How to respond when your kid asks a question you can’t answer (and making one up just won’t cut it)

When your child has a question you don't know the answer to, you have an opportunity to show them how fun learning can be.

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  • From the time children first learn to talk, they are constantly asking questions. They start out simple - easy questions with simple answers - but kids have voracious appetites for knowledge and an insatiable curiosity for how the world works. Unless you have a doctorate in everything, their questions might quickly outstrip what you're able to answer.

  • "Why do some clouds look different from others? How can a tiny ant lift a big crumb? Why is the sky blue? Why are there so many colors? Why can't we breathe underwater like fish? Where do babies come from?"

  • "Umm ..."

  • Whether it's a question you don't want to answer or one you don't know the answer to yourself, it can be stressful when you aren't able to explain the world to your child. After all, your kids look up to you to know what's best for them. How can you do that if you can't even answer a simple question?

  • Here are some guidelines to help you handle those questions you don't have answers for:

  • Living with ambiguity

  • The first thing you'll want to teach your children is that we don't have the answers to every question. There are some things even scientists don't know have answers for yet, and that's OK. Teach your kids young to develop the ability to live with a certain amount of ambiguity.

  • Explaining what you know

  • When the questions do have answers, try not to brush your child off with a simple, "You'll learn about that when you're older," or, "Don't worry about that, you're too little to understand." Every parent realizes at some point that kids can understand far more than we give them credit for. Give them the benefit of the doubt and try to answer their questions to the best of your ability.

  • "Why can't we breathe underwater like fish?"

  • "Fish have gills and people don't. Our lungs need oxygen to work."

  • "How do gills work?"

  • Searching for answers

  • When you're completely stumped, invite your child to search out the answer with you. Don't think of it as admitting a weakness. In fact, you are teaching your children the valuable skill of learning.

  • "By admitting that they don't know the answer and then searching for the answer, parents are modeling good practice to their children - supporting them in their educational development," Carol Davenport, director of Think Physics and faculty of Engineering and Environment at Northumbria University in Newcastle, wrote on

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  • Getting answers to your children's questions is easier than ever before with modern technology literally at your fingertips. For really in depth exploration, however, nothing can replace a trip to the library, a museum, or a university to speak with professionals on the subjects in question. Consider how your children best learn and what their strengths are when choosing the appropriate method for answering their questions. By modeling a desire for increased knowledge, you'll be setting a pattern of academic pursuit your children will follow for years to come.

  • Give your children the opportunity to discover answers to tough questions about science and technology for themselves at The Leonardo Museum museum where kids learn through hands-on experiences. Visit The Leonardo Museum in Salt Lake City to more about how to encourage children to seek learning and enjoy science.

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Katie Nielsen received her bachelor's in English with an emphasis in technical writing. She has taught English and is a published writer.

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