What if …?

#1 and #2 have acquired a new habit that takes the following form:

What if [fill in some absurd hypothetical or alternate realty]?

Examples of the less absurd hypotheticals include:

  • What if I had a ray gun that turned cars into piles of money (asked #1 as I grumbled about the driver in front of us)?
  • What if our cats could fly (asked #2 as she watched our cat gaze hungrily out the window at the birds on the feeder)?
  • What if I could read your mind and make you think what I wanted you to (asked #2 when I refused to do her bidding)?

I confess, I quickly grew tired of these “What if…?” questions. A couple times I countered with “What if you didn’t ask “What if…?” questions?”[1] Recently I realized that my reaction to their “What if…?” questions was a mistake.

I am fortunate to work with excellent students who are incredibly good at performing well circumscribed tasks, answering questions, and taking tests. These same students, however, are paralyzed when given the opportunity to be creative, or to construct their own projects, or to follow their own self-determined interests, or to articulate the criteria by which their projects will be assessed. Our educational system’s success in training and disciplining comes at the expense of encouraging creativity, imagination, originality, and innovation. Teachers and parents reward kids when they answer questions rather than when they pose questions. As Alan Jacobs noted recently: “The problem with Socratic pedagogy is an overemphasis on what *answers* students have. But often their *questions* are more illuminating.”

The questions children ask are always more important than their answers.

The questions children ask are always more important than their answers.

My reaction to #1’s and #2’s “What if…?” questions discourages the habits of mind that I profess to encourage. I should, perhaps, ask them to explain why a particular “What if…?” question occurred to them at a moment,[2] or give them the chance to think through fanciful counterfactuals,[3] or simply let them imagine a world that isn’t.

What if I learned to enjoy #1’s and #2’s “What if …?” questions? What if I used them as an opportunity to let #1 and #2 indulge their creativity? If I don’t, who will?


  1. Nothing vaults me to the top of the parent-of-the-year category more than behaving like a 12-year-old. I might as well have taunted them with a “neener-neener-neener” when I was done.  ↩

  2. For example, perhaps #1 would have told me that his turn-cars-into-piles-of-money ray gun was prompted by his wish to make our commute quicker or to relieve me of the frustration I expressed or just because he wanted to see the surprise on the drivers’ faces when their cars turned into mounds of cash. Maybe #2 would point out that a flying cat would not be hungry or would simply be really cool.  ↩

  3. Maybe #2 would describe her utopian future in which I did whatever she wished before she even said anything. To be sure, such a dystopian future terrifies me. That difference in our ideas about the future would itself be a great conversation.  ↩

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