Richard Hearn asks why

Why? I often ask myself that question. Although, now I don’t need to. It’s effectively been subcontracted to Youngest™ who does the job for me many times over in an average day. Most parents will recognise this stage. The continual “Why?” asked about every statement from the banal – “we’ve run out of milk” – to those ones where you wished you’d paid attention in school – “It’s looking foggy”.

“Why?” is a sharpened tool of a word. Skewering one answer, ready for the next one, like those old-fashioned clerk’s spikes which collect receipts. It’s a question that never gets answered, because a toddler will just keep asking it of the answer, like instructions that end with ‘repeat’ or holding a mirror opposite a mirror.
I’ve mentioned in a previous column that Youngest™ had a four-word sentence – “That bit goes there” – which I felt could rule the world. The fact that he’s now swapped that for a single word might seem like a backward step. I prefer to call it streamlining.

Taken to its logical conclusion, asking the question “Why?“ turns any statement into philosophy. Try it yourself. Let’s take that situation that we need to go to the supermarket. The answers in turn might be: we need food; to keep us healthy; to replenish cells…through to carbon, then the Big Bang and why are we here in the first place? Virtually any thread leads to questioning your own existence (which I suggest doing in the car on the way to the supermarket, or you’ll get there and find it closed).

“You don’t just get to the bottom of things, you get to the hot, distant, unliveable centre of them”

Even when it doesn’t end up as philosophy, it does soon descend into deep, deep territory, which often involves a knowledge of science that I’m not sure I have. The first “why?” might be metaphorically picking at fluff on the carpet, but soon you’re digging through to the Earth’s core. You don’t just get to the bottom of things, you get to the hot, distant, unliveable centre of them.

If I’m making out I answer swiftly, happily and with full concentration every time, I should say I don’t. I can’t say I always answer straight away, but a toddler’s questioning is like the bailiff’s knock; you can’t hide behind a sofa forever. But you can’t be too flippant, either. If Youngest™ is anything like The Boy, your off-the-cuff answers will be remembered verbatim, and spouted back at you. Certainly, my half-hearted responses have become Official Definitions, which is why Gremlins ‘make a bit of trouble and muck around with computers’ and Jupiter ’is definitely further away than Devon.’ Once you’ve said it once, it’s gospel.

Illustration: Paul Lewis

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