It’s Okay Not to Know -- Just Keep Them Asking

Kids are full of questions. Some studies show that four year-olds ask as many as 200-300 questions a day. Warren Berger, author A More Beautiful Question, says that kids ask an average of 40,000 questions when they are between the ages of two and five.

It’s part of what makes a kid a kid -- an unfiltered curiosity about the world and a desire to just know. It’s how they explore and learn. Katrina Schwartz, in an article called “How to Bring More ‘Beautiful Questions’ Back to School” says, “Curiosity is baked into the human experience…Young kids encounter something new, learn a little bit about it, get curious and then continue to add on a little more information with each new discovery….When treated as a lifelong endeavor, learning a little bit about something opens up space to learn more.”

Berger also found, however, that the number of questions kids ask declines as they get older, and we’re not totally sure why. It could be that asking questions can get exhausting. It could be that trying to get answers to all of their questions is also exhausting. It could be that as kids get into schools, teachers work to make sure students have the right answers. It could be that as kids get older they want to be cool, and they think that means being perceived as knowing the answers instead of having lots of questions. And it could just be a reaction to the response of the adults around them.

Adults react to kids’ questions in all sorts of ways. Sometimes we find it cute to see where their questions lead and how varied their curiosities are. Sometimes it’s fun to engage with their imagination. Sometimes it’s frustrating when all we want is five minutes of quiet, and all we hear is question after question after question. Sometimes it’s challenging because it certainly stretches the depths of our own knowledge. And sometimes it’s just really really hard when there are no easy answers.

And that’s where many of us are right now. There are a lot of questions without easy answers.

When will I go back to school? Will I ever be able to have a birthday party again? When will the Rockies start playing? When will coronavirus be over? Why do some people not see all people as people? Why can’t people just be nice to each other? Am I safe?

As hard as hearing these questions might be, it’s important for us to encourage our kids to keep those questions coming, and there are a few steps we can take to encourage kids’ continued question asking:

Model curiosity - Ask questions yourself and suggest questions that could be asked and ask questions about their questions. When you’re curious about something, vocalize your own questions to your kids. When you sense interest or curiosity, work with them to brainstorm questions that might lead to new learning and discoveries. Ask them about their questions in different situations (“What questions did you have at school today?” or “When you heard that, what questions did you have?”). Set the norm in your home that questions are appreciated and valued.

Equip your child with ways to get questions answered - Empower your kids to find the answers on their own. Some questions are simple and could easily be answered elsewhere. Years ago, families sometimes had a set of encyclopedias in their homes, and many families still maintain a robust library full of answers. In addition to those resources, Alexa, Google, Siri, and other voice-activated services are in almost every home and provide a simple way for kids to get their questions answered. “Alexa, what metal are pennies made out of?” or “Hey Google, how hot will it be today?” or “Siri, how long can humans hold their breath underwater?” are all simple ways to get more straight-forward questions answered. Yes, all connections to the internet should be monitored, but giving kids easy access in their way to getting their questions answered can be a useful tool.

Explore the question with your child - Acknowledge the questions from your children, especially the tough ones. The questions without simple answers are harder, and they are often much more important in the long-run. They might require you to stop what you are doing for a few minutes and walk through the question with your child, though. “Why are you asking?” or “What do you think?” are great places to start with these kinds of questions. You could also make a list of all of the other questions you’d need to answer in order to answer your main questions and think about which questions have a simple answer and which are harder (and why!).

It’s always okay to admit that you don’t know when it comes to kids’ questions. They are not always asking us because they want us to have the answers, anyway. The questions are their way of sharing their thinking, and it gives us a beautiful window into the minds of the miraculous little beings around us. They ask questions because they want to connect with us and with the world around them, and the acknowledgement of their questions is often just as important as the answers themselves. And it’s so important that we keep our kids asking those questions. “You don’t have to have the answers. You just have to have the interest,” Berger said. After all, questions lead to answers and discoveries and solutions. And that’s what our world needs most right now.

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