The world must be a confusing place for a three-year-old. Before that age children take the world at face value. Mackey does. To her, the world is the way it is and things are the way they are simply because that's just the way it is and there is no need for any further explanation. She can't imagine anything other than what she has experienced so she doesn't question beyond what she knows. She doesn't even think to question it. She dwells in the age of innocence, the Garden of Eden. Somewhere around three, however, children come to the stage in their development where they no longer simply accept the world as it is without questioning. They have somehow figured out, on a very basic level, that there are such forces at work as action and reaction, cause and effect, growth and change, and that some things are connected or related to each other. In other words, a three-year-old is beginning to realize that things happen and are the way they are for a reason. Unfortunately, because of their limited experience and knowledge, someone so young may realize that there are underlying causes to just about everything but, for the most part, have no idea what those causes are.
Kiley is three. As a three-year-old she is becoming full of questions. The "who", "what", "when", "where", and "how" of just about everything have suddenly become very important to her. She is now constantly asking questions and I am constantly answering them as best I can. "Who", "what", "when", and "where" are usually easy queries to satisfy. "How" is sometimes a little tougher. And then, of course, there is the most fundamental of questions. The one that usually strikes at the heart of things and is therefore the most frequently asked, especially by a three-year-old who is trying to figure out how the world works. The one that is, more often than not, the hardest to answer and, as fate would have it, the one that Kiley and most three-year-olds are most fond of. My days are now plagued by what, at three years and three months old, has suddenly become Kiley's favorite word – "why?"
Who invented the word "why"? I want his name. Such a criminal act should not go unpunished. I thought it was bad enough when Kiley's favorite word was "no!" but "why?" is a much more vexing word. "No" can be dealt with fairly easily. An appropriate response to "no" requires only persistence and calm resolve, things that fifty-nine years of living have endowed me with in abundance. An appropriate response to "why", on the other hand, often requires knowledge, a much harder commodity to come by. And when I say it requires knowledge I don't mean simply the knowledge required on my part to correctly answer any given "why?" That's hard enough. No one knows everything. I certainly don't. So there are many questions that Kiley may come up with on a daily basis that I simply have no answer for, and, in such cases, must revert to the perennial default position - "Because that's just the way it is". This of course, is unsatisfying to the questioner, and I try to avoid such an easy out whenever possible. (The Internet helps with that. The answer to any particular question is only a Google away.) But my own lack of knowledge is only half the problem in satisfying her curiosity. In fact, it is less than half the problem. More often than not it isn't my lack of knowledge that stands in the way, it's her's.
The real difficulty in satisfying a three-year-old's never ending questions is her ability to understand the answers. That is primarily because they have a small foundation of knowledge to draw upon. We adults have a relatively large foundation of knowledge. There is plenty of technical knowledge on any given subject that only a rather small subset of individuals possess, but generally speaking there is a basic foundation of knowledge that all adults share. So when a simple question is asked, and a simple answer is given an adult is satisfied and no further explanation is required. The answers to any further questions that might arise from the original answer are already available in the adult's foundation of knowledge. At least to a certain point. With a three-year-old, however, there are no simple answers. Because of their limited foundation of knowledge any answer given merely raises another question as they try to drill down to the ultimate answer of "why?".
Here is a conversation I had with Kiley last week:
"Is Mommy going to the mall with us?"
"No. Mommy is at work."
"Because she had to go to work."
"Because she has to make money."
"Because you need money to buy things."
"Because nothing is free. You have to pay for them."
"Because that's just the way it is."
Here the questioning stops; because Kiley has learned that "Because that's just the way it is" is the ultimate answer, and that any further questioning beyond that yields no deeper understanding. What she does not know at this point is that there are answers beyond that, and that there is a deeper understanding to be had, an understanding that she will not be able to comprehend until she learns much more about the world. By continually asking "why" she is expanding her foundation of knowledge and, therefore, her ability to comprehend the answers to the "whys" of the world. As a human being she does this instinctively.
In a very real sense we are all in the same boat as Kiley. Our understanding of any given subject is limited by the number of "whys" we have answers for. Regardless of how much knowledge we amass as individuals or as a species, no matter how deeply we drill down, no matter how many "whys" we ask, eventually we reach a question that, as yet, can only be answered with: "Because that's just the way it is." We are all merely children in the grand scheme of things, God's children, and like Kiley we will forever be asking "why" because the sum of all knowledge is beyond mortal comprehension. Only the Mackeys of the world have it truly figured out. Only they, in their innocence, don't even think to ask "why", perhaps because they instinctively know that for beings such as us, with a finite capacity for understanding, all questions ultimately have the same answer. Why? "Because that's just the way it is."