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Why Parents Don't Need to Have All the Answers

by Kimberly Brenneman

Kimberly Brenneman

Kimberly Brenneman is an Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University and a consultant to PBS KIDS' Sid the Science Kid. Read more »

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!"


anja writes...

Great article! Thank you for taking some of the pressure off. My daughter is 3 and starting her "why?"phase and I was wondering how much extra internet answer research time I was going to have to plan in anticipation of her why-is-the-sky-blue questions...

kryzaromana writes...

Not only do we not have all the answers, but the information we have may no longer be correct a few years down the road... We have to keep that in mind, too!

Kimberly BrennemanAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thanks for writing. It's true that what we think of as the "right" answer can change as we explore and learn more, whether we're kid scientists or professional ones. That's why it's so important for all of us to learn to think and work scientifically, not just to recall facts. It sounds as though Anja and her daughter might be spending a little time doing just that as they explore some of those great questions that inspire 3-year-olds!

Breck writes...

Just a general comment about the show in general. I am curious why you refer to the teacher as Teacher Susie or Susie? What happened to calling teachers by Mr. or Mrs. or Ms.? I cringe every time I hear one of the students refer to her by her first name. I think that it is setting a bad example and one that I dot not want my son to follow. Thanks

Kimberly BrennemanAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thank you for taking the time to write. You've brought up an interesting issue, and one that we considered carefully as we designed the show. Different schools and individuals have different ideas about how best to balance respect for teachers with a friendly relationship between adults and children. In various places, I'm known as Mrs. Brenneman, Miss Kim, or Kim. We chose to use "Teacher Susie" and "Susie" to honor her role as the teacher and to keep the atmosphere informal by pairing it with her first name.

Jeannette writes...

We love Sid!! But we can't seem to find any DVDs or toys except for talking Sid doll!! where can we find more Sid??

And we are wondering why Sid isn't on PBS sprout??

Kimberly BrennemanAuthor Profile Page writes...

Hi Jeannette,
Thanks for your enthusiasm about Sid. George is absolutely right that you can find a full array of Sid products on-line from various vendors. (Thanks for the assist, George!) As he stated, there are lots of DVDs available. You can find some of these on the PBS store website. We're also excited to offer soundtracks with fabulous Sid tunes that showcase our talented music team as well as books that reinforce concepts from the show. There are Sid toys, too, including the much-anticipated microphone.

I'm so pleased that you and your family are looking for more Sid on Sprout. For now, Sid airs exclusively on PBS Kids, but my sources tell me it could be added to the Sprout line-up in the future. Thanks, again, for your support!

George writes...

Jeanette-- regarding the DVDs-- several have been released recently by NCircle Entertainment. I don't know how readily they are available in physical stores, but if you can't find them there, you might try searching online merchants, if you're comfortable shopping on those. The titles are "Change Happens," "The Bug Club," "Inside and Out," "Weather Kid Sid" and "The Ruler of Thumb." There is also another one called "Gizmos & Gadgets."

Regarding the latter question-- I believe it has to do with the fact that programming on Sprout generally consists of programs that are distributed by either Hit Entertainment, Sesame Workshop or Comcast. I'm not entirely sure-- perhaps they could air it eventually, but maybe it's too new.

hazel writes...

I enjoyed the article. I think in this fast pace world, it is difficult to have children reflect so that they might answer their own questions. I will now write my son's questions down so the family can help to answer it.

Kimberly BrennemanAuthor Profile Page writes...

Hi Hazel,
It's great to hear that you're recording those questions until you and your child can explore together. As you point out, it can be tough to find the time, but it's definitely worth the effort to work and play together as a family, supporting your young scientist. Who knows? You might even re-discover that young scientist in yourself! Have fun, and thanks for writing.

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