Responding to Teens when they Say, “I don’t know.”

When teens say, “I don’t know,” there is more at play than not knowing.

Not surprisingly, there are myriad resources on teens saying, “I don’t know.” Click here for a Google search.

In my view, our schools unintentionally train students to say, “I don’t know,” and to stop thinking.

That is, this short statement is the end of their thinking, not the beginning.

In class, most teachers, most of the time, ask leading questions.

That is, s/he has an answer in mind, and s/he wants the students to arrive at it.

The students know this game.

They know that they are now competing with their classmates for the right answer, and as quickly as possible.

"I don't know" is the end of thinking for students, not the beginning.
Students use, “I don’t know,” and not knowing in class as the end of their thinking, not the beginning.
Therefore, if a student doesn’t know the answer right away, s/he gives up, because another student is going to answer correctly, first, and the teacher is going to move on.

Consequently, the head-space of, “I don’t know,” becomes a problem for students, an embarrassment, a source of shame, and a reminder of not being, “as smart,” as their classmates.

So, asking leading questions in class promotes passivity in a lot of students.

Also, if they are called on, and they don’t know, they would rather make something up than admit not knowing.

After all, they don’t want to look stupid in front of their peers.

How does this play out at home?
  • First, teens answer their parents often with, “I don’t know.”
  • Then, parents either think that they really don’t know . . .
  • or, that the teenager is being dismissive or disrespectful.
  • Then, parents are frustrated, feeling stone-walled by their teen,
  • and lastly, the teen gets frustrated as well.
"I don't know," has become a way for teens not to think, and/or to dismiss parents.
Overall, teens and parents have an unhealthy relationship to, “I don’t know.”
But, what if, “I don’t know,” were the beginning of a student’s thinking, not the end? And, what if the teen had as much time as s/he needed to respond?

Clearly, this could start in school; for example, teachers could make it safe to be in this head-space. Also, they could remind students that this thought is the beginning of their thinking, not the end.

Teachers could ask fewer leading questions, and more brief, open-ended questions.

Also, they could tell students how much time they have to raise their hands, and venture an answer.

They could stop calling on those same few students who always shoot their hands up, as soon as the question is asked.

And, what if more questions from parents were brief and open-ended, and not leading? For example:
  • What do you think about that?
  • How was your day?
  • What did you learn today at school?
  • What do you think about our dinner conversation last night?
  • What’s up for your this weekend?
Next, if the teen says, “I don’t know,” what if parents assured their children that they had as much time as they needed to respond? For example:
  • That’s a good place to start.
  • Take your time. I’m just here to listen.
If the response is still the same, the parents could ask another open-ended question, such as. . .
  • To what degree do you feel like talking about this right now?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how interested are you in conversing with me right now?
  • When could I get a thoughtful and honest answer to my question?
Clearly, it will take some time for students to feel safe in the space of, “I don’t know.”

Also, parents will have to become comfortable with longer periods of silence, while teens think.

They will have to be hyper aware of their tendency to misinterpret silence as disrespect or dismissal.

Similarly, teachers will have to show students how to celebrate the space of, “I don’t know.”

They will have to adjust their teaching styles, lesson plans, and unit designs.

I promise that all of this is worth it, for teens will be free to take their time, think, and express their creativity and intelligence. And this is better for all of us.

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