Where do unicorns keep their books? and other unanswerable questions…


The above query was a recent topic of discussion among several three year olds of my acquaintance, along with additional questions regarding their favourite smell and preferred shape.* Early answers revealed substantial differences of opinion – variously:

A) In a bag, perfume and squares
B) In piles by the wall, strawberries and circles
C) Under the sofa, roast dinner and duck-shapes (who knew?)

It became clear that without a unicorn to consult in person, as it were, a consensus was unlikely to be reached.

I mention this not just because I would quite like a definite answer myself but to illustrate the frustratingly complex, frequently pointless, often incomprehensible and regularly unanswerable questions that children ask. When kids are small their parents are granted virtual super-hero status, able to do almost anything and come up with an answer for every query. Other recent interrogations from my children have included “How does rain get in the sky?” (Something to do with being soaked up by clouds, I think?), “How many dinosaurs did you have as pets when you were little?” – (Don’t be so bloody cheeky) and “Why are One Direction so famous?” (If anyone has an answer to this last conundrum, do please share).

As with most parenting issues, I find the soundest course is to fumble through as best I can and hope it turns out alright in the end. But what happens when the questions get harder? Children have an uncanny ability to probe for answers on even the most difficult subjects. Tackling queries such as “Why do people not like people who look different to them?” and “Why do people have wars and kill each other?” is a thorny path that is extremely tricky to navigate.

The most basic reply, that sometimes people are not very kind to each other, seems trite and glib, for all that it is essentially the truth. Answering such questions without scaring a child or causing undue anxiety isn’t easy. Preserving their innocence of the harsh realities of the world for as long as possible is surely much to be desired.

Perhaps I’m worrying unnecessarily – it may be that this basic answer is sufficient for now. By the time they are old enough to question it in detail, possibly they will have developed a tacit understanding that parents don’t have all the answers, however much they might want to. That parents aren’t omniscient, just doing the best that they can. That sometimes the answers you’re looking for just aren’t there. And maybe that’s enough.

But if you should happen to see a unicorn, do please ask about their book storage arrangements – enquiring minds are desperate to know.

*With thanks to Emma H, Rebecca H, Ez, Lola, Betsy and Lily for their insightful input.



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