Questions It’s Okay Not to Answer

The days of old-school parenting are long gone, when children were seen and not heard. Today’s children ensure that it is their parents who are (barely) seen and not heard, at least by the kids themselves! 😉

A vital cornerstone of new-age parenting is the willingness of the parent to answer questions. As parents, we’ve had it dunned into our heads: encouraging children to ask questions will ensure they know more, retain their curiosity, and therefore study and achieve more (there isn’t necessarily a very high correlation between having knowledge and achieving more, but that’s what we’ve been brought up to believe)…

So we let them ask all kinds of questions and try and find suitable answers to those questions.

But there comes a point when the questions begin to bother you. The questions will usually bother you for only 2 reasons: either they are uncomfortable questions, dealing with issues you’re trying to ignore, or they are intrusive questions, which infringe on your privacy.

Uncomfortable questions make you think about your life, your beliefs and your relationships. They highlight the lack of congruence between what you say or show on the one hand, and what you think and feel on the other. The greater the discrepancy, the more discomfort you experience, and the more you want to sweep the issue(s) under the carpet. You don’t want to deal with it, and here’s your child, asking you questions. What can you do?

If you’re avoiding answering a question to duck the discomfort, think before you do so. Your child won’t know the answer to her question, but she will certainly know if you are trying to avoid answering it. When you do this, without meaning to, you teach your child to be dishonest. She sees you make an excuse to avoid an answer, and files the incident away as one way of dealing with unpleasant issues in her life. When something sufficiently uncomfortable comes along, she’ll repeat your response. Not because she thinks it’s the best response, but because this is what she has seen and learnt from the beginning – from you.

There’s nothing wrong with dishonesty. It has its rightful place in the world, just as honesty does. The problem is that any value perpetuates itself as you practice it. If you give in to dishonesty once, it is that much easier to do so the next time around, and that much more difficult to make the honest response the next time around. As you keep responding the dishonest way, you might end up looking around yourself and realizing that you’re living a false life.

So there’s your child’s question, staring you in the face: “Mom, why did you tell Dad that the bottle of whisky broke when actually you and your friend drank it all one afternoon?” There could be any number of reasons why you did what you did. The question has been asked, and it needs to be dealt with.

You need to make up your mind about a few things:

Do you want to answer the question? If not, tell him, “I don’t want to answer this question.” But be prepared for him to come right back at you with, “Why not?” If you want him to keep talking to you, if you want to retain his trust, you’d better come up with a better answer than either, “Because I don’t want to”, or “because I’m your Mom and I’m telling you so”. The first answer has you behaving in a stubborn, childish way, while with the second, you’re pulling rank. No fair – your child deserves better.

If you want to answer the question but can’t figure out the best way to do so, ask for time. Simply say, “I’m thinking about why I did what I did, and when I’m clear about the answer myself, I’ll let you know.” Commit to a specific time. “I’ll let you know by Sunday / by 10th November / before you go on the school picnic”. And then get back to him with the answer.

If you have a great relationship with your child, she may actually ask you a question like, “Dad / Mom, when did you first have sex?”

Uh-oh!

Maybe you were in your early teens when you did, the same age she is now, and you don’t want to tell her the truth because you’re afraid she’ll treat it as a green signal for her to go ahead and have her first experience with sex – something you know she is not ready for, and which you’d like to help her avoid.

You might choose to tell her a lie – that you first had sex in your twenties, or after you were married (if this applies), or whatever. But know that she will carry the answer in her head, and in an unguarded moment in the future, you will give the truth away, and she will note the difference in both answers. Once she does, she will re-visit every single thing you’ve told her, and wonder if it is true or not. Not the best thing to happen, which is why I’d suggest you avoid it.

Maybe you first had sex when you were 22, and are comfortable sharing this information with her.

Whether you want to answer the question or not, the truth is that this information is personal to you. No matter how much you love her, this is your personal life, and she really has no right to expect an answer to this question from you.

Tell her so. You don’t need to be apologetic or defensive about it; just matter-of-fact.

Believe it or not, I learnt about not answering questions from my daughter. One day (she was then 6), her teacher and I met at school. I’d been through a grueling divorce, lasting 3 years of courtroom drama, and was just beginning to emerge from its shadow.

The teacher accosted me: Hi! I am so impressed with your daughter!

Me (smiling): Why?

Teacher: The other day, I heard a classmate ask her, “How come we never see your dad; only your mom?” And your young lady turns to the child and says, “It’s personal”. I was so impressed! Really an amazing response! I must compliment you – you’ve raised her so well!

My head was in a whirl.

I disclaimed all responsibility for my daughter’s response. In all the years I’d been going through the break-up of my marriage, it had never struck me to answer people’s intrusive questions with a crisp “It’s personal”.

“What happened?” “Was he bad?” “Did he hit you?” “Was he having an affair?” “What went wrong?”

To each of these questions from some well-meaning people and mostly prying gossip-mongers, I would make various responses, but it never struck me not to respond, not to answer the question.

And here’s my daughter’s response coming to me through her teacher. Talk about learning from your child!

I waited impatiently for her to get back from school (she was on the bus).

“Did you say…?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said.

“Where did you learn to say it?”

“Oh! I heard someone ask the teacher about something, and she said it was personal. That’s where I learnt it.”

Well, I don’t use those words at all – not even now. But I certainly do give that response – and I learnt it from my daughter! 🙂

Most of us are blessed with near and dear ones, and because they are so near and so dear, the lines separating them and us are often blurred. But there are many places where the line needs to be drawn.

The line that defines your right to your life, to your thoughts, to your SELF.

Don’t jump to answer the next time your son asks, “What were you thinking, Dad, just now? You had such a strange expression on your face!” Maybe the answer is innocuous, but it is vital that your child learn that he cannot enter your head on demand and tumble around in it. Tell him, “You don’t need to know what’s going through my head every moment of every day. Stay in your own head; live your own life”.

Needless to say, not answering some questions will teach your child to be her own person. And it will take away from you the right to ask her questions like, “Are you in a physical relationship with someone?”

Because she has the right to her own life too! 🙂

5 Responses to Questions It’s Okay Not to Answer

  1. Shy October 25, 2011 at 6:45 pm #

    Nice one, Vinita! I’m so impressed by the maturity of your little girl! It’s such a fine line we walk as parents, isn’t it, between honesty and the need for boundaries? I myself really believe that there is next to nothing I would not discuss with my children, regardless of how much I might prefer not to. There have been a couple of occasions when answering honestly has made me look less than perfect, such as why I began smoking, but telling the truth and sharing what I have learned and lived through because of it, has, I like to think, perhaps provided an example of what not do do that mum did because the consequences are there for all to see.Thanks for sharing your experience and congratulations on the great job you’re clearly doing!

    • Vinita Zutshi October 25, 2011 at 10:16 pm #

      Shaila, I find myself continually impressed by and learning from children – my own and others’. Re your story of talking to your children about everything, I’m pretty much the same way, but I feel the need to show her that boundaries exist, and must be respected. You might find it interesting to read my post “What to Do When You Can’t Set an Example”. In fact, it’s when we will look less than perfect that I think it is most important that we share our experiences with our kids. Thanks for sharing, and do keep writing in – we all end up enriched! 🙂

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