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Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation

When a child says "I don't know"

Author: Date: March 08, 2016

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The book of Proverbs reminds us that we are to disciple our children (Prov. 1:8). But to do that—to be good disciplers—we need relationships with our kids that are honest and open. We need to know what is really going on with them so we can help encourage godly thinking. But kids don’t always cooperate. Sometimes they don’t want to talk with us and, at a surprisingly young age, children learn they can avoid engaging in thoughtful discussion by giving the notorious “I don’t know” response to our questions.

We see this at school. When a student is not paying attention, or doesn’t have an immediate answer and says “I don’t know,” the focus quickly moves to the next student and they’ve been let off the hook.

We see this at home. “Why did you cheat on that test? Why didn’t you clean your room when I asked? Why did you lie about that?” When given the “I don’t know” response, the parent often lapses into lecture mode during which the child checks out emotionally and does not have to call heart motivations to task.

We see this in counseling. Kids say “I don’t know” instinctively, almost without thought. It also comes with an expectation that I, as the counselor, will move on to another topic, or do as many other adults and answer the question myself. Possibly I will begin lecturing as well, which simply requires the child’s ability to endure my rant.

The problem with all these situations is that children learn that such a response keeps them from having to do the hard work of critical thinking or personal self-reflection. They don’t have to stop and put any deliberation into a subject. They may even be avoiding accountability or trying to prevent being vulnerable by admitting to particular thoughts, feelings or beliefs.

But letting children get away with such shallow responses is not good discipleship. We need to find ways to get past such responses and give them insight into their own hearts. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” The question is how can we draw them out?

Years ago I attended a training session where I heard the results of some research done with youth on the “I don’t know” response. When asked the follow-up question, “Well, if you did know, what would your answer be?” kids will give a more responsive answer 50% of the time. Brilliant, isn’t it? It confirmed what I already suspected. By demonstrating genuine care, slowing the moment down, and giving kids an opportunity to really consider the question, they will often respond more thoughtfully.

Here are some specific methods I use to handle the “I don’t know” response.

Brainstorm with the child

Keep in mind that sometimes a child may not know how to answer your question. At these times, it is helpful to brainstorm with the child about what might be going on. By offering them possibilities, I’m encouraging thoughtful interaction. I’m also not letting the child off the hook. Loving well sometimes means coming alongside someone to aide in greater self-awareness. After hearing several options, a child will often say, “Yeah, I think that is it.” When this happens, it is often because I was able to put into words what they were thinking or feeling but were unable to articulate. At other times, they won’t initially voice what they think for fear of admitting what they know to be true or shameful. By offering a possibility and modeling it as an option that does not shock me, it frees them up to acknowledge it openly.

Wait them out

For those who are simply unwilling, defiant or lazy in their response, I have multiple goals. I want the youth to know that I care too much to accept “I don’t know.” What a child thinks matters to me and I genuinely want to understand, so “I don’t know” can’t be accepted as a final answer. I respond with, “Take a minute and think about it. I am willing to wait.” Then I wait silently. The pressure is on. They stare at me; I stare at them. I am open and encouraging but allow for the potential of uncomfortable silence. Silence can be a powerful motivator for those who are uncomfortable with it. I use it to my advantage—a type of positive pressure for kids to engage. More than that, I hope it truly demonstrates that they are worth waiting on. I will often encourage them by saying, “What you think and feel is important and I care. I’m in no hurry.”

By showing them that they can’t get out of the conversation until they engage, I hope they see me as a person who genuinely cares to know them more deeply. I don’t need to move on to the next topic, nor will I be put off. It may be one of the few times someone in their world slows down enough to really wait and listen. It will not be lost on them.

Gently encourage self-awareness

Then, like in my first example, I work to teach the skill of self-reflection. Once they start to talk, I urge them to consider their motives for what they said or did, and I gently challenge their responses to stimulate critical thinking and greater self-awareness. If we want to raise godly children, these skills are essential.

Be patient

As adults, parents, teachers, leaders and counselors, we can become much more winsome and patient when asking kids questions, especially in response to “I don’t know.” Do the hard work of drawing kids out. There may be times when you allow them to walk away from the conversation to consider things, but give a time frame to show the discussion is not over and then follow up with them. They may challenge you, reject you, or be angered by your attempts, but you will model care by your persistence. We do not always get the privilege of seeing the ways in which it speaks of our love for them but Galatians 6:9 encourages us. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”