I’m open to correction on this topic. I’m not a psychologist, educator or parent and I cannot claim any expertise or wisdom. Yet, time and time again, I see the following philosophy expressed: people who are not “really” asking are not worth answering. I read it in a book the other day, I heard my teachers say it and I witnessed a mother apply it to her daughter just the other day.
“They’re just trying to stir.”
“She’s just a teenager, it’s an age thing.”
“He doesn’t really want an answer, he’s just being davka.”
The bottom line? There’s no point in answering someone who doesn’t really want an answer.
But how do we decide what constitutes a valid question? Who are we to say “they’re just trying to cause drama”? Why do we feel the need to dismiss questions even when they come with a scornful, disdainful and angry tone?
Questions come from somewhere and the more emotion they arrive with, the more reflective they are of inner turmoil. Everything we say has some basis for it whether we might mean it or not. In the heat of an argument with a loved one, we might scream “I hate you” and if we analyze it, that line does indeed have some basis. There is a reason we said it and it is more than an expression of anger and resentment — it is expressive of something that we hate whatever or whoever it may be.
We have just read of the Four Sons in the Passover Hagada — the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son and the one who does not know how to ask. The commentary in my Hagada — the 1985 edition of the Artscroll Mesorah Series — writes of the lattermost: “the child who does not know how to ask: the child who is as yet too immature to search for the truth himself must be guided firmly… if this child is one who does not really care to learn and may grow up to be wicked, the words addressed to him [the wicked son] contain a warning” (p. 87-88).
If we ask ourselves who we characterize as the most immature in today’s generation, the answer will be teenagers. Teenagers are admittedly a recent social invention — how exactly the age bracket of 13-20 used to survive being thrust from childhood into adulthood, I’m not quite sure — and they are now the most vulnerable to outside influence. They are wired psychologically to have mood swings and rebel. They are also trying to find their role in a society that nowadays offers little to no guidance and instruction.
As a result, we need to guide our youth for otherwise we risk losing them to assimilation and irreligiosity. They are confused and aimless without help. The wicked son who does not care — “for you, he says, not for me” — will be our child. The wicked child became wicked somehow and we are responsible. Where so many other lifestyle and belief systems prevail, we need to answer questions and motivate our children to tread the same Jewish path that we do.
In the particular incident that I saw the other day between a mother and daughter, the “fight” was being about why one should give 10% of income to charity as dictated by Jewish law. The mother’s attitude to the girl’s annoyance at the concept? “She’s just stirring up trouble and doesn’t really want an answer, it’s just a phase.” I somewhat “lost it” with the girl and gave a heated argument for why we do and should give 10%. She processed it in silence before stalking off with crying and yelling. But you know what? She thanked me the next day and openly said “Tanya convinced me yesterday about why we should give 10%.” Yes, I got annoyed with her, but I refused to dismiss her question.
I didn’t care if she was angry or supposedly “acting up” — she deserved an answer because I owed it to her. To dismiss a question is the cruelest thing one can do to a child or teenager seeking guidance. Questions come from somewhere. Stop deciding whether they deserve an answer and answer them anyway. They will remember what you said.
The reason I didn’t dismiss her question is that people remember how others respond. Hours, days, years later, people will remember the attitude of the person they yelled at or asked a question to. If they were ignored, they will remember. If they received an answer, even if they didn’t appreciate it at the time, they will remember. “That teacher was patient with me and refused to ignore me”, “my parents always answered my questions even if I was screaming at them” – trust me, these moments remained etched in one’s memories. Parents and educators who are not willing to respect questions present a standoffish and dismissive attitude. They show disrespect. From superficial questions to core religious concepts, questions matter.