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It’s OK to Say “I Don’t Know”

I have a very distinct memory of standing on the beach with my grandmother when I was quite young, probably around 3 or 4 years old. “Nana,” I asked, “where do the waves come from?” With complete authority, she responded, “The waves come from whales slapping their tales on the water.” It seemed like a completely reasonable answer at the time, but it wasn’t until I was in science class in fourth or fifth grade that it dawned on me that Nana had been pulling my leg.

Why Make Something Up?

I’m not sure if she had given me that answer because she was trying to be whimsical, but my guess is that she probably didn’t know the actual answer right off the top of her head and that’s where the whale idea came from. She didn’t want to look like the kind of Nana who didn’t have the answer to any question, so she made up the answer.

I can appreciate that, especially considering some of the questions my kids have thrown at me that make me want to respond, “For crying out loud, I’m a writer, not a scientist! Come back when you have a grammar question!” It’s at that time that I can’t help but think of young me sitting in science class, having the realization that waves are not caused by whales slapping the water with their tales and feeling like a complete moron for having believed that they did.

What “I Don’t Know” Means

When my kids ask me a question that I don’t know the answer to, I admit that I don’t know the answer and then we find out the answer together. Luckily we only have to go so far as my husband, who should have “Scientific Dictionary” tattooed to his forehead (Note to my husband: Don’t really do that; I’m just trying to prove a point here) to get the answer. When he doesn’t know, or if he’s not available, we either head to the library or hop online to get our answer.

Not only do the kids get excited about doing the research, but they’re learning some valuable lessons in the process:

  • Mom and Dad don’t know everything under the sun. They’re human and make mistakes just like everyone else.
  • When you don’t know the answer to something, you can find that answer with some effort.
  • Seeking out knowledge can be a lot of fun.

My daughter was a very early talker, and as soon as she could form words she was off and running with questions that were tough to answer. The trick was to respond to her questions as accurately as possible while also taking into consideration her limited understanding of the world around her. So when she asked, “Why’s the sky blue?” I didn’t respond with a complicated explanation of how the atmosphere and light and our eyes interact blah, blah, blah, but instead said something along the lines of, “because that’s how we see it.” For a two year old, that was all she needed to hear.

Come to think of it, that response was downright existential. Perhaps I should start reading some Descartes to her at bedtime.

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