Pexels.com

When children are young, they tend to assume that parents are omniscient. Parents, generally, tend to work to foster this belief. It certainly helps keep mischief to a minimum when children are convinced that their parents have the mystical ability to simply know when sneaky fingers have been in the candy jar, playing with mommy’s make-up or practicing their painting skills on the basement walls. Outside of keeping potential troublemakers in line, having children assume that parents know everything can be very helpful when it comes to teaching children. People, regardless of their age, are more likely to listen to someone who they feel either knows what they are talking about or is an authority on a subject. Having children see their parents as all-knowing makes children far more likely to listen to their parents and remain safe.

The impression that parents possess some form of omniscience also helps when it comes to teaching a child values and morals. A child is more likely to listen and internalize morals and values when those ethics are passed down by someone who the child feels is an authority. Given that parents are responsible for imparting basic morals and values to a child, it is helpful when parents are seen as the ultimate authority. Childhood impressions of parental omniscience also help when it comes to teaching children basic skills. Children are thus more likely to listen to such basic lessons as “yes, you must wear pants” and “no, you cannot simply skip school forever and live in the woods with the coyotes.” 

As children age, those early impressions of parental omniscience begin to fade. Older children and preteens learn that their parents are human just like anyone else. Mom and Dad are fallible. They make mistakes, and despite what a child may have once thought, parents do not actually know everything. Hard on the heels of that realization often comes the decision that “since they were wrong about that, they are wrong about this too which means I don’t have to listen to the rule that I think is stupid.” So then begins the period of time when every rule or limitation is challenged with “why,” and heaven help the parents who do not have a better answer than “because I say so.”

In an effort to stave off those inevitable realizations and extremely plausible conflicts, many parents become reluctant to tell their children “I don’t know.”  Other parents do not want to admit to their children that they do not know the answer to a question, either out of some fear that admitting to ignorance will lead to either a loss of a child’s respect or obedience. Frankly, if those three words are enough to cause a child to stop respecting or listening to a parent, there were bigger problems already in play.

Whatever the reasoning behind the decision, many parents refuse to admit that they do not know something. This refusal to admit to ignorance, however, can cause all sorts of problems. 

It teaches children that ignorance is a shameful thing and should be hidden.

People hide things that are shameful. When a parent conceals their ignorance, they are telling their child that it is bad to admit they do not know something. While ignorance is not something to be celebrated, no one has every learned anything without first admitting to their ignorance. A child that internalizes the refrain “ignorance is bad” is unlikely to ask the questions necessary to remedy their ignorance. They will nod along with peers and pretend they understand when in reality they are confused. 

The refusal to ask questions for clarification or in order to understand can easily cause problems with peers as the child ages. It can also hurt their academic performance. A child who thinks that ignorance is something shameful to be hidden will be unlikely to speak up in class when they are confused or do not understand. A sense of shame surrounding ignorance can also stifle a child’s natural curiosity. To satisfy curiosity, one must admit to and accept their ignorance. Only then can they remedy it. A child who is afraid of showing that they do not know something will never pursue answers to their questions because they cannot admit that they have those questions in the first place.

Children come to believe that only perfection is acceptable, especially in academics.

If it is unacceptable to say “I don’t know,” then it is undoubtedly terrible to have one’s ignorance laid bare in black and white. As such, children who internalize that it is wrong to admit to not knowing something are likely to become perfectionists in their academic careers.

Striving to get the best grade possible is very different from academic perfectionism. The former is based on seeking to do one’s best, working hard to achieve a goal and learning from mistakes. The latter is based on fear and can be crippling. A child that is working to do their best will try and learn from their errors on the latest math test so that they can get those problems right next time. A child who is dealing with academic perfectionism will be horrified by their less-than-perfect grade and may end up dealing with anxiety, self-confidence issues and the belief that their worth as a person is tied to their grades. None of this is healthy. To make matters worse, a child who believes that only perfection is acceptable may turn to cheating in an effort to conceal their struggles with a subject. Not only does this risk their academic career, it also damages any hope of them actually learning the subject. This only makes their next year or semester more difficult and so they become more anxious or likely to cheat. It forms a downward spiral. 

Blustering arrogance is seen as more acceptable than honest ignorance.

Everyone has met that person who puffs themselves up and talks a good game despite the fact that every word coming out of their mouth is a load of baloney. They are more interested in sounding smart or informed than actually learning anything about the topic. They often come off as equal parts arrogant and idiotic. This can be, however, the fate of children who internalize the idea that saying “I don’t know” is akin to shouting the f-bomb into a loudspeaker in the middle of church. Children who cannot say “I don’t know” will end up blustering their way through conversations rather than listening and learning. This can lead to a determined, closed-minded, deliberate ignorance and, over time, a bull-headed “us vs. them” mentality.

It may seem odd that so much trouble can come from a parent not wanting to admit that they are fallible, but children learn first from their parents and internalize many lessons that parents are completely unaware they are imparting. The subliminal message that ignorance is shameful does not lead to a child seeking to cure that ignorance but to hide it. This in turn causes any number of problems that are far more difficult to deal with than simply saying, “I don’t know, honey, but I can find out.”