Years ago, pre-kid, I remember reading a pretty amusing article in the Post about some of the crazy things docents at the Air & Space Museum overhear parents telling their kids when asked a question to which they don’t actually know the answer. The article was full of hilarious anecdotes that made it pretty clear that many parents, when faced with a difficult question about aviation or space exploration, simply made up an answer to satisfy their child’s yearnings.
Around the same time, my husband and I happened to meet the curator, and he confirmed what the article said: The answers, while creative and amusing, were almost always false.
I am convinced this was not the case during my childhood, because I am convinced that my parents didn’t make up the answers. I believe this because in our household (no offense, Mom), my brothers and I directed the vast majority of our questions to our dad, who seemed to know everything. His credentials were solid—PhD in chemistry—and he has this kind of quiet, understated presence about him that just make people listen to him and, at least for us, believe everything he said as the absolute truth. He has authority without being authoritarian.
His knowledge was also startling in its breadth: One day, my brother and I decided to play “Trivial Pursuit” with him. He had never played the game before, so we let him go first, and one by one, he marched his game piece around the board, ticking off the answer to every single question and filling all of his little colored pie wedges before either of us had even had a chance to roll the dice. When we sort of helplessly shrugged our shoulders and told him that he had won the game, he looked at us like we were crazy. What game, he wondered aloud, only lets one person go before it’s over? Meanwhile, we recognized that a man who can recite the periodic table of chemical elements and tell you who won a 1954 Oscar for Best Actor is perhaps not the guy you want to pit your mind against in Trivial Pursuit.
Sadly, I have not followed in his footsteps. In fact, I often wonder if my own kids think I’m an idiot. It’s getting to the point that I too am beginning to wonder the same thing, as every day, my children find new and creative ways of discovering how little I actually do know.
I blame it on the follow-ups. You see, it always starts the same way: They ask a fairly innocuous first question, which I can usually answer. Something like, “How far is a lap?” But I had no sooner told my swim team son that his age group swam 25 meters, when he asked me who decided that length (ummm …), followed by, “And how big is the biggest swimming pool in the world?” (ummm … )
I’ve been asked who invented cotton candy and how many people have climbed Mt. Everest and how many dogs are there in the world. I’ve been asked about meteors and comets and the speed of light and even how many gallons of water are in the ocean. I don’t think I could even tell you how many gallons of water the average bathtub holds, and to be honest, I can’t say I really understand how fax machines and televisions work, either.
I don’t make up answers though—no, I’m not like some of those parents at Air & Space. I just say I’ll google it. And google it we do, my husband and I. Reams of paper have been printed with explanations of hundreds of seemingly unanswerable questions. It’s turned into a bit of a game, actually: Almost every night, each boy asks a question, and one of us (usually my husband) googles it after they go to bed and leaves the print-out for them at their place at the breakfast table.
This is all well and good, and we’ve learned some fascinating things (The world’s largest swimming pool is in Chile, in case you’re interested, and is eight hectares in size.), but Parenting by Googling doesn’t work so well when you’re not within reach of a computer.
Just last week, I went on a hike at Riverbend Park with some friends. The kids ran ahead, finding all sorts of interesting creatures and leaves and bugs. Given that my friend is some sort of master naturalist or bug expert, it didn’t take long before my idiocy was revealed: A child saw a Daddy longlegs, another child said it wasn’t really a spider, my son looked inquiringly at me, and I found myself sputtering about something having to do with insects and spiders and segmented body parts, but really, it didn’t make much sense even to me. My friend saved me from further embarrassment, for which I was grateful, but inside my head, I was just crying out, “Why couldn’t we have visited a farm? I could have explained the difference between a horse and a pony! (14.2 hands!) I know what a hand is!! (Four inches!) I could tell you the difference between a jenny (a female donkey!) and a jack (a male donkey!)! Domestic animals I know! Spiders and bugs not so much!”
Seems when I do have all the answers, no one is asking the right questions.
This article was originally published September 7, 2011 on Patch.com.