By Mordechai Schmutter
I can’t believe I still don’t really understand why the sky is blue.
When I was a kid, this is something I really wanted to know. But then life happened, and I never really took the time to find out. And now some of my kids want to know why the sky is blue.
I could do what a lot of parents do; I can stall.
“You’ll understand when you’re older,” I can say.
“Why? Is it that complicated?”
Or I can just deflect the question: “I don’t know; you’re the one in school.”
“Didn’t you go to school?”
“It wasn’t like that when I was a kid.”
“It wasn’t blue?”
“No; everything was black and white.”
“OK, here’s another question. How come adults are allowed to lie, but kids can’t?”
“Why do you ask that?”
And I can’t be the only parent like this. Wouldn’t it be much better if we knew the answers to all these questions and had something to tell the kids? Unfortunately, though, we don’t have time to look up all their possible questions ahead of time, because our priorities have shifted somewhat since we were their age.
But I finally did have to know why the sky is blue, for the purposes of this article, so I looked it up and now I’m prepared. In fact, here are some answers to a bunch of common questions that your kids might ask, to help protect your child’s comforting illusion about your expertise in science, history, and random animal facts.
Why is the sky blue?
So it turns out that the sky isn’t actually blue, but it looks blue on clear days because of something called the Rayleigh scattering of light particles, combined with the relative lack of violet photon receptors in our retinae. Try explaining this to your kid in the back of the car.
“OK, so you know what Rayleigh scattering is?”
“OK. Well, you know what happens when you shine a white light through a prism?”
“Well, you know how white light is really made up of different colors?”
“Why are you asking me a question when you have no educational basis for understanding the answer? Do you know why anything is the color that it is, or is it just the sky that you don’t understand?”
So really what you need here are not real answers, but answers that your children will understand. And that won’t trigger more questions. Like if they ask, “Why are plants green?” and you say, “Because of chlorophyll,” they’ll just come back with, “Why is chlorophyll green?” which is a harder question, and you haven’t actually thought that far.
So let’s start over.
Why is the sky blue?
Because if it were green, we wouldn’t know where to stop mowing the lawn.
Maybe the sky is blue because almost nothing else in nature is blue. Imagine if the sky was the color of birds. Birds would be invisible. Wouldn’t that be terrifying?
Also, water comes from the sky, and water is blue.
Wait. If water is clear, why are the oceans blue?
Same answer. We don’t want to drop our lawnmower in the ocean. Or have fish swimming up to us out of nowhere. Have you seen fish?
Why are plants green?
Blue water plus yellow sunlight. Next!
Was the world once black-and-white?
Well, let’s see: The choshen was definitely not, and Hashem showed Noach a rainbow, but who knows? Maybe there was a long period of black-and-white after that. Beginning with the Dark Ages. And then one day the color came back, just about the time that racism was starting to go away. People looked around and said, “Hey, you know what? Nobody is actually white! Except redheads.”
How much does the earth weigh?
This sounds like something you and your child can figure out together.
Well, how does one weigh the earth? It’s not like you can put it on a scale.
But maybe you don’t have to. Just put the scale down and turn it over.
In fact, I tried that, and, according to my scale, the earth weighs five pounds. It took me a while to figure this out, because I couldn’t see the numbers.
Just so you know, though, my scale is always like two or three pounds off.
How come when I cry you tell me to stop, but then sometimes you cry?
Well, sometimes it’s OK to cry.
You need to give your kids more specific guidelines that they can consult to decide whether to cry in a given situation. Though, to be honest, it kind of sounds like you’re arbitrarily making these guidelines up to justify your crying.
Or you can just explain that “No offense, but your crying is a bigger problem for me than your actual problem is. Whereas I’m crying about a fictional story that I’m reading. So that’s OK.”
Why is your tummy big?
Go to your room.
Why is the ocean salty?
That’s where all the herring lives.
Just kidding. We put our herring in salt to keep it from going bad. So maybe Hashem made the ocean salty to keep the world from smelling like fish. After all, almost three-quarters of the world is water.
Why can’t I stay up as late as you do?
Because that’s when you start crying more.
Also, I use the quiet time after you go to sleep to get stuff done. What do you need to get done after I go to sleep, besides sneaking cookies?
How do they figure out the maximum weight limit on an elevator?
They just keep loading bigger and bigger people onto it until the “up” button doesn’t work. Then they ask everyone how much they weigh. Talk about awkward elevator small-talk.
Why do cows sleep standing up?
Being a cow is very boring. They are literally falling asleep chewing, and then waking up and wondering what day it is.
Why is that guy fat?
I don’t know him; how should I know? Let’s ask him.
This is another one of those things you can figure out together, as a family. There’s no such thing as a stupid question, right? Just bad timing.
But it makes sense that your kids ask you questions you don’t know how to answer. Priorities change. You ask your kids plenty of questions that they don’t know how to answer, such as “Who didn’t put out the napkins?”
“Um… Nobody put out the napkins.”
Or there might be some answers in your kids’ heads that they’re not sure they can say.
Who broke this?
“I learned in school that one shouldn’t say lashon ha’ra even on oneself.
“No, it’s for tachlis. I need to know who to reprimand.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to go for kulos here.”
How many times have I told you?
I don’t know any kid who keeps a little notebook and a pencil in his pocket, ready to check off how many times his mother told him.
What did I just say?
You said, “What did I just say?” I forgot everything before that.
When will you learn?
OK, I’ll let you in on a secret: Your child does not know when he’s going to learn.
Yet we keep asking these questions. When will we learn?
To be fair, aside from being able to answer questions from three-year-olds, most adults never need to know why the sky is blue. But aside from answering questions from adults, most kids don’t need to know who didn’t set out the napkins.
“But you’re a totty. You should know everything!”
“Um … There wasn’t really a test. Well, there was, but Mommy didn’t ask this. Her questions were more like, ‘What are your hashkafos?’ which I knew, and ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’”
“I see myself googling why the sky is blue at a red light.”
The good news is that nowadays, we can look things up. I don’t know how our parents answered our questions without constantly sneaking off to the library to look things up. I think they made up their own answers. When I was a kid, I asked my parents why I couldn’t swallow watermelon seeds, and they told me it was because the seeds would grow in my stomach. I’m pretty sure that’s not true, but I have no idea why they didn’t just say, “Why would you want to swallow watermelon seeds?” I had to be bribed to eat chicken, but I needed a good reason not to swallow seeds.
But we still can’t look up everything. Someone my wife knows said that her son asked her when Mashiach was coming.
“I don’t know,” she answered.
“Well,” he said, “can you look it up on your phone?”
Speaking of adults and kids not getting each other, I have a new book out this month, the theme of which is all the priorities that adults have that no kid has ever included in his fantasies about eventually being an adult someday, such as carpool and taxes and constantly replacing pieces of the house until there are no pieces left that originally came with the house. The book is called For This I Had to Grow Up?
In case you’re looking for it, the cover is sky-blue.
I don’t know why.
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of five books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.