When Saying “I Don’t Know” is the Best Thing a Parent Can Do


The mantra of toddlers everywhere and the bane of toddler parents everywhere.

Although listening to the word “why” on continuous loop can try anyone’s patience, at that innocent stage of the game, the questions were pretty easy to navigate. Crafting an answer from the front seat of the car didn’t even take our full attention. After all, our little people often didn’t have the attention span to absorb whatever retort we gave.

When saying "I don't know" to your teen is an honest and powerful response.

As my kids grew into pre-teens most of the questioning was directed at my seemingly faulty logic when it came to privileges.

These questions were easy to address as well. I was always happy to justify being “The only mom who wouldn’t (fill in the blank) with a self-righteous air. That all changed, though, when my 16-year-old son lost a friend in a horrific car accident and “why” became very complicated indeed.

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This boy, and the other friends also involved, had done nothing wrong. There was no cautionary tale to guide me. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was as heartbroken as my son was.

I had no answers and I felt like I was failing him. We sat across from one another in silence for a long time before a faltering conversation began.
It was then that I realized that, sometimes, it is ok to say three little words…

“I don’t know”

We parents feel so much pressure to provide explanations and statistics and information in order to teach our children. We buy books, scour Google and countless blogs and articles to tackle an array of parenting challenges.

Yet, being caught off-guard and totally unprepared can be a good thing.

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If I had provided a pat answer, all wrapped up in a bow, my son probably would have gone off and digested it alone. We would have been in the same house at the same time; separated by an ocean of personal grief.

I was aching for him and the parents of all of the boys involved while he mourned the loss of a friend and his innocence as well.

When an explanation escaped me, it opened up a dialogue of healing and deeper understanding. That confession, as awkward as it was for me to utter, put me on a more human level with my son. I could have researched and regurgitated some relevant on-line data, but we both would have known that it was not my words or thought process.

At that point I would still feel like a failure and a fraud as well. As they age, kids instinctively know when you are speaking your personal truth from the heart.

The sad truth is, togetherness is not the norm when you move at our pace; breeding surface conversations as we run to and fro. Living on autopilot will do that to you.

This tragedy stopped me in my tracks. And what a gift that was.

We searched for answers and comfort together. I saw quickly the importance of following his lead; gauging how much he wanted to discuss or watch on the news. You have to be tuned-in to do that.

Sometimes our communication was in the form of a text or a photo he would send in the middle of the day. Other times he needed a hug and I needed to stay silent and just let his words flow. It was a delicate dance and we were learning the steps together.

It forced me to really see my son. To look at him long and hard. More importantly, it provided his first glimpse of me off the pedestal I had spent 16 years climbing. And there is nothing in a parenting book or manual that guides a mother through that process.

His grief had a positive outlet because he felt comfortable enough to open up; tapping into a well of emotions he did not even know existed. More importantly, I opened up and let my son see a side of me unknown to him. I cried, I stumbled and reached into the dark places of my soul in order to help him navigate the shock and sadness.

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Pretty deep stuff for a kid who usually viewed me as the one with the money, food and car.

As the days slid by and time dulled the pain, life returned to normal. albeit a new normal with a more mature view for my son and his friends. Going forward, my son may not reach out to me as often and may go days without more than a schedule update as conversation, like most teenage boys.

Despite that, I know that this has forever changed our relationship. He knows that regardless of all the wisdom I dispense in small ways every day, I am still lost sometimes too. He knows that through the search for “why” in the seemingly senseless, we grew together.

Apparently, the realization that I am also a work in progress is not as scary to my child as I anticipated it would be. I see now that sometimes being a parent is not about being right, it is about being real and present. And I don’t know that there is any life lesson – for adult or child – more important than that.


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About Maureen Stiles

Maureen Stiles is a Washington DC based freelance journalist, columnist and editor. With over a decade of published work in the parenting and humor sector, Maureen has reached audiences around the globe. In addition to published works, she has been quoted in the Washington Post and The New York Times on topics surrounding parenting and family life. Maureen is the author of The Driving Book for Teens and a contributor to the book Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults as well as regularly featured on Today's Parenting Community and Grown and Flown.

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