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ETpro's avatar

What's wrong with telling a child, "I don't know, but we can look it up."?

Asked by ETpro (34563points) October 8th, 2013

I thought about this when listening to ”Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” by Neko Case. I know kids go through the why phase where they seem to ask a thousand questions. Some of them are tough to answer. “Mommy, why is the sky blue?” might well stump someone who has not studied the science needed to answer the question. But why do parents give thoughtless answers like “It just is.” or “Why do you ask so many questions.”?

It’s easy and honest to answer, “I don’t know, but we can look it up and see if anybody does know.” A quick search will turn up the answer, stimulate the child’s intellectual curiosity, and build a stronger teaching bond between parent and child. There are also questions nobody knows the answer to right now. “Daddy, what was before the Big Bang?” While there is an answer to this, nobody knows for certain what it is right now.

Still, a search for it provides interesting food for thought. And who knows, the child whose parent leads them through that initial exploration of the question instead of just shutting them up might one day sit proudly in the crowd watching their curious child, now grown up, collect a Nobel prize for answering this thorny question. Why don’t more adults stimulate their child’s innate curiosity?

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37 Answers

zenvelo's avatar

There’s nothing wrong at all, and it educates the child that
(1) the parent is not omniscient, and
(2) the parent is open to learning more.

My teenage kids ask me questions all the time, and I often say “let’s look it up.”

livelaughlove21's avatar

Who says there’s anything wrong with that? I don’t have kids, but if someone asks a question and I don’t know the answer, out comes my iphone and I’ll know in about a minute. I don’t see why it would be different for a kid.

I’m more bothered by parents that always answer, “Because God made it that way.” What a cop out. Even if you’re raising your children in a religious household, there are actual explanations for these things (like the sky being blue) that would be much more useful for the child to know. You can teach them about God and answer their questions at the same time.

drhat77's avatar

I think parents may feel that the pedestal their children put them on may be threatened should they ever show weakness. I think this response gets exagerated if the child is especially smarter than the parent.

JLeslie's avatar

Do people actually think there is something wrong with it? I was raised by a sociologist; a researcher at heart. So, the idea that there is something wrong about not knowing and researching to find the answer is completely foreign to me.

gailcalled's avatar

Nothing. Why would I want a child of mine (or anyone else) to think that I was omniscient?

drhat77's avatar

Also, it may be very taxing on a crystalyzing brain to think in new directions all the time, so the parent may just need a moment to replenish neurotransmitters

gailcalled's avatar

^^^ Daddy, What does that mean?

drhat77's avatar

^^ it means daddy’s head hurts when his scotch glass runs low! Now run off!

drhat77's avatar

But seriosuly thinking takes effort, and if it is thinking you are unaccustomed to, it takes a lot of effort. Effort = calories burned = exhaustion. The brain uses about 25% of our caloric intake. Eventually thinking too much will tire it out. Another “why” may result in a defensive snap because the parent doesn’t have the wearwithal to answer, and hasn’t scripted a response for the situation

Dutchess_III's avatar

I always tried to answer my kids questions as thoroughly and simply and honestly as possible. Some times it was hard though. One time my little daughter and I sat through two trains crossing, one after the other. After the last one left she said, “Mommy, why isn’t there another train coming?” Well….there just isn’t!

My favorite, though, came at a Red Lobster. We were waiting up front with a younger couple who happened to be there too. They had a kid in the “Why, why, why,” stage. Her parents patiently tried to answer all of her questions. At one point, referring to the live lobsters in the tank up front, the kid said, “Why do some of the lobsters have blue rubber bands on their claws and some have red?”
Mom came back instantly with, “Because some are girl lobsters and some are boys!” That was so funny, and much more interesting than “Because.”

Sunny2's avatar

It depends on the age of the child. There’s no point in getting a long reference that a child is too young to understand. It will turn him off from looking things up later, when he can understand. Most 3 and 4 year old questions result from observations. Kids that age are easily distracted. You can always answer a question with another question. “Why is the sky blue?” “Would you like it to be another color?’ Or “Is it always blue?” Get them talking. When they are able to understand explain more. THEN you can look up answers with them.
When I was old enough, my dad used to say angrily, “Look it up.” He missed the opportunity to communicate positively.

YARNLADY's avatar

Many parents don’t have the time or interest in that level of participation with their children.

drhat77's avatar

Aye, @YARNLADY , thar be the rub

funkdaddy's avatar

Sometimes, you’re sitting and reading a book, and the question comes. That’s a great time to say “I don’t know, let’s look it up”.

Sometimes you’re making dinner, doing the laundry in between, and trying to keep everyone entertained and happy after 12 hours at work.

That’s a great time to say “why don’t you help daddy fold these socks”... :P

flutherother's avatar

I could always think up an answer to satisfy a very young child. It is reassuring for a young child to know there is someone close to them who has all the answers. As the child becomes older it becomes necessary to say ‘I don’t know’, or, ‘let’s check Wikipedia’. We must all leave the Garden of Eden but not right away.

Seek's avatar

I’m guilty of too -thorough answers.

Mama? Why is the sky blue?

Well, my preschooler, it’s a combination of scattering of light particles in the appreciate combined with a lack of violet photo receptors in our eyes…

…As his eyes glaze over and he asks if he can play Wii some more before dinner.

Dutchess_III's avatar

(Show him a rainbow @Seek_Kolinahr….)

Seek's avatar

Ugh. Appreciates = atmosphere, obviously. Gods I hate phone typing.

longgone's avatar

Nothing wrong with it, unless you go into lecture mode, which I do sometimes. I consciously slow down to remind myself not to overdo it…because that, I believe, is a great way to make children think books are boring.

