“I want us to have a Christmas tree,” my 4-and-a-half year old announced one day, full of that fervor which only a preschooler can possess.
“We can’t have one,” I replied, full of that weary knowledge that this conversation won’t be so easily nipped in the bud, which only the mother of a preschooler can possess.
“Well, for one thing, Gregory, because it’s the middle of June.”
“I want us to have a Christmas tree at Christmas time.”
“We can’t have one.”
“Because we’re Jewish. We have a Jewish home, and Jewish people don’t have Christmas trees.”
“Because Jewish people don’t celebrate Christmas.”
“They don’t believe in it.”
“Because I’m your Mommy and when your Mommy or Daddy are Jewish, that makes you Jewish. But, you know what? When its Christmas time, we can go over to Grandma and Grandpa’s and help them decorate their tree.”
“Grandma and Grandpa can have a Christmas tree?”
“Because Grandma and Grandpa aren’t Jewish.”
“Grandma and Grandpa are Daddy’s Mommy and Daddy?”
“Yes.” I know where this is heading. “So Daddy isn’t Jewish?”
“No.” Can you tell where this is heading?
“So Daddy can have a Christmas tree!”
“So we can have a Christmas tree!”
I won’t bore you with the rest of it. Believe it or not, the above was just the preamble.
Arguing with a preschooler, after all, is the equivalent of arguing with a waist-high lawyer for whom victory means taking a majority of the settlement for himself, and, even if he loses, he can still bill for the hours. In other words, he or she has no incentive to give up, a really fantastic inducement to keep the discussion going on indefinitely and, in addition, possesses a linear train of thought that no amount of logic, common sense, or, God forbid, life experience, is capable of piercing. He also has the stamina of a gorilla. That lifts weights. And has popped a few steroids for good measure. (At our house, we are still stymied as to how to convince the aforementioned 4-and-a-half-year-old that the number after “infinity” is not zero. By his reasoning, if after infinity there is nothing, and zero signifies nothing… But I digress.)
At one point, at the onset of the preschool years, I actually clung to the notion that sending him off for a few hours a day to a place where trained early childhood educators would be available to answer his plethora of questions might somehow lift the burden from my fatigued spirit and lips. It proved to be the exact opposite. While my son currently attends a wonderful, nurturing, diverse, multicultural preschool with loving, downright brilliant teachers, the fact of the matter is that being exposed to more people and more ideas only led to his having more questions — all of which he deferentially brought back home to me.
Which, ultimately, I suppose I’m glad about. Because no matter how wonderful and experienced and sensitive his teachers are, no matter how many times they sing “I Had a Little Driedel” at their Christmas concert or “We Shall Overcome” the week prior to Martin Luther King’s birthday, the only one who can explain to my son what it means to be the child of a Soviet-born Jewish writer and a Harlem-raised African-American engineer the way that I want it explained, is me.
My personal belief is that you should always answer a child’s questions truthfully, though age-appropriately. You don’t have to tell him everything (such as the clinical details of where babies come from or why we have to go through security at the airport — “They are looking for bombs in our shoes?!”), but you should also never tell him anything that’s technically untrue. Because with the law of averages skewing the way it does, that will be the one fact he’ll remember and build his entire worldview around. I try to answer all of my children’s questions honestly, in a manner that they’ll understand and not be frightened by.
And that, ultimately, is the beauty of having chats about religion, philosophy, politics, anything, really, with a preschooler. When you have to break everything down so as to make it palatable for the four year old set, then dig your heels in and defend your position in the face of a thousands “why’s” and “what for’s,” you’d better really know what you’re talking about. And you’d better really believe it, too. (Or else you’d better have been really, really good at Lincoln/Douglas debate and capable of arguing any side of an issue equally well.)
Having to explain something to a small, non-abstract thinking child forces you to question assumptions you might have previously tossed off without a moment’s thought. Preschoolers haven’t yet learned to blindly accept “common wisdom,” and they’ve got no tolerance for clichés without evidence. Everything is open to examination, everything is fair game for debate and exploration.
And, in an interfaith, biracial, multicultural family like ours, that means the four year old isn’t the only one reexamining everything at its most basic level.
Why can’t we have a Christmas tree if Daddy isn’t Jewish? What’s wrong with eating pork? Can you be black and Jewish at the same time? Can you be black if your skin isn’t really brown? Are there Jews with brown skin? If Daddy isn’t Jewish, why does he come to temple with us? Why does challah have raisins in it? Why doesn’t Daddy like raisins? Is it because Daddy isn’t Jewish? Do only Jewish people like raisins?
Without a preschooler to give (loud, shrill, incessant) voice to these and many other questions, I might have never considered them myself.
It’s a gift that certainly keeps on giving. Sometimes on an hourly basis. It’s exhausting, it’s exasperating, it’s a bit frightening. And it doesn’t last very long.
My 9-year-old no longer asks foundation-shaking questions. That would be because, as he heads into the fourth grade, my 9-year-old already smugly has all the answers (“Did you know that Jesus was Jewish, Mommy? I bet you didn’t know that!”).
I’d sic him on the 4-and-a-half-year-old.
But I still need to hear what the little guy has to say.