There is power in telling your children ‘I don’t know’

Perspective by Maryam Abdullah Washington Post October 24, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT

When my son was a preschooler, I welcomed his string of “whys” as a way to help him make sense of the world. But now that he’s a bit older, his questions have gotten more sophisticated, complex and even daunting — sometimes I’m at a loss for how to respond.

But I’ve come to understand, thanks to a growing amount of research, why I don’t always have to have the answers.

Saying “I don’t know” to our kids can make parents feel like we’re failing. We might assume that they find it reassuring to believe that we know everything, or maybe we think there’s something inherently noble about always being right.

Despite our best intentions, though, this approach may not be best for our children’s long-term success and well-being. In fact, research suggests that these unrealistic expectations can undermine our kids’ ability to learn and form meaningful relationships, particularly with people who don’t share their worldview.

We can help set kids up for academic success and better relationships by modeling an open mind, the ability to admit when we don’t know or are wrong about something, and a recognition of our limitations — what researchers refer to as “intellectual humility,” or our ability to essentially recognize that what we know is limited or might be misguided and then learn from that.

At the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, my colleagues and I have been working to understand the science of intellectual humility and its implications. As a mother, I have found how impactful this can be for our parenting.

The benefits of intellectual humility

Research on intellectual humility highlights why it’s important to be open to rethinking our attitudes and beliefs, and to help our kids do the same, for ourselves and for the greater good.

Compared to people with low intellectual humility, research shows that people with high intellectual humility tend to investigate and scrutinize misinformation more often, be more discerning of the strength of an argument, are intrinsically motivated to learn and are more engaged with feedback — all crucial skills for academics and for life. They tend to be more supportive of free speech rights even for groups they don’t like and more forgiving of people with whom they’ve had conflict. They are also more inclined to uphold values that benefit others, like empathy, gratitude, altruism and benevolence. These are great skills to have in a friend.

On the other hand, less intellectually humble people tend to belittle or disparage their opponents’ intelligence and character and are often unwilling to “friend” or follow them on social media, according to research.

In these ways, intellectual humility can help counter today’s trend of hyperpolarization: Nurturing open-mindedness can encourage kids to be better citizens by engaging in dialogue with people who seem different from themselves.

Why humility is hard for adults and kids

If intellectual humility has so many benefits, then why can it be so hard to see and declare that we have gaps in our knowledge? Researchers have identified several obstacles that can get in the way of our humble selves.Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare

It turns out we’re not deliberately trying to be “know-it-alls” — we’re wired to affirm our first thoughts. “When thinking through an issue, we tend to look for evidence that confirms what we already believe to be true,” says Tenelle Porter, assistant professor of psychology at Rowan University. In research published in the journal Nature Reviews Psychology, Porter and colleagues found that we are more inclined to find evidence that corroborates our initial thoughts instead of evidence that challenges us to revise them. Our kids may also discover that people judge them if they change their beliefs or opinions, like when politicians whose views evolve over time are criticized as “flip-floppers.”

Another roadblock to being humble is our tendency to overestimate what we think we know. “People tend to believe they know the causal underpinnings of the world around them in far greater detail and consistency than they really do,” says Frank Keil, professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale University. That means we tend to misjudge how well we can explain the way complex things work, which doesn’t help our children when they are looking for a good answer. For example, we might describe to our child how a toilet flushes. But when faced with their follow-up questions, we might realize that we really don’t know as much as we thought we did. At times, this can dissuade us from seeking to understand something in a deeper way because we believe we already know enough. And, naturally, the way our children learn will mimic the way we model it to them.

Social pressures can also stifle our ability to humbly revise our ideas, says Elizabeth Connors, assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. “People tend to adopt the political views, values and feelings of those around them because it looks good to do so.” Our social groups shape the way we interpret information and play an important role in our attitudes and beliefs, like our positions on gun control or climate change. We witness this during elections, the horrors of war, school board meeting and in our own neighborhoods.

How we can foster intellectual humility in our children

Create opportunities to discover a variety of viewpoints. “Keeping books that represent different — even disagreeing — perspectives can encourage exploration and discussion,” Porter says. Make it easy for kids to learn about topics and attitudes from assorted frames of reference. For example, encourage your kids to find diverse books during bookstore or library visits. In a similar way, as parents, we can try reading or listening to different legitimate news sources so we go beyond our own bubbles and outside our echo chambers.

Reflect on positive experiences of rethinking. “Consider a time when changing your mind improved your life,” says Daryl Van Tongeren, researcher and author of the book “Humble: Free Yourself from the Traps of a Narcissistic World.” Helping our children recognize when this happens to them — even in small moments — can show them how flexible thinking is a superpower. It can be as simple as our younger kids sharing how they’ve noticed changes in their first impressions about spiders — from fear to fascination — or the taste of mushrooms — from disgust to deliciousness. We can also help our teens share a time when a person with whom they didn’t seem to share anything in common later became a good friend.

Take turns exposing the hollowness of a long-held belief. In his book “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” researcher Adam Grant recommends that we “have a weekly myth-busting discussion at dinner” to help kids become more comfortable recognizing beliefs that were flawed and reshaping them when they have new information. For example, we can explore with our kids some common myths about microwave ovens or the cleanliness of dogs’ mouths. These conversations are bound to provide plenty of opportunities to not only admit what we don’t know to our kids, but also to grow together.

Embracing what we don’t know opens us up to a range of possibilities we hadn’t imagined before. Being humble about our ideas helps us detect our biases and be less self-critical when we’re wrong. When parents show their kids that they’re open to uncertainty, it can be a force for good — in their kids’ lives and in the world.

Maryam Abdullah is a developmental psychologist and the parenting program director at the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley.

Illustration by Eugenia Mello, Art Direction by Shikha Subramaniam.