In their 2014 book, Think Like a Freak, Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner claimed that the three hardest words in the English Language to say are “I don’t know.”
This isn’t the wildest claim to make. If knowledge is power, then admitting you don’t know something can seem akin to a pro wrestler climbing into the ring and immediately telling his opponent about his weak right ankle and extremely ticklish underarms. You’re not only vulnerable, but you’re making sure everyone else knows you are!
As Levitt and Dubner explain in both their book and an episode of the Freakonomics podcast, kids and adults alike seem to have trouble saying “I don’t know.” This is a real shame, because “I don’t know” is actually a wonderful, powerful phrase.
“I don’t know” provides the space necessary for learning to occur. When a person declares a lack of knowledge, they can work to address it by themselves or with the help of others. Often, parents and educators give children and students the privilege to say “I don’t know.” Less often, however, do they extend this privilege to themselves.
For parents looking to talk with their kids about sexuality, this can be a real handicap. Multiple studies have found that a parent’s fear of not knowing enough can act as a significant barrier to initiating conversations about sex. (You can access one of these articles in full right here.)
This fear of not knowing enough, like most fears, is both very understandable and very irrational. Parents, as a group, want what’s best for their child and don’t want to fail them with a lack of information or misinformation on a sensitive topic like sexuality. At the same time, not a single person in the world knows everything about sexuality! It’s an act of cruel futility for any parent to place this burden of all-encompassing knowledge on their own shoulders.
A parent giving themselves permission to answer a child’s question with “I don’t know,” isn’t just reasonable – it’s valuable! As an educator, “I don’t know” is one of my favorite phrases. With it, I can normalize not having all the answers and model a constructive learning process.
If you as a parent find yourself answering your child’s question about sexuality with an “I don’t know,” there are multiple, valuable ways you can proceed. First, you can let your child know that you’ll get back to them with the answer. This may be the best choice if you’re going to be Googling with some search terms that can bring up very unwanted results. The Internet is a phenomenal educational tool, but it is also home to plenty of material you don’t want to explain to an 8-year-old.
If you have a simpler search, however, about a topic like menstruation or biology, you can work with your kids to seek out the answer. There’s a great graphic here that walks you through the exploration process. It was designed for the classroom, but it can easily be applied in the home!
Working with your child through this process can help them build skills that will be applicable throughout their lifespan in topics far beyond sexuality. You can help your child build their media literacy and critical thinking skills by dissecting trustworthy and untrustworthy sources. By working together to brainstorm questions or search terms, you can model the best ways to find out information. And by making the search for knowledge fun and engaging, you can foster a life-long love for not only the phrase “I don’t know” but “Let’s find out!”