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Why Parents Don't Need to Have All the Answers

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 They say that knowledge is power. I'd suggest that recognizing when you don't know something is pretty important, too, and knowing how to find out is where the real power lies. In our ever-changing world, with more and more information to locate, sift through, evaluate, and apply to solve problems and make decisions, knowing when you don't know, and understanding what to do about it, is just as important as knowing "facts." After all, when I was in elementary school, it was a fact that Pluto was the ninth planet, and we all know how that turned out!

Let's take a moment to marvel at your amazing preschool kids. Think about how much they don't know. Now think about how that never stops them. They don't pull the covers up over their heads and say, "I just can't do it today. There's too much to know, too much to do. I can't possibly finish it all." Instead, they wake up way earlier than you want them to, eager to get out there and explore, observe, notice, touch, taste, sniff, and ask question after question after question. So, once you've rubbed the sleep out of your eyes, maybe downed a mug or three of coffee, and heard the pressing question(s) of the moment, how do you respond? Of course, it depends on the question.

Let's say that your child's question is one that you can answer for them in a sentence or two. The easy route (and one we all take from time to time!) is to just provide the information. But think about how much more powerful the learning experience is if you and your child work together to find out more. If you watch Sid the Science Kid, you know that the adults rarely give an answer outright. Instead, they might show ways to find out, such as using the internet or books to do research. They also set up activities and learning experiences that allow children to explore first hand.

Let's say the question is one that you think your child might already know something about. Toss it back. "Let's think about that. What do you know about that?" In some cases, children will answer their own questions, once they slow down enough to reflect. Even if they can't answer the question completely, they probably know something relevant that they can contribute. Scientists do this all the time. We ask, "What do I already know? What do the data tell me?" Then we ask, "What questions remain?" and "How can I find out more?"

Your child's question might be one of those to which you DON'T know the answer, or at least how to present the answer in a preschool-friendly way. As parents, we sometimes worry that kids will ask us questions that we don't know the answers to. Aren't we supposed to be the authorities? Relax, professional scientists don't know it all--that's why we do research! Take a page from your preschooler's playbook. Get ready to explore and to try to find out. Work with your child to come up with a plan to investigate.

No matter what kinds of questions kids ask, write at least some of them down like Sid's mom often does. Why?

1. It shows your child that his or her ideas are important and that they matter to you.
2. It's a great way to "save" the idea if you don't have time to investigate fully at the moment. A child's need to know is not always convenient for parents with dinners to cook, diapers to change, and deadlines to make!
3. Keep those questions, just the way you keep those finger paintings and crayon squiggles, because years from now, your kids will LOVE hearing what they were thinking when they were four or five.

My teen boys are not always as excited to converse with me as they once were, but I can always reel them in with a story about when they were little. They light up hearing about their attempts to learn new words or the funny ideas they came up with to explain something that perplexed them. The little kids they were might have stumbled a bit on their way to the "answers" or the right way to say "airplane," but I think the teens they've become truly appreciate those little boys who kept asking, kept practicing, and kept trying to learn and do more. It's pretty inspirational when the chemistry homework seems too hard or they think they'll never get that algebra problem.

Whether we're four or forty, a preschooler or a paleontologist, a kid or a chemist, "I don't know" is not a failure. It's not the end of the story. Like every Sid the Science Kid episode, every exciting scientific discovery begins with "I just gotta know!"

This article is from the "Expert Q&A" section of the PBS Parents website.

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