Dear Dave

Wednesday 5 November 2008

So... What do you actually want to know?

Dear Dave,

Haven't heard from you much recently. Been getting enough sleep? Watched anything worth seeing? Has Sam settled in at school or not? Is Daisy walking yet? Has she said her first word? If so, was it 'dada', 'more' or 'Laa-Laa'? Are you ready for Christmas? Is the weather pleasant? Been anywhere nice? Got used to the new routine? Have you anything planned for Bonfire Night? You healthy? Folks well? Liz OK? Kids fine?

...And breathe...

Oops, sorry, I got carried away there. Feel free not to answer any of those if you don't want to - I know my life is already full of questions:

Me: We're going to Tesco to buy food, everyone. Get your shoes on.

Fraser: What was that? Shoes? Where are we going?

Me: We're going to Tesco.

Lewis: We're going to Tesco?

Me: Yes.

Marie: Are we going to buy food?

Me: Yes.

Lewis: Should I put my shoes on?

Me: Yes.

Fraser: Do we have to go now?

Me: Yes, we need food for lunch.

Lewis: Why?

Me: Because food will be tastier to eat than hoover bags, which is all we've got in the cupboard at the moment.

Lewis: Why don't we have any food?

Me: Because we haven't been to Tesco yet.

Marie: Can I take some hoover bags with me, pleeeeaaaasssseee?

Me: No.

Fraser: Where's my other shoe?

Me: Almost certainly where you last put it.

Fraser: Where was that?

Me: How should I know?

Lewis: Can I go play a computer game while Fraser looks for his shoe?

Me: No.

Lewis: Why not?

Me: Because he won't be long.

Lewis: How do you know that if you don't know where his shoe is?

Me: I... Er... Oh, forget it, I need a coffee. Everyone go back to what you were doing. I probably have a recipe for hoover bags around here somewhere...

I get a constant stream of questions all the time, often in triplicate. There seems to be no avoiding this, so my current project is to teach the children to at least ask questions that bring them the information they want. This will hopefully cut down on the number of questions and make me slightly less irritable. As things stand, Fraser has a tendency to make his queries a little too closed. He asks things like, "Is it going to be bath-time in ten minutes?" and then is surprised when I say, "No."

But I'm always going to say, "No."

What are the chances of it being exactly ten minutes until bath-time? He should be asking, "When's bath-time going to be?" He'd get a much more useful answer.

Sadly, closed questions bring out the pedant in me. In tests at school, I seldom had problems with short answer questions. I was more likely to struggle with multiple choice and, in particular, with true/false questions. I often thought there should be three possible answers: True, False and Sort Of.

I was reminded of this the other week when we went to a family quiz night run by a local church. It was the five of us and a student on our team, sitting round a table writing down the answers to the questions as they were read out. We were doing rather well until we reached the true/false round. Then everything headed down the glassware aisle with a flailing toddler...

For instance, take the question, "True or false: In Bob the Builder, the name of Farmer Pickles' dog is Scruffy."

The answer to this is absolutely, patently FALSE. Farmer Pickles' dog is called Scruffty. Anyone who has watched dozens of episodes several times, is able to sing the theme tune and has a house full of tacky merchandise can tell you that. Unfortunately, 'Scruffy' is sort of similar to 'Scruffty'. Perhaps too similar. We had to consider how closely the older gentleman who wrote the questions was paying attention while watching TV with his grandchildren the previous week. Especially bearing in mind that in the Harry Potter round he'd asked, "What subject does Professor Snape teach?" (To a chorus of, "In which book?" from the entire room.)

With a sinking heart, I wrote down 'False' because I couldn't bring myself to do anything else. Unsurprisingly, however, the quizmaster hadn't checked his facts and we didn't get the point. If we'd simply been asked the name of Farmer Pickles' dog, we'd have been fine, but in trying to make the question easier to answer by narrowing our options, it had actually been made harder.

We were robbed.

(The guy even thought Postman Pat lives in Pontypandy. I ask you...)

Yep, I definitely prefer some leeway in the kind of answer a question is searching for. Giving me some space nearly always works out well for the questioner as well. Ask me, "What shape is the Earth?" and I'll probably answer that it's round. Ask me, "Is the Earth round?" and I'll come back at you with, "Not exactly," and then feel compelled to add, "It's an oblate spheroid."

That said, sometimes a closed question is the only way to get a straight answer. Finding the right question is the difficult part. At the point Marie loses interest in a meal, I keep asking her, "Are you finished?" She shakes her head and sits playing with the single remaining food item for another ten minutes. Then I ask, "Are you going to eat that cracker?"

She looks sad and says, "No."

"So you are finished?"

She shakes her head again.

Finally, I twig what the problem is. "Have you had enough?"

"Yes," she says in relief, gets up from the table and goes and washes her hands.

Communication is a tricky thing sometimes...

I guess asking a question is a balance between giving a person freedom to impart information and setting limits in order to keep the response relevant. Although I'm a big fan of open questions, some can be slightly too open:

Last night, I said to Lewis, "It's going to be bath-time in ten minutes."

His immediate response was, "Why?"

There were any number of ways to answer this question. Ten minutes is how long it takes to fill the bath with water, for a start. But why was I turning on the taps just then? Was it because tea was almost finished or because if I didn't begin then, it would be impossible to bathe all the children before bedtime? Of course, this was assuming that bedtime and tea-time are immutable constants. Perhaps the true question was a challenge to the underlying timetable of our daily routine. Perhaps it was an attempt to more fully understand our weekly schedule. Maybe it was a critique of the Western obsession with cleanliness and a plea to return to an era where body odour was acceptable and natural.

Why in ten minutes? Why Tuesday? Why him? Why have a bath at all?

The inevitable answer was, "Because you smell, Lewis. Because you smell."

"No, I don't," he replied.

"Yes, you do."

"Why?" he asked, putting us right back where we'd begun.

I sighed. "Just eat your tea. Your bath is in ten minutes."

At this point, Fraser butted in with, "It's nine and a half minutes now."

"No, it's not," I snapped. "It's still ten minutes because I haven't started running the bath yet. I've been too busy arguing with Lewis."

"Then why did you say it was ten minutes a minute ago?" said Lewis, getting annoyed. "It was more than ten minutes!"


"I've had enough to eat," piped up Marie. "Can I have my bath now?"

Again, obviously, the answer was, "No," for the simple reason I hadn't yet managed to leave the kitchen to start running the flipping thing. More than that, if Lewis has a bath first, he can get himself dry while I'm washing Marie and then I can brush his teeth while Marie is enjoying a long soak in the tub. If Marie has a bath first, Lewis is in and out in less time than it takes me to get her dry, causing a slippery pile-up of wet children on the bathmat. Even when this is sorted out, I'm left with two children needing their teeth brushed at the same time. This is awkward.

"I want to have a bath," said Marie. "Can I have my bath now?"

The short answer was, "No," the medium answer was, "No, because I might get a toothbrush up your nose," and the long answer was complicated, dull and ended with, "Yes, Lewis it's still ten minutes until bath-time..."

Getting the kids to ask sharper questions would be great. I think I may be in it for the long haul on this one, though. Nevertheless, I'll lead by example and put my initial enquiry to you another way:

How's life and what have you all been up to?

Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours in a woman's world,


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