During the Passover Seder, the youngest child at the table traditionally recites four questions about the rituals of the service. The rest of the year, though, parents often ask the questions. I invited Donna Kane, a consultant on parenting, child development and adolescent issues for Jewish Community Services in Baltimore, to muse about what the Passover questions teach us about communicating with children year-round. Here's what she wrote:
"How often do you ask your child a question and hear, 'I don't know' as the response? I hope a lot of you are rolling your eyes in exasperated understanding, or are mumbling 'all the time' under your breath. I probably hear 'I don't know' (from here on referred to as IDK) at least once a day. Sometimes my questions are conversational, so I accept the IDK. But there are other times when the answer is important and IDK is not acceptable. Whether your child is 4 years old or 20, there are times when it is reasonable to expect an answer.
"So now, with me anyway, the inner questioning begins. What does IDK mean? Does it mean: I don't want to talk about it now, I don't want to give you information, I felt uncomfortable asking my teacher the question, I forgot to ask, I asked and I forgot the answer? I admit there are times when I am too tired, distracted, and yes, even overwhelmed to pursue the meaning behind IDK.
"Every year when the youngest in our family asks the Four Questions of Passover, I wonder what would happen at our Seder table if I, with practiced indifference, just answered IDK. To be honest, chaos would most likely ensue, with all the children asking and answering the questions. But the emphasis here is on the questions.
"The Seder offers an opportunity to teach children to ask - to question and learn. What a wonderful teaching tool. Perhaps there is something in that approach for adults to learn from as well. Maybe we need not only to encourage our children to ask questions, but also to model for them how and when to ask a question. For example, how many of us have asked a question in anger or asked a question when our child (no matter what age) knows we already know the answer? And here is a scenario I am very guilty of: How many of us start asking questions as soon as our child walks in the door from school? My guess is that we all may be contributing to the IDKs.
"Whether or not you celebrate Passover, you can use times like the Seder, when families gather around the dinner table, as opportunities to ask questions and to engage in discussion. There is a lot for all of us to learn from this dialogue."