How to answer impossible questions

Christine Wright, freelance author, Bible scholar and busy grandparent, suggests ways to feel more confident about handling children’s questions.

What happens if your child asks a question that you can’t answer? It’s something that many adults fear. Often children do ask questions which have no simple answer – and sometimes we just don’t know the answer. An honest ‘I don’t know’ is preferable to a long answer which actually says nothing (as we all know, from our own experience of asking questions). The honest answer also leaves the door open for the child to ask someone else and to keep asking and thinking about the question.

Perhaps we have a mental picture of a ‘teacher’ who knows everything and feel that we would have let the children down, and embarrassed ourselves, if we didn’t know something. If we get into that way of thinking we are still holding on to that ‘right answer/wrong answer’ mentality. Maybe that was the way we were taught at school and even in the Christian faith, but there are other ways of nurturing children in faith. Children will ask questions, but we don’t have to know all the answers! In fact, sometimes we don’t need to answer at all.

So, what can we say? It helps to know what the child is thinking and what made him or her ask the question. We might ask, ‘That’s a good question. What do you think about it?’

In this way, the child will reveal something about their level of development, enabling you to see the way they are thinking. In fact, most children will be quite satisfied with their own answer and, if so, we need to respect their own insights, trusting that they will move on and will be forming and reshaping their own understanding as they grow up.

When we do answer questions, we must take care only to say just enough to satisfy curiosity. An answer which gives more information than children really want to know may lead to them not wanting to ask again!