moment in time to talk to my 7 year-old child about homelessness, foster homes and adoption? I have 3 minutes left. I decide to talk about it. WHAAAAAAAT???? he screams. He can’t express himself he’s so confused. I recently vowed to be very transparent with my kids when they ask tough questions, which I regret instantly. So I just quickly say “Don’t worry honey.  There are always people who will look after children in a nice home” (not always true) “‘and kids will never be in a jail” (definitely not true). And if Asher were in the car he would remind Everett about The Wall and detention centers. We pull up at his school.

OK Everett, well we’re at school now bye-I-love-you-have-a-nice day!

Here’s another moment. The other day we took the kids to an immersive contemporary art museum called the WNDR MUSEUM in Chicago which featured an infinity room of mirrors titled “Let’s Just Live Forever” by the famed Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Asher was absolutely riveted by this concept of endlessness. In the car ride home he couldn’t stop talking about infinity and the size of things like how big the Willis Tower is in miles and feet, and he had just so many questions that at some point I just gave him my phone to Google whatever he wanted. Every now and then he’d pipe up and say things like “Infinity plus one is omega!” and “The approximate size of the observable universe is 14 billion parsecs!” Then Everett’s brow furrowed. “But then Asher, what’s on the OTHER SIIIIIDE of the universe???????????????”

These are all such very good questions. I recently listened to a podcast on Radiolab about a man who as a young child in Russia noticed these strange birds in the fields sitting on the backs of cows. They didn’t belong there and weren’t in any local library books. So he started photographing them and took those photos to the local science museum, who then directed him to a bird specialist, and not a single person could explain to him why these cattle egrets from Africa were now in Russia. He said that this was a pivotal moment in his life that taught him that adults just don’t know all the answers. And he then spent the next 30 years tracking egrets and teaching the world about the concept of migration and what happens to birds in the winter. Up until the 1800’s people just assumed they flew to the moon!

But I digress. Adults are NOT supposed to know all the answers. And I am OK with that. But if I can encourage some curiosity and ignite new questions in their ever-evolving brains about the way the world currently works, maybe my children will teach me something one day and the rest of the world something big tomorrow. This really would be good parenting.