It took becoming a father for endlessly affable quizmaster Ken Jennings, who leapt into the hearts of grandmothers everywhere when he racked up a record number of Jeopardy! wins in 2004, to find out that there were still some things he did not know. That discovery has resulted in Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids. In the book, Jenning’s fourth, he takes apart the rumors and hearsay that get passed on with the same cheerful nerdiness that earned him 74 Jeopardy! wins.
What made you want to write a book about the tall tales parents tell their children?
It came from having kids and you know, having to constantly answer questions whether I knew the answer or not. On Jeopardy!, if you don’t know the answer, you can just not buzz in, but kids are less forgiving than [Alex] Trebek. The hard part wasn’t answering the questions, it was asking them. Luckily I had very earnest nagging parents who were the product of very earnest nagging grandparents.
What was your own childhood like?
We grew up overseas. I was born in Seattle, and then I mostly grew up in Korea and Singapore. I feel like I really had a lot of freedom. Kids in that generation got to do things that would really freak out parents today, and even when we moved to Korea, my parents sort of let us run all over the city. I know that other countries, other cultures do have very different parental clichés. If you told a Korean person that you should wait half an hour after swimming, he’d think that’s completely ridiculous. Every culture has its own set of mommisms.
Were you an intolerably curious child?
Yeah, I’ve always been the person who wanted to fact check this stuff. If I heard that’s not true, I would always remember that for later.
What surprised you more, the myths you debunked or the ones that turned out to be true?
I was surprised both ways. Lots of things I would have supposed were right were wrong, just things you would absolutely take as gospel are not true. Like that sugar makes kids hyperactive. When you think about it, why would it be right? We just assume sugar makes kids nuts because we’ve always assumed it makes kids nuts, and parents want to believe it. I think because it’s flattering for them to say, ‘Yeah, my kids had too much cake at the birthday party,’ and not just, ‘Yeah, my kid was a terror at your birthday party.’ A lot of these myths exist because the behaviors they’re forbidding are annoying.
You made a YouTube trailer for Because I Said So! in which a little girl runs on a treadmill holding a pair of scissors. For a nice guy, you seem to have a wicked sense of humor. Where does that come from?
It came from me thinking it was funny. I remember my wife and I were driving back on a car trip from a family vacation, and we thought, wouldn’t it be good if there was a book trailer for this book. And yeah, I don’t know, you don’t get a lot of chances on Jeopardy! to be funny, but I just love the idea of kids with those suction cups on. That was my daughter holding the scissors. They were well away from her eyes the whole time.
How do parents come up with these terrifying taboos?
It’s just the natural fear you have that something bad could happen. So you always err on the side of caution, and there’s sort of a cultural accumulation of hundreds of these things. Parents always feel very equipped, and they want to be sure they’re crossing every t and dotting every i. In many cases some of them are actually harmful. Don’t talk to strangers. Drink eight glasses of water a day. Something appears in a government pamphlet once and everybody says it’s science.
You’ve said that Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, about a father and son in a world populated by cannibals, is one of your favorite books. It’s a dark novel. How do you go from reading that to debunking received nonsense?
Oh yeah, it’s the same thing. It’s the incredible responsibility of having a child and having to explain a world to him. I’m sure in a post-apocalyptic world like The Road, a book like mine would have no value. But in a world like ours where parents are scaring kids about the wrong things, like Halloween candy, in a case like that I felt there was room for a book about how we’re a little too paranoid.
After this book, do your son and daughter believe anything you tell them?
The mistake it turned out was not writing it. It was letting my son read it. So I hope this book helps other parents, but in my house, it hasn’t made me very popular.