A friend just asked my opinion on buying a set of encyclopedias for her seven-year-old son, who frequently asks her science questions. In my classes, we work on skills for not answering all the questions our (younger) children ask us. Giving (often long-winded) detailed answers to out children’s questions can often seem like good parenting; we’re teaching!; we’re paying attention!, and so on. But, really, most often the questions are like clouds moving in the wind and if we can respond breezily, we can allow our young children to remain in the dreamy imaginative place that is their birthright. An early-childhood teacher who took my class had a brilliant way of responding to the many (many, many!) questions of the young children in her school; she created the “I Wonder” song that she would dreamily sing when a question was asked. Joining our children in the wondering is often more age-appropriate than an exact and literal answer to their questions.
But!, there does come an age where it becomes appropriate to answer their questions, or to help them find their way to answers, and, when this time arrives, I wholly endorse having lots of good reference books around the house. I’m a fan of reference books, because these days “looking something up” usually refers to googling it, which means we have the answer to our question mere seconds after the question itself has formed. This leaves no lag time for wonder and imagination, and the satisfaction of having “found” an answer is minimal, as that answer took no effort to discover. If in your home, looking it up can mean: making one’s way over to where the reference books are, figuring out which book to look in, flipping through actual pages and arriving at the answer (or, even better, not being able to find it at first and having to search harder), I think you are doing your children a big favor. As this video, which I love, makes clear, easy answers feel “cheap,” whereas answers you have worked for are much more satisfying.
So, the answer to my friend’s question was, of course, yes! Buy those encyclopedias, and those field guides and the dictionary, and create a home that values paper books and all the wisdom they hold in their inky pages.