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When is it a bad idea to over-explain something to a child?
I learned an important lesson while talking to my 4-year-old the other day: over-explaining things is just as bad as not explaining them at all. Maybe even worse.
Ever start off by answering a simple question for your kid, then another, then another, until at some point you realize that you’re falling into a supermassive black hole that’s going to unravel the space-time continuum? Yep. It was one of those.
The question that started us all down the path to destruction in this case was “What happens after kindergarten?” Okay, simple enough, I’ve got this. “After kindergarten you start first grade. You do a different grade every year until you finish eighth grade,” I explained. Like someone who still had a firm grip on the situation.”Then what?”
Me: Then you go to high school.
Him: Then what?
Me: Then lots of people decide to go to college.
Him: What’s college?
Me: College is where you go to learn a lot more things about a lot of different subjects and hopefully figure out what you want to do for a living, like for a job. You know how Daddy and I have jobs?
That would’ve been the logical place to wrap up the conversation and file under “revisit this at a later date,” right? Nope, I pressed on,
At this point my son started to look … concerned. Uh-oh. Better save this. Must keep explaining.
Him: But how do you know what you want to learn?
Me: Well, you’ll actually spend your whole life figuring that out. You’ll learn about a lot of things in school, and some of them you’ll be really interested in, and you’ll go from there.
And now we’ve reached the point in the conversation where I pushed my son over the Rubicon from vague dismay and into something else entirely:
Me: What do you think you might like to be when you grow up?
Here, of course, I was expecting typical kid answers — fireman, astronaut, policeman, whatever. I was even prepared to award bonus points in the unlikely event he pulled out something impressive (neurosurgeon, captain of industry, Supreme Court justice) and even more bonus points if he came up with something bizarre (a squirrel, a rock, Lady Gaga). What I was not expecting at all is what he came up with:
“Nothing. I wanna be nothing!”
Great, now I’ve set us all on a course for a future where he’s 35 and living at home playing World of Warcraft in my basement. That would’ve been the logical place to wrap up the conversation and file under “revisit this at a later date,” right? Nope, I pressed on, determined to talk my way to the bottom of this.
Me: Really? Nothing? You’re gonna have a hard time paying your bills. That’s why Daddy and I work — so we can pay for stuff like our house and food and our car.
Him: But I don’t know how to do anything!
Me: Dude, relax, you’re 4, you’ve got plenty of ti—
Him (wailing): I can’t be anything when I grow up because I do-o-on’t knowwwww howwwww toooo doooo anythinggggg…
At this point it was clear I had talked the poor kid into a mini self-esteem crisis. This is the moment he’s going to revisit 20 years from now in therapy! Abort mission! All I had set out to do was field the easy grounder of “Here’s what comes after kindergarten,” and I had instead inspired him to perform a mental inventory of “Stuff He Knows About” and arrive at the conclusion of No Useful Things For Obtaining Gainful Employment In Adult Life. Age 4 and ready to throw in the vocational towel. I was on the verge of laughter and tears. Definitely one of those.
I spent the next 20 minutes (and that’s being generous) trying to explain how we spend our entire education slowly building up the foundation of stuff we know, and about how we keep learning throughout our lives, and about how he has his whole life ahead of him to decide what he wants to do with it, and no pressure, geez.
Then our conversation was interrupted by my middle son, age 2, who until this point had been quietly listening to me and his brother talk. “I’m gonna be Big Bird when I grow up, Mommy,” he declared, pleased with himself.
Julie Ann Exter is a therapist and publishing liasion. Topics she has written about include politics, health, and parenting. You can find more Quora posts here: