Jim Cosgrove: Sometimes ‘I don’t know’ is the best answer

Jim Cosgrove and his daughters
Jim Cosgrove and his daughters

On the way to school a couple of weeks ago, I had the radio tuned into the morning news. When I switched it off to chat with my daughter, she asked, “Why does Iowa get to vote for president first?”

“They’re not actually voting for president,” I explained. “They’re trying to decide which candidates Iowa will support in the party conventions this summer. And it’s not really a vote; it’s a caucus.”

“What’s a caucus?”

And then, in typical dad fashion, I began to weave together a convoluted answer that was part Civics 101, part feeble memory recall and part fabrication. I meandered through an explanation of the indisputably bizarre concept of a caucus, which led to a flimsy explanation of delegates and conventions, which naturally caused me to tumble into the rabbit hole of the totally confusing role of the Electoral College in selecting our president.

In the few seconds it took me to completely confound and contradict myself, her eyes glazed over. And then I just gave up and said, “You’ll study all of this in social studies someday, and it will all make a lot more sense.”

But as those words came out of my mouth, I knew that there was little chance that it would ever make sense. Of course, she could grow up to be a great political scientist or constitutional law professor, but my guess is that most adult Americans couldn’t explain our electoral process in 1,000 words or less.

And why on Earth I thought I could give a concise and coherent answer to her question is beyond me. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned over and over in my 11 years as a parent, it’s that I don’t know anything.

As an adult I’ve done a pretty decent job of figuring out grown-up things like paying bills, grilling a cheese sandwich and changing a tire.

But as a parent, the whole game changes. With no proper training and usually without notice, I’m expected to be an engineer, an etymologist, a mathematician, a chef, a meteorologist, a psychologist, a nurse practitioner, a civics professor, a prognosticator, a shape-shifter and a psychic.

In the course of a day I can be hit with questions like, “Why is the sky blue?” “Where is my other sock?” “When will it stop hurting?” “Do flies poop?” Or “Is Donald Trump’s hair real?”

And, taking a page from the How to Be a Father Handbook, sometimes I just make things up because the male ego requires that I provide an answer. And sometimes you’ve got to get creative.

“The sky is blue because the Smurfs are in charge.” “It’ll stop hurting when it feels better.” “I’m pretty sure the hair has something to do with aliens.”

But what feels so much better than making things up is when I have the presence to say, “I don’t know.” Or, if it’s deserved, “I was wrong.”

I think it’s important for my kids to not only hear me say those words, but to see me get a little uncomfortable. It shows vulnerability, which is a good thing. It’s real. It’s raw. It’s human. It’s powerful. And it gives my kids permission to be vulnerable.

Many years ago I stumbled upon a prayer attributed to St. Augustine, “O Lord, deliver me from this lust of always vindicating myself.”

It’s so simple and so freeing when I accept that I don’t have to be right all the time, if ever.

I don’t know, and that’s OK.

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