Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Max knows what he doesn't know, and that's good


Max and I are staring at his iPad. He's supposed to use this week's vocabulary word, "whimsical," in a sentence and I'm waiting for him to do it. Only he's not.

Max says something and at first, I don't understand him. Then he repeats himself and I realize he's saying, "I don't know."

It is the first time I have ever heard him say those words, and I'm thrilled; it's a cognitive and behavioral breakthrough.

For a long time, when Max didn't get something he'd either stare blankly or get frustrated and whine. In recent years I've seen him fake understanding. Like we'll read an article for current events together and I'll ask if he gets it and he says "Yeah!" and nods vigorously, only when it comes time to answer questions, it's clear he didn't fully comprehend it. Max doesn't get tests at school, so it's sometimes hard to gauge what he is and isn't absorbing. It never occurred to me to teach him to say, "I don't know."

Perhaps he doesn't disclose that he's not understanding because he aims to please. Maybe he's embarrassed. Or maybe he doesn't want to deal with additional explanations. The other evening, though, Max did acknowledge that he didn't know something. It takes a certain level of maturity and confidence to admit that (unlike a sister who shall remain nameless who makes like she knows everything). Ultimately, it will enrich his world, because if Dave, me and his teachers are aware that he isn't understanding we can keep at it until he does.

This is also a baby step toward self advocacy. Next up, I'd love for him to be able to say, "I need help with this" or "Can you explain that again?" We'll work on that.

We talked a little more about the word and came up with, "I am going to have whimsical balloons at my bar mitzvah." And he flashed me a smile because he nailed it, and he knew it.


  1. A lot of people could stand to say "I don't know."

  2. I'm with Nisha! I love this insight, Ellen!

  3. Yay Fireman Max! Being able to know when to say "I don't know" is an important skill that a lot of people older than you struggle with. Can't wait to see pictures of those whimsical balloons!

  4. I struggle with the same thing! Part of it is surrendering my independence. I want to see those whimsical balloons! I loooooove balloons.

  5. As a Special Education teacher I love that he was able to say this. By the time my students get to me in High School they are so conditioned to only "say the right thing" that they won't even speak up or have mastered the head nod of understanding even if they don't get it. When I am teaching important skills I really need to know if they understand it. I also work on letting them know that I don't know what is going on in their head unless they speak up (I can't read you mind) and I tell them that if I could I am sure it would be saying something like... I want to go over to Teacher Bren's house and do all her dishes and her laundry and clean out the cat litter. At which point they obviously disagree. Humor in this ability to say I don't know seems to take away the stigma of not knowing. Way to go Max.

  6. Hi Ellen! As a student in a Developmental Services Worker program, I am delighted that I was able to read your post because it has highlighted for me the first thing in which I plan to work on with students in the future if I work in the school system, and that is making sure they understand and feel comfortable with me to say “I don’t know”. I haven't decided yet if I will work in the school system, but if I do, at least now I know the importance of a child being able to tell me that they don’t know. I would also like to compliment you on your enthusiasm with Max in saying these words. All I could think about while I read this post was how when I was young and said those words while doing homework, it was responded to negatively, and that simply made me not want to understand. However, hearing the positivity through your post about this experience solidifies the importance of keeping a positive attitude towards a child who is confiding in you for help. I am happy for Max to have hit this milestone and thank you so much for making this post!!

  7. Many, many NT adults struggle with admitting when they (admittedly, I) don't know something. It takes a truly smart person to be able to admit they can't know everything. Kudos to you, Max!


Thanks for sharing!

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