I once read an interview with a pastor who said that the most important thing a parent can say to a child is often, “I don’t know.”
His words rattled me as a parent. Wasn’t my job to fill my children with knowledge? Wasn’t my role to pass down truth? Didn’t my authority as an adult depend on having answers?
But I decided to try out his advice.
For the next few months, I tried saying, “I don’t know” more often. Rather than trying to come up with all the answers to my kids’ questions, I started admitting when I had no clue.
Whether for facts I forgot (Why is the sky blue?) or ancient, unanswerable problems (Why does God let people suffer?), I discovered that “I don’t know” became the beginning of memorable conversations — rather than closing the door to my kids’ quest for knowledge.
In my experiment of embracing the unknown, I discovered that there are three ways to frame “I don’t know” toward the children (and adults) in our lives.
We can invite them into a shared search for knowledge: “I don’t know, but let’s learn together!”
We can let other people teach us: “I don’t know, but who else could help us figure it out?”
We can wonder together about the unknowable: “I don’t know, but it’s a great question. What do you think?”
As parents, grandparents, teachers or pastors, we can never have all the answers. But we can welcome each question as a holy invitation.
The church tells parents they are the first catechists of their children. But in my work with families in parishes, the vast majority of parents are intimidated — not affirmed — by this prospect.
They don’t think they know enough. They aren’t sure what they believe. They worry about their children asking questions they can’t answer.
Yet the Gospels are full of questions. Jesus’ favorite response to any request or challenge is to ask a question in return. Even the answers he offers are often hidden in parables, beyond simple and satisfying solutions or black-and-white clarity.
Teaching younger generations is not simply the transmission of facts, satisfying the need for certainty. It models that faith is another way of knowing, engaging heart and soul as well as mind and body, drawing us closer to God who understands and embraces our questions.
In an era when we can Google everything, always a click away from instant answers, the chance to rest in unknowing can become an unexpected opportunity. Curiosity, imagination and wonder are holy gifts.
Turns out that maturity is not the accumulation of answers, but the deepening of wisdom — which is humility in the face of all we do not know.
Stand-up comedians rely on a two-word phrase that packs a punch for improvisational comedy. “Yes, and …” allows the comic to accept whatever crazy premise their partner offered and build on it to advance the scene.
Admitting “I don’t know, but …” can be just as powerful. It opens the path toward wisdom. It teaches the humility of limitation. It embraces the mystery of unknowing-yet-trusting at the heart of faith.
Children are used to not knowing, as part of their stage in life. But as adults we mistake “I don’t know” for failure or weakness.
Yet unknowing can become the beginning of prayer. The strength found in surrender to God’s wisdom. The vulnerability that leads to deeper relationship with God and each other.
Saying “I don’t know” can become a spiritual practice to embrace in 2020. How might this new year inspire your quest for deeper wisdom and better questions?
Laura Kelly Fanucci is a mother, writer and director of a project on vocation at the Collegeville Institute in Collegeville, Minnesota. She is the author of several books, including “Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting,” and blogs at www.motheringspirit.com.