“I don’t know”

Saying “I don’t know” has, for many reasons, become something we don’t like to say in society. It connotates shame. There is a silent expectation that we should know, even from a very young age. We should know the answer to that question. We should know how to do that. We should know what that means. And when we are called upon to answer, or do, or explain, and we don’t know or can’t, we feel we should pretend or act as if we do and can. Fake it, in other words. And that creates further doubt, anxiety and fear in ourselves.

As part of our speech pathology work, we understand that saying “I don’t know” is the beginning of something good. We teach our clients to say “I don’t know”. It matters to teach this overtly to children. It is not a weakness but a strength to own up to not knowing – because then you get to find out! Faking it is not the strongest position. And the cohort we’re working with need to learn to advocate for themselves – this is a theme in therapy, always. 

With our young clients, that teaching includes the use of small rewards. They’re always social, interactive rewards – and sometimes they’re tangible rewards too. When a young poppet is asked to try something in a session, and they say “I don’t know”, we give them a little reward – it might be a rousing ‘YAY, you’re AWESOME’ or sometimes… it might be a little lolly (let’s face it, little lollies can have a certain outdoing-the-rest reinforcing power!). With these kind of fun rewards the child learns that it is okay to say they don’t know, don’t understand, or can’t do it. The child learns it is a GOOD thing to acknowledge this. This is the beginning of confident self-advocacy.

A very recent innovative therapy session with a child took place in his mum’s car using video conferencing. Mum picked-up the child (let’s call him ‘Nick’) from school and they sat in the car together in the school car park. Two minutes in, all participants realised that the front seat would restrict the session too much, so mum and Nick jumped into the back seat where half an hour of fabulous and hilarious communication-changing therapy took place.

During the session the therapist gave Nick a task which he couldn’t respond to. He didn’t know how to do it. There was already a madcap fragrance of fun in the air because he’d been working so hard and so successfully.

He had a good go at the thinking for the tricky task and then said, “I don’t know,” very matter-of-factly.

When he said it, the therapist suddenly veered sideways and asked him his address with a focused look of serious playfulness.

“Right. Stop everything! You have to tell me your address! You said ‘I don’t know,’ and I am so proud of you that I just have to send you lollies in the post!” 

To which Nick’s little face just burst with surprise and delight! (This, of course, creates the right neuro-basis for learning – which the therapist knew.)

When the therapist had written down Nick’s address, she asked him how many lollies he’d like – and by this time he was well and truly rolling with the madcap.

“What would be a good number for saying ‘I don’t know’?” she asked.

She could see his face go through the process of thinking how many he would dare ask for. We will add here, that most children think “five” is a pretty daring response!

“One hundred!” Nick replied. 

He was truly exceptional in catching the fun and pushing the envelope!

“Well then, okay! One hundred it is!”

“Wow!” he exclaimed, barely believing the exchange had occurred.

At the end of the session Nick jumped out of the car and skipped back into school, ready for the next learning of the day. And very ready for a special delivery in the post.

A few days later, the package arrived. Mum was there and witnessed the grand opening.

“What’s in there, Nick?”

Again, surprise and delight. He knew this, and without pausing or counting, he held up the packet. “It is one hundred lollies!”

Beautiful Nick. He will most certainly advocate for himself!

And can you imagine the joy of the next session?!

There you have it folks. “I don’t know”. It is not the stuff of weakness at all. Not for a child, not for an adult, not for a therapy practice. Use it, because sometimes there is madcap to catch – and because you always get to find out!