It’s Okay Not to Have the Answers; It’s Not Okay to Make Them Up
Kids ask a lot of questions. As a parent, you’re supposed to have the answers—after all, you’re the main source of expertise and authority in their life! So, what do you do when they ask a question you don’t know how to answer, or don’t know the answer to?
I’ve gotten the full range of advice here. Some people have told me to punt on the question (“what do you think?”). Others recommend using it as a learning experience (“let’s find out together!”). Often, the number one answer I get is to be honest and admit you don’t have the answer (“I’m not sure!”). But the one answer I occasionally get that I can’t stand is to make something up.
Don’t make thing up!
People like to say “they’re kids; they’ll forget all about it” or “they’ll learn the truth eventually.” Okay, that might be the case, but that still doesn’t justify lying to them! I just can’t, in good conscious, make up an answer to a question I’m not sure about. It’s more than a lie—it’s a disservice to my child’s education.
When I push back and ask people why they think it’s okay to lie to their kids, the rebuttal is almost always the same: “you lie to your kids about Santa and the tooth fairy—how is this any different?” It’s a weak argument. Santa and the tooth fairy aren’t lies—they’re part of tradition and a way to connect with our children, to bring joy to them. Believing in Santa doesn’t hurt our kids—lying to them about real things will.
Your answers mean more than you think
The thing about kids is that they listen—especially to the answers they get to questions they ask. If they’re asking you, it’s likely that they genuinely want to know the answer. Giving them a bad one puts that information in their head until it decides to reemerge. What happens when the answer dad gives is different from what we learn in school? Who should she believe? It creates an existential crisis for young kids—either school is wrong or dad is wrong. How are you supposed to trust whoever is wrong? How do you find out who’s wrong?
The ‘fake news’ epidemic
It might sound like I’m overreacting a little, but misinformation is a real problem in our society today. So-called “fake news” is spreading rapidly and even smart people fall into the trap of believing things that just aren’t true. I think it’s important to give our kids a head start against this epidemic of false information by showing them it’s okay to not have all the answers. Instead of clinging to the first answer they get, they’ll be more apt to seek out the right out.
I make it a habit of saying “I don’t know” to my daughter and following it up with “let’s find out.” It’s a hit to my ego to not have the answers all the time, but it’s good for my daughter to see that A) I’m not an infallible source of information on all things, and B) that the pursuit of information is easy.
My daughter doesn’t have to deal with too much fake news at this point in her life, but she’s a question-asking machine. It’s important for her to get real, meaningful answers now, so she doesn’t fall for the made-up ones later in life.