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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > A Lot Can Be Learned from Children’s Questions

Four young reporters from the Children’s Express recently interviewed me. They ranged in age from 10 to 13 years and asked very though-provoking questions on consumer and environmental subjects. Children’s Express is a new monthly magazine written by children. Americans first heard of this delightful idea at the Democratic National Convention last July. The children put out a special newspaper that week and were the first to predict that Mondale would be Jimmy Carter’s choice for vice president. A few weeks later the Express rumbled on to Kansas City for the Republican National Convention and made network TV once again with probing interviews there.

One of the questions put to Vice President Rockefeller set David Brinkley to remark about things child reporters can do that veteran reporters couldn’t get away with. He was referring to the question asked of the vice president by a young Express reporter: “Why are you supporting Ford after he just dumped you?”

A case can be made for the proposition that children often ask more important questions than grownups because they haven’t learned to dissemble or to censor themselves, or to use flattery or other adult artifices. An anthropologist might put it this way: “Children’s thought processes are relatively unencumbered by their cultural environment.”

To illustrate, here are a few questions which I have heard raised by 10-year-olds or thereabouts:

Why is gasoline cheaper than Coca Cola?

How come people smash bottles instead of wash them? (This was said during a referendum over a state returnable bottle proposal.)

Why does it cost 13 cents to carry a letter across the country, but it costs 10 times that to call?

Everyone has been tossed questions like that by children. Usually adults will chuckle and toss the questions off in typically condescending style. People who do that may not know that they are missing an opportunity to be stimulated into examining the unexamined.

As the Children’s Express gains broader acceptance throughout the country, more children will show their older friends just how incisive their young minds can be. The magazine has put out a Teacher Guide for School Liaison Editors. The adult-written guide starts with the words of one child:

“I hear and I forget.

I see and I remember.

I do and I understand.”

What could be more succinctly telling than those three brief lines about what makes learning stick?

In its first few months, Children’s Express has interviewed major political, sports and communications figures. Its reporters have traveled to Plains to interview Amy Carter and other village citizens. They are now launching several serious investigations into child abuse, school lunches and other issues affecting children.

Taking on their colleagues, the young interviewers questioned, among others, Edwin Newman of NBC. “What was the biggest mistake you ever made?” they asked. Newman: “It may have been being willing to be interviewed by you…” He then added that his latest mistake was putting the Alamo in the wrong city.

The 49-year-old publisher of the Express, Robert Clampitt, and his associates are brimming with ideas and ways to encourage children to put them into print.

It may be that adults will benefit as much as children from this new journalism. They might start asking questions like 10­year-olds do, and they might just be surprised at the results. There is nothing like a simple question to speed the way to a straight answer. Imagine what government, business, school administration, for example, would be like if, for one year, only 10-year-olds could ask the questions.

Readers interested in finding out more about how to become a journalist by the time you are 10 can write to Children’s Express, 375 Park Ave., New York, NY 10019.