Because someone talked about the “why-stage”: It really does work to respond with “Why do you think?” after a string of questions. Leads to some great answers, too.

ETpro's avatar

@zenvelo If your teens still ask you questions then it’s a safe bet you didn’t inhibit them doing so when they went through the “why, why, why…” phase. Good job.

@livelaughlove21 If you listened to the song link, the Mommy dearest that Neko Case is talking about seemed to be saying her kid shouldn’t talk at all.

@drhat77 That could well be. Thanks.

@JLeslie Sadly, some people do discourage their kid’s inquisitive nature. I’m glad you were blessed with just the opposite in parents.

@gailcalled Indeed. Anyone who pretends to be an omniscient parent for a 6 year old will face a teen who sees that their idol has crumbling feet of clay.

@Dutchess_III Now see, my guess at the crossing would be “They ran out of trains.” and at Red Lobster, “To tell which lobsters are Democrats and which are Republican.” That’s truly funny. While you were probably impatiently waiting for the crossing to open, your youngster was just thrilled by the trains, and wondered why no more.

@Sunny2 Back when I was growing up, we had a Collier’s Encyclopedia and lots of great reference books. But these days, with the Internet, there are some well-illustrated sites that do a lot to make things understandable or at least trigger further interest even for young children. The link in the question details to NASA’s site explaining why the Sky is blue is pretty good. But you’re certainly right that you have to monitor your child’s interest level and watch for their eyes to begin to glaze over. And a discussion about whether the sky is always blue, when it’s blue versus when it’s red, or black… That can lead to its own stimulation of the child’s intuitive thinking about what causes the changes.

@YARNLADY Tragically true.

@funkdaddy I’ve reared 3. How well I know.

@flutherother They usually start the Why questions between 3 and 4. That’s when the brain is starting to confront a blizzard of things to assign names to, understand relationships and behaviors of, etc. etc. They have a relatively limited vocabulary at that age, and may not have a long attention span. But they are trying to bring order to a maelstrom of information they are encountering. Encouraging them in a way appropriate to their age and capacity to understand is vital to their healthy mental development.

@Seek_Kolinahr My wife constantly reminds me that if someone asks me what time it is, I tell them how to build a watch.

@longgone Yeah, at three, the child isn’t asking for a physics lecture. I have to remind myself of that too. :-)

JLeslie's avatar

@ETpro You asked what’s wrong with it. That is different than asking why some parents don’t do it. Some parents don’t do it because they don’t want to take the time and energy. Some don’t do it because they are not inquisitive themselves. Some don’t do it because they feel stupid themselves and don’t understand not knowing does not mean stupid (even on fluther we have had arguments where people do not understand the difference between ignorant and stupid). Some raise their children in a seen but not heard manner. Some think in terms of a child being obedient more than a child growing intellectually and learning.

gailcalled's avatar

@drhat77: The brain uses about 25% of our caloric intake. Eventually thinking too much will tire it out. Words to live by. This will be my “go-to” excuse for the rest of my life. Thank-you.

Rather than treating ignorant and stupid as not synonymous, it is clearer to use uninformed or uneducated.

Dutchess_III's avatar

(I always had a kid or a book at railroad crossings. If I had a kid I used the change to Talk About Stuff. Mostly science stuff. No need to be impatient!)

JLeslie's avatar

@gailcalled Because those people who think ignorant and stupid are synonomous won’t take offense to uninformed or uneducated?

gailcalled's avatar

I can speak only for myself (and not about “those people”). I would be uncomfortable if someone called me “stupid,” unless he were a good friend and it was in jest.

However there are a myriad of areas where in which I am uninformed or poorly educated.The latter two adjectives are descriptive rather than judgmental..

JLeslie's avatar

@gailcalled The point is, pretty much everyone agrees stupid is not nice. Ignorant, well we are all ignorant about some topics. But, the people who equate ignorant to being the same as stupid don’t seem to understand the definition of the word ignorant. They aren’t going to be happy if you call them uninformed or uneducated either; trust me. They would see it as judgemental. Especially if we have college degrees and they don’t. Then if we use uneducated we are lording it over them. It doesn’t matter if we mean uneducated about a particular subject.

zenvelo's avatar

On ignorant:

While ignorant is defined these days as uneducated or unaware, remember the the root is ignore, as in someone who ignores, or does not pay attention to, that which is evident. Ignorant is pejorative, because it connotes someone who has the opportunity to learn something but chooses not to.

JLeslie's avatar

@zenvelo I have never seen a definition that refers to the root ignore, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, I am just saying I have never seen it. If someone is ignoring facts I would not call them ignorant, maybe willfully ignorant, but the English language is not something I claim to be an expert on. I will concede that because of common usage ignorant at this point means stupid to so many people that we have to accept people will take offense.

drhat77's avatar

wait wait… @JLeslie are you being willfully ignorant about he meaning of ignorant? snicker

JLeslie's avatar

If it was willful I would not have admitted I am not an expert silly. The ignorance is real and after trying to be better, but failing.

ETpro's avatar

Well this discussion took an interesting turn.

drhat77's avatar

@ETpro indeed, a finest for fluther

mattbrowne's avatar

Nothing at all. What was the GDP of Ghana in 1974? Even Rainman doesn’t know this without browsing through the necessary statistics documents.

SABOTEUR's avatar

Nothing, as you already know.

A more interesting question, in my view, is why youngsters (who carry a wealth of knowledge with them at all times) ask parents questions they can easily find the answers to themselves.

ETpro's avatar

@SABOTEUR Probably to either have something to talk about (if they have good parents) of to drive them insane (if they are not so blessed_.

keobooks's avatar

A good librarian knows that it’s not important to know all the answers. It’s important to know how to FIND the right answer.

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