Answering your child's questions when you don't know the answer.

“Why do the leaves fall?”

My mind raced as her little face turned toward me with that so-familiar quizzical expression. OK. Science. Think! You learned this, didn’t you? Elementary school. Come on, come on, she’s waiting. Say something. Say anything, but sound wise!

“Because that’s how the trees get ready for winter, dear,” I replied with a smile.


Why, indeed. I don’t know! But I’m certainly not going to admit it, I said to myself; then aloud, “Because that’s the way God made them. Come on, it’s time for us to eat lunch.”

Have you ever done that? (Please tell me that I’m not the only one!) Our children have such a strong sense of curiosity about everything around them. That desire to know can lead to pertinacious questioning—”Why?” and “How?” and “How come?” and “Why?” again.

And when those questions come, we adults usually take one of two options: either we give a vague answer that we hope will sound wise enough to be the final word and stop the incessant flow of questions, or we say, “I don’t know,” shrug our shoulders, and walk on, hoping she will forget about it over her peanut butter and jelly.

Neither choice is best.

Charlotte Mason gave a very practical answer to this very common situation. She encouraged us to be honest. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know,” but it’s best if we couple that response with something else.

“‘I don’t know’ must take the place of the vague wise-sounding answer, the random shot which children’s pertinacious questionings too often provoke. And ‘I don’t know’ should be followed by the effort to know, the research necessary to find out” (Vol. 2, p. 43).

Maybe it’s the schooling atmosphere in which so many of us were raised, but somehow we have hard-wired it into our brains that saying “I don’t know” is admitting defeat. It is an embarrassment. It seems like the final word on our pitiful inadequacy. We didn’t know the answer. We failed.

Oh, but we haven’t failed! In fact, we owe it to our children to change our view of “I don’t know.” They (and we) need to learn that saying “I don’t know” can be an exciting invitation to learn something new. That phrase does not label your inadequacy; it offers an open door. Here is something new to discover!

Learning is a lifelong privilege, a desire that should continue to grow through the years. And saying “I don’t know” can play a large and very positive role in that growth if—and that’s a big if—it is “followed by the effort to know, the research necessary to find out.”

So embrace the freedom. Change your thinking of that phrase from a personal reproof into a lovely invitation to go find the answer. Rather than muttering “I don’t know” in a resigned, dismissive tone, practice saying it aloud in a voice that communicates, “Here’s an exciting opportunity!” Because it is an opportunity! It is an opportunity to teach your child research skills side by side, to show her how to look up the answer. And it is an opportunity to learn something new. Together.

What might be the next thing you learn? I don’t know. Let’s find out!


  1. I was afraid those words until my teacher of high cshool say: ”I don’t afraid to say to students “i don’t know” but I say them: “I don’t know but to the next our lesson I would try to find out”

    Now, to my students I’d say: “I don’t know, let’s find out it together”

    Thank you for the post, I’ve recollected that case.

  2. Looking things up with our children shows them that being educated isn’t knowing information, per se, but knowing how to find, understand and enjoy learning information and making connections with the world around them. Another thing to ask is “Why do YOU think the leaves fall?” Also, “How do YOU think we can find out or learn more?”

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