What to do when your child says “I don’t know”

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‘What I Wish Parents Knew’ is a series on issues parents should know, from a private tutor’s perspective.

“Why don’t you know? You go to school, you have a tutor. You should know these things.”

I cringe when I hear a parent say things like this to their child. Sometimes, the responses can be harsher. I have heard kids being called all sorts of names. I have heard kids getting shamed because they simply dared to voice out a simple truth – that they just don’t know the answer.

What I really want to say to parents is: Don’t shame your child for not knowing. It’s counterproductive. If you keep reacting negatively to “I don’t know”, your child will associate not knowing with a whole bunch of negative emotions such as shame and embarrassment. They begin to feel powerless over their learning. And then just the mere hint of not knowing can shut down their learning and prevent them from finding a solution. Worse still, the next time your child doesn’t know something, he won’t feel able to tell you – and then you’d have missed the chance to fill in the knowledge gap.

So, try to see “I don’t know” for what it really is – a gift. It’s OK to not know. Even if your child has been studying, working hard, listening in school, paying attention to teachers and tutors, and trying their very best – it’s still normal to not know some things. Haven’t you forgotten things before? You’re not perfect, and neither is your child.

Telling your child that they SHOULD know something won’t magically enable them to know it. Let “I don’t know” be an opportunity to find that missing tidbit of information instead. For starters, you could simply try explaining the answer or offering a solution.

Instead of asking “why don’t you know?”, ask “how can we find out?”. Put the ball back in your child’s court. This is a chance for your child to take control of his learning. From here, you can guide him towards a few options:

Finding the answer in the textbook
This is also a great opportunity to talk about how to use an index to search for topics or keywords, in order to find the right section of the textbook to look up the answer.

Looking up the answer together online
Model to your child how you would investigate a problem. This way, you also get to discuss topics such as internet safety, keywords to make Google searches more accurate, and how to discern good news sources from poor ones. For older children, you can also show them how the advanced search on Google works, or how to check past the first page of results for potentially better sources of information.

Either way, remember that when your child tells you “I don’t know”, he isn’t deliberately being difficult. He’s signalling – in the only way he knows how – that he needs help. Listen, and help him learn.


Troy Therrien is a maths and science tutor who believes that maths can be, and should be, for everyone. Find out more about him and his tutoring business at www.learncomoxvalley.

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