A Case Of The “I Don’t Knows”

This is an actual exchange between my daughter Ellie and me.  I was wanting to shoot a quick video about a new math game we were trying out and, before we could get into it,  I spotted a case of the “I Don’t Knows.”  Here is how the conversation went:

Me- “Ellie, what are you doing?”

Ellie- “I don’t know. I don’t know what I am doing.”

Me- “Well, are you swimming right now?  What are you doing?”

Ellie- “I’m doing my math game.”

Me- “What is your math game?”

Ellie- “I don’t know what it’s called.”

Me- “Well, what are you supposed to do for your math game?”

Ellie- “Um, I’m supposed to find cards.”

Me- “Then what do you do?”

Ellie- “Um, we, ah, put them in order like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…”

How often does this happen to you?  When a question is asked, how many times is the  first response from your child “I Don’t Know?” There are several reasons this is an automatic response.  First, it is an easy way out.  It means they don’t have to give an answer.  Additionally, people often doubt they will have a right answer or at least an answer good enough. The most common reason for an “I don’t know” response is that they just haven’t really thought about it yet.

If not treated, this can go one of two ways: 1) You answer and they develop a dependency on you to bail them out of every “I don’t know” situation; or 2) They just stop caring about figuring things out. If there’s no pressure or push to go further, humans nearly always take the easy way out and stop.


The 6 Step Cure

Yes, there is a cure.  Here are 6 steps to help your kids to get over the “I Don’t Knows.”

Step 1: Respond with an absolutely ridiculous question

Let’s say you ask your son “How are you going to solve this problem” and his automatic response is “I don’t know.” There are several ridiculous questions that can be used, such as: ” Are you going to feed it to the dog?” or ” Are you going to jump on it? Will that work?” or “Are you going to tear it up and throw it into a volcano?”

These questions serve a couple of purposes.  First, it makes them laugh.  Laughter is good for the brain and helps kids feel more comfortable. Second, it helps show that since they know what is absurd, they also know at least a general answer. It will help them narrow down all options to just the ones that make sense.

Step 2: Repeat your question (maybe in another way)

Once the ridiculous question has been asked, ask your original question again.  This will give them a chance to show what they know.  If they still seem hesitant, you may want to try asking the question in a different way.  Instead of “How are you going to solve this problem,” you might ask “What are you going to try first?”

Asking a similar, but different question might help them narrow down what you are asking them. It will also give them more confidence to get it right the first time or at least give a good general answer.

Step 3: Ask clarifying questions to hone in on the best answer

Once as they have come up with a general answer, then you will most likely need to help them be more specific.  The best way to do that is to ask clarifying questions.

If your child responds to “How are you going to solve this problem” by saying “I’m going to use my brain”, then you may need to follow by saying “What method is your brain going to try first?”  Then continue to do that until they have come up with a specific plan of attack for the problem.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 if necessary

If your kids have an especially bad case of the “I Don’t Knows”, then you can expect to have them answer many of those clarifying questions with “I don’t know.”  If this is the case, then repeat steps 1-3 as needed.

Step 5: Talk about the process 

Once they have successfully come up with their best answer, it’s important that they reflect on what they just went through.  Talk with them about their doubts and how they were able to overcome their uncertainty and figure it out themselves.  For younger kids, this will be a very brief conversation compared to what it will look like for older kids.

Step 6: Remind them of the process

Unfortunately, like in most medical scenarios, cures take time.  More likely than not, there will be many “I Don’t Know” flare ups.  When this happens, remind them of the process that they have gone through before and that they really do know more than they are sometimes willing to say.  After a while, all it may take is one ridiculous question for them to remember how smart they really are.

Evidence of a Cure

When the “I Don’t Knows” are no more, you will see their doubt replaced by confidence.  Their “I Don’t Knows” replaced by “I’ll Figure It Outs.” They will be more willing to try, even though they may be wrong or fail along the way.  They will seek out challenges and enjoy the struggle.  They will be mathematicians.


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