“I Don’t Know” is Not an Answer

Dear Rhonda and Dr. Cheri,

My 15 year-old daughter has a bad habit of saying, “I don’t know” when I ask her anything.

I’ll ask her what movie she wants to see or which dress she likes best. She says she “doesn’t know.” She seems to want me to make up her mind for her.

One of her teachers sent a note home telling me she was worried about my daughter getting into a good college simply because she can’t articulate well enough during class and hasn’t defined her identity.

As her college advisor said to my girl, “‘I don’t know,’ is not an answer.”

Signed,
Unknowing mom

Dear Mom,

Her teacher has a point. When your daughter has college interviews and answers, “I don’t know,” she will not be taken seriously.

The biggest problem with the answer, “I don’t know” is that it sounds like, “I don’t care.”

People who say “I don’t know” may be embarrassed to talk or feel unsure about giving the “right” answer.

“I don’t know” is said when someone is frustrated, disinterested, or scared. In our culture today, being wrong is a set-up for being bullied.

Something you may want to try is to wait for an answer.

You may ask the following:
1. “Pretend you have a choice of answers – what are they – and which would you pick?”
2. “If you did have an idea of an answer, what would it be?”
3. “Answer a question with a question to find clarity in the question.”

TV psychologist Dr. Phil, said, “We teach people how to treat us”—and that is especially true when it comes to establishing credibility and influence at school, college, or work. Every time you say “I don’t know,” you teach people not to come to you next time.

You may try the Dr. Frank Lyman strategy (from 1981): think – pair – share time, where each member, individually and silently, thinks about a team question. It’s a learning and confidence building strategy to create real answers and solutions, together.

Teams don’t usually become embarrassed or scared, unlike sharing lone thoughts, ideas, and answers to questions. Plus, your daughter will gain the courage and confidence to share individually.

Confide in your girl that you understand how she feels – you’ve felt it too. In a most kind way, tell her she doesn’t need to say “I don’t know,” anymore, because she has strategies to learn, seek, and dig deep to define herself.

One more thing; tell her that her answer may be wrong, may cause laughter, and even bullying, but a hard-sought answer is better than “I don’t know.”

Signed,
Rhonda and Dr. Cheri