The Power of “I Don’t Know”

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It is difficult not to idealize our children, and in fact, unconditional love promotes security and self esteem. We believe that our child will move mountains. But expecting too much from children can be unrealistic and detrimental. When we proudly display only A+ papers and gush over accomplishments, we set our child on a pedestal, a lonely and uncomfortable perch. Our love becomes conditional in the child’s mind and she believes that she will not be valued unless she consistently performs well.

Expecting to see disappointment in a parent’s face at a less than stellar grade, a child may feel shame and try to hide what he perceives to be a failure by making excuses, “It was the teacher’s fault.” “The room was too noisy.” “The boy next to me was talking.” The wish to bask in the limelight of being superior is tempting. Awards bolster this position and second or third place becomes not good enough. This begins, in the young student, a process of over functioning – dysfunctioning by another name.

An extolled child is not allowed to be forgetful, messy or dreamy. Being gifted carries the weight of the gift. Adults ask what the child wants to be when he grows up and act less than satisfied if the answer isn’t in the PhD range. After a time a child will internalize this search for the Holy Grail of Harvard, and self doubt will grow as he wonders, as anyone might, if he is up to the task, and if not, is he still special?

It is difficult for a child labeled as exceptional to say “I don’t know.” yet this simple sentence is a powerful knock on the door of knowledge. Saying “I don’t know.” allows the child to take off the genius mask and just be herself. It gives her room to realize her own limitations, to accept having them, and to gain self-respect by bounding beyond them. “I don’t know.” is one of the most intelligent sentences anyone can utter. It drives scientific discovery, exploration, innovation, insight, and creativity.

“I am always doing what I cannot do, in order to learn how to do it.” Pablo Picasso

No one likes a “know it all” because we sense how false this stance is, how ego driven. Admitting our ignorance of a particular subject makes us vulnerable, in the best of ways. It opens us up to ideas, new ways of seeing, epiphanies! and it takes courage. Thinking one “knows already” can lead to a shutting out of other’s opinions – a form of narrow mindedness and prejudice that is unhealthy, unadvised, and not something we wish to instill in our children.

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.” Leonardo da Vinci

When children ask questions it shows that they are listening and thinking. It is important to take every question seriously, even if it seems silly. In doing so we show by our attitude that not knowing, and seeking out answers, is as honorable as any gold plated trophy. As tempting as it is to Google answers to inquiries, use curiosity to instill a respect and appreciation of books. Let questions lead directly to the local library, where, whatever the subject, from worms to shooting stars, dozens of books are available to take home. Let your children know that you don’t judge intelligence by grades, that a lower score is not a stigma but an opportunity, and an important part of how everyone learns. It is how one handles mistakes that defines one, not the errors themselves.

“…if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.” Neil Gaiman

Knowledge is not only a cognitive pursuit. It is an emotional and spiritual one as well, that thrives in an atmosphere of freedom. Your child may well be bright, but let him embrace enigmatical darkness, it is often by candlelight that the most profound truths are revealed.

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