Look After Your Mind

According to the author Warren Berger in his book, ‘A More Beautiful Question,’ some studies reveal that four-year-old children can ask as many as 400 questions a day. Many children between the ages of two and five can ask around 40,000 questions! The word ‘question’ comes from the Latin, ‘to seek’, thus linking the idea to that of a journey or quest.

Berger also notes that as children enter formal education the number of questions they ask declines. Various reasons seem to lie behind this shift in behaviour. It can be tiring and distracting for adults to keep responding to a child’s incessant questioning, coupled with the fact that sometimes adults just don’t know the answer.

I recently heard a young girl ask her mother why the sky was blue. The lady didn’t know and brushed it off with a remark about which shop they could visit first.

In school, teachers have to ‘cover the curriculum.’ Children need to know the facts to pass their tests. Wide-ranging questions can take valuable time out of a lesson. However, we learn a salutary lesson from the Nobel Laureate in Physics Dr Isador I. Rabi, who said that he became a scientist because every day, when he arrived home from school, his mother wouldn’t ask what he had learned, but said, ‘What good question did you ask?’

So, I think it’s healthy and liberating to encourage questioning in children and, by extension, for us as adults to cultivate that behaviour in ourselves. An incisive question can open up new vistas of knowledge and understanding. Also, not knowing an answer, (yet) leads to a tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, dampening the need to know ‘the right answer right now’. The world is often an uncertain place; being prepared to live with this, if only temporarily, can lessen tension and worry.

I was once asked to work with a ‘difficult’ 13-year-old boy at a school in Nottingham. His Head of Year thought that boosting his self-confidence through creative writing might improve his behaviour. Almost as soon as he entered the room, learning of my interest in astronomy, he was asking questions like, ‘Why do stars shine? Why do they exist? Why does anything exist?’

I’m pleased to say that I spent our time discussing these things with him, instead of ‘staying on brief’. By the end of the lesson we were both fired up with more questions, parting company not with further answers, but with the burning curiosity to try and find out more.

Steve Bowkett