Once I Learned to Say These 3 Little Words to My Kid, Everything Changed

Image source: Doyin Richards, Daddy Doin' Work
Image source: Doyin Richards, Daddy Doin’ Work

I think we can all agree that parenting is hard. Like really, really hard.

First there’s the diaper changes, the tantrums, and the sleepless nights. Then there’s the algebra, the soccer practice, and all the drama that comes with them as they grow.

To make matters even harder, you’re constantly second-guessing yourself when it comes to how well you’re doing the job.

Are my kids happy? Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? Will doing [insert innocuous act here] become the reason why the kids will spend time in rehab when they’re older?

I have two young daughters, who are 4 years and 19 months old respectively. And I worry about them. A lot.

Just like many men out there, I’m figuring out this fatherhood thing as I go along; but for the longest time, I felt as if I had to be perfect.

During the first year, I have to admit that fatherhood was almost a competition to me. In other words, the games dudes played in high school locker rooms suddenly evolved into, “Who has the biggest stroller?” (Yes, really.) It was meaningless and just added stress to my life. Until a random day at the zoo changed everything.

I was with my oldest daughter when we came across a strange animal that I’d never seen before. Normally, the zoo has labels for each of the animals, but for some reason the sign wasn’t there on this particular afternoon. That’s when my daughter leaned over, and asked me a simple question: “What is that, Daddy?”

I could’ve uttered any number of things in that moment. I could have pretended to know what it was we were both staring at, and mustered up some makeshift response, like so many parents do when their kids ask them questions they have no idea how to answer. I could have changed the subject (“Hey, here’s some candy … “) or resorted to the classic, “Go ask Mommy.”

Instead, I simply told her the truth: “I don’t know.”

Her response? “Okay.”

I followed up by asking what she thought it was (a donkey-faced giraffe, in case you’re wondering), and that we’d determine the “scientific answer” once we got home. (The donkey-faced giraffe was actually a gerenuk, so we both learned something new.)

As simple as it might sound, the experience of simply saying, “I don’t know” to my daughter’s question changed the way I parent from that day forward — and it reminded me of a few things I do know.

Things like …

Kids will eventually figure out the truth.

Our children are a lot of things, but clueless is not one of them. Even at the age of 4, my daughter can smell BS from a mile away. If I don’t know the answer to a question, how does creating some elaborate answer serve her going forward, especially if she later learns that said elaborate answer isn’t actually true? It probably won’t end well. Honesty is always the best policy.

It’s okay to display vulnerability.

This one was difficult for me. In the not so distant past, I felt as if I needed to know the answer to everything. I needed to be a superhero who could riff on any topic from politics to removing poop stains at a moment’s notice.

Predictably, the pressure that put on me was overwhelming. When my daughter asked me about the donkey-faced giraffe gerenuk, my initial thought was something along the lines of, “I bet so-and-so’s dad knows the answer to this question. I’m letting my kid down.”

Sure, that’s ridiculously irrational, but most parents have some flavor of ridiculously irrational foolishness floating around in their heads at any given time. “Don’t let her see you sweat” was all I was concerned about. Even if it was my 4-year-old.

But then the magic happened. Once I embraced the notion that I really didn’t know what that strange animal was and articulated it, my daughter didn’t love me any less. She didn’t respect me any less. She didn’t question my intelligence. Nothing about our relationship changed negatively. If anything, I’m more real to her now. I have faults and insecurities — and those flaws are what make her think I’m awesome (or “flawesome,” if you will). I finally learned that there is true strength in being vulnerable and not knowing everything. Besides, how can we evolve if we know everything?

Which brings me to my next point …

There’s nothing kids love more than an opportunity to learn.

Now whenever I say, “I don’t know,” my daughter becomes excited because she knows that she’s going to learn something new. We can conduct research, we can ask questions, and we can play “detective” in order to find the solution. Best of all, it’s fun for her. A child’s life is all about discovery and I realized that I’m holding her back if I keep giving her the answers all of the time, regardless of whether those answers are correct or not.

Image source: Doyin Richards, Daddy Doin' Work
Image source: Doyin Richards, Daddy Doin’ Work

The irony is not lost on me when I reflect on how not knowing something is how I know I’m doing a good job as a dad to my two daughters. Today, I embrace the fact that I’m lost when it comes to a lot of things, and my babies embrace it as well. For example, if someone were to ask me, “How can a little girl watch Frozen three times on a rainy Saturday afternoon and not get bored?” I’d probably respond with, “I don’t know.”

Actually, that’s not true. The real answer is, “Because it gives my kids an excuse to listen to my horrifically embarrassing version of ‘Let It Go’ at least three times and belly laugh until tears stream down their faces. That’s why.”

Just being honest.


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