Why Not to Say “What Not to Say”: In Support of Asking Questions

It was the great American philosopher, Cookie Monster, who once said, “Asking questions is good way to find out about things.”

Although I agree with Mr. Monster on this one, I always giggled when teachers said a similar thing, “Ask questions. And remember, there are no stupid questions.” Because there are stupid questions, of course. And rude questions. And thoughtless questions. And nosy questions. And ignorant questions, too.

I’ve asked them. I’ve been asked them.

When I had my first miscarriage, for example, a loss that blindsided me like a Mack truck in the night, a church lady asked me if I’d considered examining my life for sin or cutting aspartame from my diet. No kidding. All at once. Like miscarriage by sin and diet soda is a thing. I didn’t respond because I didn’t know what to say, but I have fantasized about a do-over in which I look Church Lady kindly in the eye, and say, “What the hell, friend?”

When Greg and I adopted our three-month-old daughter from Vietnam a year later, a stranger stopped me at the grocery store to ask how I’d tackle the uphill battle of teaching my baby girl to speak English. After cocking my head to the side, baffled, I replied, “I imagine she’ll just pick it up from listening to me.” The woman walked away, shaking her head at my pathetic lack of a plan.

When we brought our son home from Guatemala a few years later and his speech and development delays became apparent, we fielded loads of questions, usually from kids but not as exclusively as one would hope, about what was “wrong” with him. “Some of us wear our differences on the inside,” I’d say, “And some of us wear them on the outside. He gets to keep his on the outside where he can be loud and proud. That’s the way our family rolls.” And then I’d bite my tongue so I didn’t follow up with the question I longed to ask the grown-ups, “Why? What’s wrong with you?”

And when our biological twins arrived a few years later, we got to dispel the notion that we “finally managed to have kids of our own.” “No,” we said again and again, “they’re all our own. That’s what adoption means. That’s what birthing them means. They’re our own.”

So believe me when I say I know about the questions. The well-meaning ones. The heartfelt but poorly-worded ones. The stupid ones. I’ve heard them a thousand times in a million ways.

  • About having an only child. We had one for five years and one kid is a lot of kids, man.
  • About being a stay-at-home mom and a works-outside-the-home mom. I’ve been both. Both are awesome, and both suck hard.
  • About infertility.
  • About adoption.
  • About pregnancy.
  • About bottle feeding and breastfeeding.
  • About how to get kids to sleep. (Sleep? Ha!)
  • About developmental delay.
  • About twins.
  • About having five kids. “You have five?!” they ask, stunned. And I like to reply, “Yes, just the five.”

Sure enough, I know about the questions. I do. And I understand the special kind of crazy they can make us.

But there’s a writing trend lately that concerns me which I’ll call the “What Not to Say’s.”

  • What not to say to a mom of an only.
  • What not to say to a mom of many.
  • What not to say to a mom of none.
  • What not to say to adoptive parents.
  • What not to say to parents of kids with special needs.
  • What not to say when mom heads back to work.
  • What not to say when mom stays home.

I don’t know about you, but WHEW! Even though I’ve been all these moms, I can’t keep track of all the things I’m not supposed to say. And I realized these articles have made me afraid. Afraid to engage with my fellow moms. Afraid to take risks in relationships. Afraid to ask questions to find common ground. Afraid I’ll hurt a mama friend even with the best of intentions if I don’t word a question the way she’d like to hear it.

ID-10032700It’s not that I disagree with each What Not to Say specifically. When I read them, I nod in sympathy and chuckle in understanding. But I do disagree with these articles cumulatively because, while it’s a good idea to educate the public to respect our family make-ups, the myriad lists of Questions to Avoid risk shutting down conversations entirely. Instead of teaching people to use discretion or find compassionate language in general, the What Not to Say specifics silence well-intentioned, kind-hearted folks who’d rather say nothing than say it wrong.

Now of course there are people who ask questions for intrusive reasons. Or selfish reasons. And there are people with a poor sense of boundaries. But I’ve found over time that most people who ask questions are looking for a deeper connection. Or are trying to find answers for their pain. Or want to know how to better relate to someone in their life who seems to have a situation similar to mine. Or are trying to understand this shifting world. And, while I can’t always answer the questions, nor should anyone have to, I don’t want people who need answers to stop asking for them.

What’s more, even if we can somehow keep track of all the What Not to Says, silencing the questions will harm my children. My kids are going to have to deal with questions constantly, partly because of our family make-up and partly because they interact with other kids who, you know, ask questions.

