How to respond if a child asks you a science question you don't know the answer to

Today, I was very sad to see a news article Children’s science questions “stump many parents”. I was not sad for any of the following reasons:

I was sad because of many of the parents’ reactions to their children’s questions:

...16% told their children to ask their partner and a fifth made up a response or pretended that no one knew the answer.

What are some better alternative responses?

The first step to acting like a scientist: not knowing

One obvious response that is already by itself profoundly adequate would be to say “I don’t know”. So easy, so honest, yet many parents refused to use this response. But a parent who replied even in only this minimalist way would be teaching some very important lessons about science:

The second step to acting like a scientist: looking for an answer

Regarding trying to find out, here is another quote from the article:

About a third of parents said they actively researched answers to their children's inquiries.

It would be possible to stop here and praise these parents.

But as phrased, this response is not satisfactory either:

The third step to acting like a scientist: being wrong

Sometimes one settles on an answer, and then later decides it is unsatisfactory. What then?

The third step to acting like a scientist: uncertainty

Eventually even the notion of “answer” must be considered flawed. We are never certain about our theories. Our theories are based on models that we invent. The models can have explanatory or predictive power or practical applications, but they themselves are transient. The scientific models from two centuries ago are very different from the scientific models of thirty years ago, and the scientific models of today are very different from the scientific models of thirty years ago. What we believed to be the “answer” thirty years ago looks today to have been an error.

And unless we believe that we are near the “end of science” (I do not believe this for a moment), we must also take into consideration the plausibility that thirty years from now, we will laugh at the currently favored scientific models of today the way we laugh at the hair and clothing styles of the 1980s.


The best thing that everyone could learn about science, whether one is young or old, child or parent, is what its true nature is: a way of thinking, a way of acting, a way of living. It is not about “facts” to accumulate, or jargon to memorize.

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