Don’t Ask, Don’t Yell 2


I felt guilty about those occasions when I just couldn’t listen anymore. Both my daughter and my son had inherited my incessant curiosity, a fact that I had wished for and thought I would treasure. But I was unprepared for the steady stream, the relentless, brutalizing, impossible-to-answer questions.

“Where is Christmas?”

“Why can’t I see my eyes?”

“What is one million trillion million five hundred and six thousand and three times four trillion trillion and nine hundred and seventy-five?

“Who was the first person to see dirt?”

“Daddy, why are you biting your hand?”

Once in a while, though, they would ask something that made my heart soar with hope.

“Where does the sun go at night?”

“The sun?” I’d say. “That’s a good question. Here, let me show you.” And I’d begin to assemble a sophisticated model of the solar system, using a lamp, a baseball, a can of root beer, an apple, and anything else within reach. But by the time I’d gotten the salt shaker Moon into position, the kids were long gone. I eventually figured out that they weren’t really looking for answers. They just wanted to know that it was safe to ask questions.

And it was. No matter how close to bursting the arteries in my brain were, I held my tongue and remained tolerant, even for their most repetitive wonderings. I had made a promise, after all. And I had determined to be interested and involved in their lives. So it was with a great sense of shock that I discovered how irritating my own innocent questions were when directed at my teenage children, especially my son. My gentle probing was met with a cold silence, a sarcastic word, or a storm of fury. I learned, gradually, to phrase my questions in certain ways, trying to anticipate four or five moves ahead how the conversation might go. Where were the traps, the land mines, the potential explosions of anger?

They were, it turns out, just about everywhere. If I include in my question the slightest inaccuracy, that becomes the focal point, with the larger, more significant issues buried in a lot of loud yelling.

“So,” I say, “when you told me that chapter fourteen definitely wouldn’t be on the test and that you didn’t need to study it, I guess you misunderstood your teacher.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” he demands. “Why are you even saying this?”

“Because you ended up with a thirty-seven.”

“Thirty-nine, Dad! I got a thirty-nine! Where did you hear that it was a thirty-seven? This is what I hate about people. When they say things and they don’t know what they’re talking about!”

And so another war begins. As it escalates, he storms off to his room and slams the door. I go downstairs and wait, for the next forty-five minutes, for my heart to stop pounding. And then I hear it. My son is upstairs, listening to music. And he’s whistling. Whistling! Was it all just a set-up? His way of avoiding my disappointment? Or is he simply handing the rage off to me?

Whatever the explanation, I remain puzzled to this day by the question that continues to echo inside my skull. How is it that I was on the receiving end of all that yelling as a child, and now find myself in the same position as an adult? How did I miss my turn at bat? Or is it too late to be asking? Has this become my ultimate stupid question?