Dubito Ergo Sum

09.16.134:45 AM ET

In Parenting, When Is It OK to Say ‘I Don’t Know’?

In some families, parents rule with an iron fist. But Leah Hager Cohen says it can be helpful to admit to your kids that you may not always have the answer.

“Where’s my test?” It’s during the usual Monday morning scramble before school. My son hovers before me, restive, frazzled.

“What test?”

“Math. I gave it you. I have to bring it back today, signed.”

“I don’t think you ever gave it to me, honey.”

“I did.”

I begin rummaging through papers. “I don’t have a memory of seeing it.”

“I’m positive.”

I send him to finish breakfast while I search. Finally, it turns up. In his backpack. Tucked inside the folder where it has been all weekend.

I can’t tell you how often some variation of this scene has played out in our family, with one of the kids insisting on knowledge that turns out to be wrong. It tends to happen when the situation feels high stakes, when consequences loom should they be caught not knowing. And their false certainty never feels like outright lying—more like conviction borne of desperation, a wishful grab at regaining control.

What surprises me is I don’t think I’ve done anything as a mother to model such behavior. I’ve never taught my kids that it’s better to appear correct than to admit not knowing. I know parents who do it differently, who place a premium on displaying certainty at all times. One acquaintance, an unflappable mother of five, proudly espouses her parenting philosophy: “Often in error, never in doubt.”

I can see the appeal of this, for mother and children alike. When the person in charge is all-knowing, everyone gets rocked in a hammock of implicit security. The kids might not always like what Mom decrees, but they know there’s little point in arguing. And by teaching her brood it’s futile to question her, Mom gets to enjoy a little peace. In a large, busy family—make that in any family—cutting down on stress and strife holds serious allure. Believe me, there have been plenty of times when I’ve longed to marshal my own inner know-it-all.

The trouble is, I can’t. I seem constitutionally unable to do so. My infinite willingness to entertain doubt has become something of a family joke. The kids do wicked impressions of my waffling discursions. They put on dulcet falsettos: Hmmm I don’t know l et me think about that. They cock their heads, twist their mouths sideways, squint contemplatively. And they’ve learned when they really need an answer to cut me off: Just tell me yes or no, they’ll plead. The fact is, no matter how strongly I believe something, I have difficulty shutting the door on alternate perspectives. When the issue involves global politics or social justice or the complexities of workplace communications, this tendency may be beneficial. When the issue is whether to let a kid watch an extra half hour of TV, even I realize it can be a bit much.

I blame my parents. They didn’t subscribe to an authoritarian model of parenting. They believed in holding family meetings at which everyone from the littlest person to the biggest got to weigh in. They asked more questions than they answered. And they praised us not for knowing things but for wondering about things, for our curiosity and inquisitiveness. In my family, the standard response to a simple question like When do I have to be home? was How late would you like to stay out? It’s not that my parents were permissive; they didn’t necessarily agree to whatever time we proposed. It’s that they didn’t position themselves as the answer-keepers or knowledge-storers. By inviting—OK, insisting on—our participation in the curfew discussion, they were asking us to take responsibility for thinking: about our desires, about our commitments, and about how to balance the two.

But parenting itself is a balancing act. Even as my parents encouraged us to question authority—indeed, to question them—they never ceded responsibility. Without presenting themselves as all knowing, they were nevertheless indisputably in charge, and my siblings’ and my knowledge of that is precisely what enabled us to take risks and admit our own uncertainties and doubts. This is the balance I strive to achieve with my own children, one in which I might model ease with admitting “I don’t know” and simultaneously provide them with the security of knowing I’m strong enough, sure enough, to hold them in all their vulnerability.

Ultimately, that’s what our difficulty with saying “I don’t know” boils down to: fear of being vulnerable. And while not knowing the right answer to a math problem or where you left your math test can make a kid feel stupid or ashamed, there’s a whole other category of not knowing that can be even harder to bear. I’m talking about those times when the answer we seek is unknowable.

I remember in my late teens going through a period of raw heartbreak. I despaired of ever finding someone to love, which I confessed, between sobs, to my mother. In this rare instance, she presented herself to me as utterly certain.

It will happen.

How can you know? I drew a long shuddery breath.

She gave a little shrug. I just do.

New tears welled. I don’t believe it!

That’s OK, she said simply. You don’t have to believe it. I’m telling you I know.

Her face was unworried. She wore a small, very gentle smile. And tucked in the corner of her smile, was that a hint of laughter?

Of course. We both knew she could not really know. And yet her faith was real, real enough that I could lean my weight on it, draw hope from it. Let it shoulder some of the burden of going forward into the unknown.


Leah Hager Cohen is the author, most recently, of I Don’t Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t).