How To Survive Toddler Interrogation

A wild ride through the verbal pyrotechnics and public awkwardness of questioning by a 3 year old

My daughter, Rory, is age 3 — going on 13. Yes, she’s a threenager. As cute as she is, she’s testing her little boundaries as never before and is bumping into a lot of proverbial walls, but she’s finding her way. Rory’s been using words for some time, but she’s now grasping more complex verbal maneuvers. In her mind, they’re honest inquiries; but in my mind, they lean more towards awkward public questioning and even hostility-inducing provocations.

As I stand there amidst the puppy dog stare of my little girl after asking me something so absurd — so disconcerting — I often realize there is no answer. Just a moment of silence with an accompanying frown as my mind searches for answers, but all that comes out is an awkward chuckle and a ‘silly kid’ eye roll to any passersby.

The questions at home are fine. I can shrug them off or go down whatever rabbit hole she wants to go down when it’s just us. No harm, no foul. What’s tricky is when she pulls hapless victims — complete strangers — into her web of verbal influence.

Below are some of the situations I’ve found myself in, bumbling in public in the face of her — shall we say, interesting — questions, and the tactics (if you can call them that) I’ve used to diffuse them.

Pronouns

I remember the first time she got me in public. It started out harmlessly enough with the botching of pronouns. We were in line at the grocery store (always an adventure with a toddler) when she pointed to the gentleman in front of us and asked, “Who’s SHE, Daddy?”

I didn’t peg him for a friendly, kid-loving man. He was an older gentleman, dressed professionally, with a staunch look on his face. I could tell he heard her and the vein that began protruding from the side of his bald head showed he wasn’t finding humor in it it. (Yes, we live in a quite conservative little town.)

Initially, I went with the tactic that was most natural. I ignored her.

Just don’t lock eyes with her and she’ll let it go, right?

Wrong…

She asked again (pointing, of course, to make this confrontation even more inescapable).

My second line of defense was redirection, “Hey, kiddo, what’s your favorite thing to do at school?” But I could tell by the look in her eyes that she was not letting this go. This guy somehow looked familiar to her and she wasn’t going to drop it until I reminded her of who she — sorry, he — was. But we didn’t know the man. And he was starting to get antsy.

I was trapped. I had to tackle this head-on, “HE’S the nice MAN in front of us, Rory.”

And that ended it. Confrontational fire, extinguished. She was fine, back to twirling her hair and looking at the balloons.

Pronouns + Fashion

One day, after splashing around and swimming at nearby Lake Tahoe, we all headed back to our spot on the beach to take a load off. More and more people had arrived and it had gotten quite busy. We were in close proximity with a woman who, I’ll admit, was wearing a large, obnoxious hat. It was a large-brimmed sun hat to which the woman had hand-fashioned a long, draping mesh neck flap.

My wife and I were soaking up some sun when I peak over and notice Rory, squatting over her sand castle with her gaze fixed on this woman. I knew it was coming and there was nothing I could do to stop it. As soon as the thought crossed my mind, she pointed and nearly shouted, “Mommy, why’s he wearing that silly hat?”

Double-whammy. Got her on the pronoun and followed it up with a blow to her fashion sense.

Again, instinct took over and I went with the usual tactics — ignore (which never works, apparently), redirect (nope, doesn’t work either), and then, finally, address her error directly. “That nice LADY is wearing that hat to keep the sun off her face so she doesn’t get an owie,” I said. “Isn’t she smart?”

Like before, that did it, and she went back to building her sand castle. Crisis averted.

Pronoun + Friendship

The pronoun is a bugger to this day. Most people are fine with it, but that doesn’t make it any less awkward for me. One day, we were at the park flying her new kite. I was extremely disappointed because we’d had wind all day, but as soon as I got our new Air Foil kite in the air for the first time, the breeze mysteriously died.

So there we sat at our park bench, defeated, packing up the afternoon’s scheduled entertainment, when Rory stopped in her tracks, pointing to the lady on the bench right next to us and asked, “Daddy, is HE your friend?”

Zinger. And I didn’t even see it coming.

It was catch-22. A yes or no question. If I answered “yes,” I’d be forced into that awkward smile and wave (especially since I kinda yelled at the lady’s dog minutes earlier for chasing my grounded kite). If I answered “no,” I’d risk blatantly offending the poor woman.

In a split-second, by following this question deeper, I was faced with a moral dilemma. I began to wonder, Shouldn’t I be telling my child that we’re all friends? This thought was followed up by, Maybe it’s not true — perhaps all of humanity is enemies innately pitted against each other. Maybe I’ve been lying to her all along by telling her to love and be nice to everyone?

Her inquiry was straight-up Jedi. I was mentally paralyzed. I didn’t even know what to do, so I resorted to grabbing her (nicely, but firmly), putting her in the wagon, along with the unravelled kite, and fleeing the scene. Well done, Dad…

Pronoun + Age

Yes, we’re still on pronouns here, but in this case, she added one of the most delicate social faux pas in our culture today: age. We were at the grocery store again — this time in the produce section — in which case Rory pointed to a man next to us and asked, “Daddy, is SHE your grandma?”

He couldn’t have been older than mid-forties.

I felt my heart sink. There was no running or fleeing from this one. The man and I were shoulder-to-shoulder. As Rory asked the question, he looked up directly at her. Again, he was an older gentleman who had a no-nonsense look about him.

There was a long, awkward pause. He was silent. Rory was silent. Their eyes were locked. You could pierce the tension in the air with a toothpick. I had no idea what to do.

A moment or two before I lost all bodily function, the man dropped his tomato, threw his head back in the air, and let out the biggest guffaw one could muster. Tears began streaming down his cheeks and his face turned beat red. I thought I might have to run for the defibrillator when his laugh slowed down to a friendly chuckle.

“Why, you got yourself a firecracker there, young man,” the gentleman said to me, playfully poking her in the chest. “You got me good there, cutie. Ha!”

It was the outcome I least expected. We had dodged a bullet, and apparently made someone’s day.


Kids are crazy. They’re insane. They have no filter and they aren’t scared of much of the social conflicts we are — kind of like that one friend from college but a lot cuter.

We must keep in mind that we’ll look back on these moments one day with a smile. These are the days. The best thing we can do is saddle up, hang on, and enjoy the ride. Just don’t forget to laugh along.

And if the hapless victims of these shenanigans from the general public don’t get the joke, well, I say that’s their problem.

Brain Freeze is a series of stories by parents that celebrates the candid moments in which their children ask the most unexpected questions. The series is sponsored by Chloe’s Fruit, a brand of frozen treats made from only three ingredients: fruit, water, and a touch of organic cane sugar. Follow Brain Freeze for more stories, and sign up to receive coupons for Chloe’s in your inbox.