Taking the Fifth

My husband and I have always encouraged our boys to ask questions. When they were younger, this seemed like a pretty good idea. That’s because back then, their questions were relatively simple. And even when they weren't, our kids didn't realize when our answers were simply made up. As far as they were concerned, we were the smartest people on earth. Unfortunately, the older our boys get, the dumber we seem to become. Our house is basically a real life version of that TV show, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? And the resounding verdict is always a definitive no.

            I am sure when I was a teenager I probably assumed my parents didn’t know what they were talking about half the time either. The difference is, our children have proof that we don’t. That's because we have armed them with the ability to instantaneously double check any fact, figure, or fabricated response at the push of a button. Like the time I was trying to be cool and bond with our oldest son by sharing trivia about The Beatles. I might have suggested that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is really a song about drugs and that the title is actually an acronym for LSD. Within seconds he said, "Actually, John Lennon wrote that song because he was inspired by the Alice in Wonderland books. It has nothing to do with drugs, Mom. That's just a rumor." Darn that Internet.

            Some of us remember that well before the World Wide Web we had World Book Encyclopedias. As the title suggested, anything you needed to know about anything that mattered in the world was neatly contained in twenty-two volumes that sat on the bookshelf of nearly every house across America. Back then, there weren't even enough important places, people or events that started with the letters J or K to merit their own volumes. They had to share one. My dad's favorite mantra used to be, "Go look it up." No matter what we asked, sometimes before the words even passed through our lips, he would order, "Don't ask me, go look it up." If I would dare suggest that he was only saying that because he didn't know the answer himself, he would quickly retort, "Of course I know the answer, but if I tell you you'll never learn how to figure it out for yourself." It was a brilliant ploy.

            These days conversations with our children are more like mini inquisitions. The natural curiosity we used to encourage in our boys when they were toddlers is now something we fear from them now that they’re teenagers. And even though I stopped even pretending to help our kids with homework by the time they got to third grade, every so often I am tempted to break this rule and prove my academic worth. Luckily, our older two boys have figured out that we are not actually the gifted geniuses we pretended to be in their youth, and that I could not actually compete on Jeopardy if I really wanted to.

            Our youngest son, Levi, however, is just twelve and therefore still thinks we are the next best thing to Wikipedia. The other day he looked up from his homework and asked, "Do you think child labor was a natural byproduct of the Industrial Revolution?" I confidently responded, "Yes, for sure it was." And as he nodded his head in agreement, I quickly added, "Wait, is this for a grade? You might want to double check that.”

            A few months ago, we encouraged him to start reading some John Grisham novels. I don't know what we were thinking, since the majority of his books are legal thrillers and therefore assume a pretty extensive knowledge of legal terms and jargon. It was fine when Levi asked the simple stuff like, “What’s a grand jury?” or “What does subpoenaed mean?” But when he started asking us about things we knew that we knew, but couldn’t really explain (that actually happens more often than not), we found ourselves in real trouble. While my husband would hem and haw his way through a response to a question like, “What exactly is a circuit court?” I would pretend to be texting while secretly Googling the term. The more this happened the more I realized that I had to come clean. I had to learn to say that I just didn't know something when I really didn't know it. 

            So the next time Levi asked us about a term we didn't know, I finally gave him an honest answer. "Go look it up," I said. "If we tell you, you'll never learn how to figure it out for yourself."