All Children Born With A 'Why' Chromosome

One of the echoing phrases from my childhood was my father's constant exhortation to "use your gumption." An old fashioned word, now, it may ring fond bells with British and American readers but is perhaps unfamiliar to educated English speaking Russians -- who often enjoy a richer vocabulary than the average native-English speaker.

Gumption is a matter of standing on your own two feet, using your initiative or common sense, working it out for yourself and thinking a problem through to its logical conclusion. I last wrote about the word gumption after my first visit to the then Soviet Union in the late '70s when I had eagerly anticipated that a student knowledge of the Russian language would lead to lots of exploratory conversations. Returning home disappointed I wrote about how such concepts as playing devil's advocate -- those "what if" arguments, seeing the question from both sides, and, of course, using your gumption, were so alien to the Soviet experience that hypothetical discussion was impossible, and lively debate was precluded by official disapproval of enquiring minds.

Now Vita, with many of her peers, has reached that every child's "pochemu" (why?) stage when each question can meander into a good 20 minutes of nonstop inquisition: "Let's go for a walk." "Pochemu?" "Because its a nice day." "Why?" "Because the sun has come out." "Why has the sun come out?" "Because it's spring." "Why is it spring?" Etc. etc.: Parents will recognize the drift.

But after overhearing Vita's friend's nanny mock her charge with a little "Pochemuchka" -- little "Miss Why", and Vita's Russian kindergarten teachers respond to her curiosity with a wholly inadequate and frustrating "Potomu chto," (because), I set out to explain to Vita's incredulous nanny that however much time, patience and, most dauntingly, imagination it takes, you must go on providing answers, even if it's a perfectly honest "I don't know, but let's find out" and digging up some science-made-simple book to discover a reason.

Of course her surprise is easily explained: Asking questions was not a useful social skill in the Soviet Union where the over-inquisitive child was best slapped down for its own protection.

Even in post-Soviet Russia it's easy to avoid the "why?" question as a futile path that leads only to a ulcers, and tempting to accept "because this is Russia" as a perfectly logical explanation to all our frustrations.

As conversations with children remind us, the answer to "why?" can be a long journey: While her nanny takes up the challenge of finding answers to Vita's every question, she is also now asking herself why they never answered children's inquiries in the past?

A long journey indeed.