How Can Parents Handle Unanswerable Questions?

Parents are sometimes confronted with questions that have no clear answers to satisfy children’s curiosity and sometimes anxiety.

And sometimes questions aren’t really questions

They can indicate a need to connect.

“Why doesn’t Daddy want to live with us anymore?”

“Why did God let my best friend get cancer?”

 “Why won’t Uncle Paul and Aunt Jenny come to visit anymore?”

“Why are some grown-ups mean to kids?”

Kids usually see their parents as the end-all source of information (even more than Google Search or Siri)!

Frequently, parents can answer their children’s questions. They can look up the answers on their computer or find some other way.

But then there are those questions for which there are no easy answers.

These are often questions about why people do things that are dangerous or harmful to them or others, why people hurt each other’s feelings, and why bad things happen. These can be the questions we as adults struggle to answer for ourselves.

These kinds of questions actually provide an opportunity for parents to engage in some important discussions with their children.

Before giving an immediate response to questions, even when you know the answer, instead, ask children “What do you think the answer is?”  This query invites children to share what they are thinking and to use their imaginations to generate responses.

By inviting children share in this way, parents get a window on how their children may be feeling or what they may be struggling with. “It sounds like that is worrying you.” “You’ve been thinking a lot about this.” “It makes you sad to think…”

Responses like this often allow children to share more about what they are thinking or feeling. It also is very respectful, allowing more interactions around the subject rather than just ending the conversation with a simple answer.

These kinds of questions also provide opportunities for parents to explain some of the realities of life.

For example, we don’t always know why bad things happen in this world. We don’t always know why some people do what they do, and some things are much more complicated than any one simple answer can explain.

Parents can teach children to appreciate the differences between facts and opinions (something not all adults seem to understand.) A fact is something that is measurable or is a universally accepted truth with research to back it up. “Right now the temperature in this room is 70°” is a fact.  “This room is too cold,” is an opinion that is being stated as a fact. “For me, the perfect temperature is 73°” is an opinion that is stated as an opinion.

Starting out with answers to questions that are more about sharing an opinion than stating facts include: “What I think is true about this is…” “The way I see this is…” “In my opinion,…” “I think some people believe… Is true, but I disagree. What I think is true is…”

 When parents respond to questions by saying, “Tell me more about what you think is true,” “Does that seem like something that is the truth or is that more somebody’s opinion?” …children have the opportunity to share what they have learned or believe is true. Plus, they have the opportunity to discover their opinions are valuable.

Helping children learn how to have discussions (and even debates) can be an important skill for children to hone that often begins when they ask what we might call “unanswerable questions.”

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Do you remember as a child having some difficult questions you wished somebody would answer for you or let you share your thoughts about?
  2. Were there people in your life that used your questions as an entrée to a conversation in which your opinions mattered? If so how did that affect how you felt about your own opinions? If that did not happen, how did you learn that your opinions have worth?
  3. Do you think the next time one of your children asks you a question you might respond differently? If so, what might you say to invite your child to engage more in a conversation with you?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network