I won’t always be there to coach my kids through responses like “I don’t want to talk about that right now. Let’s play.” Or “I have a hard time with words. Will you be my friend and help me?” Or “All the kinds of moms are real.”

When I engage with people out in the world — people who ask gentle questions, people who ask cruel questions, people who ask kindly-meant questions in a wonky way — my kids watch me model appropriate responses. They learn both how to engage and how not to engage as needed. And they learn I’ve got their backs. Always.

At the end of the day, I’d rather field the tough questions than shut down the conversation.

Turns out Cookie Monster was right. “Asking questions is good way to find out about things.”

Even if the questions sometimes suck.

photo 3 (48)BethAbby3

……….

I’m very curious what you think.
Do you agree? Bring on the questions? Or are you, like, No way! There should totally be a list of What Not to Say!

……….
3D Character With Question Mark image credit to renjith krishnan via freedigitalimages.net
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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
52 comments
  1. “There are no stupid questions, but there are a lot of inquisitive idiots.” A. Martin McDonough

  2. “Yes, just the five.” may be one of the funniest lines from Clue. After 13 years of marriage, I just found out that my husband has not seen it. How is that possible? We have owned it our entire marriage and I even uploaded it on Netflix. You think you know someone. Yes, ask questions.

  3. Not every one reads the articles about what not to say (or do, but that’s a whole different conversation) and there will always be people asking something. I have tried to answer (or not answer) with courtesy and honesty. I can say, “I really don’t want to talk about that”, or “I’m not at liberty to say” and most will understand. There is also the possibility that I will be able to educate someone. When someone is just asking to be nosy or obnoxious, a gentle reminder that is not their concern may be what they need to hear so they can learn what proper boundaries are.

  4. Such a great post!

    I am really of two minds about this. I do understand that quadruplets are unusual and mine are probably the first set most people have seen. I get that they are curious and may have questions. I’m fine with answering questions (assuming I have time. Stopping me to tell me how busy I am seems a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it?) even the funny, “Are they identical?” I have three girls who do not look alike and a boy– who has a penis. They are not identical, but I just nicely say, “No, they’re all fraternal.”

    I am, however, uncomfortable with discussing my reproductive health with strangers in the grocery store. That being said, I know how lonely and scary infertility can be, so I don’t want to shut someone down who is reaching out for help. Now, when people ask if I used fertility treatments, I usually reply, “Why do you ask?” Several times, ladies have told me that they are struggling and I am happy to be able to talk to them.

    Of course, the trickiest part of this whole thing is the kids. When they were babies, I didn’t worry about what they heard, but they are almost five now. They understand quite a lot. I’m trying to model grace for them and answer with kindness, I am often blown away by people’s lack of discretion!

  5. Excellent post, I agree 100%. The people who read and actually take note of “what not to ask” are more inclined to be the people who’d ask tactfully anyway. The human bulldozers who knock you over with an ignorant question about your kids (in front of said kids) probably wouldn’t read those articles anyway.

    People have asked us “why didn’t her mother want her?” about our beautiful, amazing daughter…whose birthmother very much wanted her, but had her reasons for making the decision she did. On the funny side, when we did our first pre-adoption physical, the doctor (not from North America), completed most of the physical on each of us, and while he was filling in the form, he offhandedly asked us whether we’d be adopted together by the same family, or separately. We held it together in his office, but holy laughed our asses off all the way home! Some questions are ignorant and hurtful, and some are freakin’ hilarious.

  6. I really do think people say some of the rudest things, especially (in my experience) to pregnant ladies and to moms. I would say, especially from those who haven’t been a parent, but that’s not necessarily the case. When someone makes an off comment to me, I try to let it roll off my back with a “they meant well”, or “they don’t really know how that sounds.” Of course it’s hard sometimes. It takes self confidence, that’s for sure.

    I also grew up in a family where we didn’t ask hard or uncomfortable questions, so I try to generate an atmosphere where it’s ok to talk about things. Growing up we didn’t really talk about the struggles that people “wore on the outside”, but now being an adult and having known several people who have “worn them on the outside”, they would usually say that they wish people would just ask them what they wanted to ask instead of stare or talk quietly about them. So I try to demonstrate that with my kids. Because kids….there going to say stuff about that because they don’t know certain social cues. So when there was a muslim women was at the grocery store and my daughter said loudly, “what is she wearing on her head,” I responded with, “Isn’t she wearing a pretty scarf?”, not hiding it from the women, and trying to be polite and respectful. (My daughter was pretty young at the time and a conversation about religion, etc would have gone over her head.) And when someone is in a wheelchair and my kid says, “why is he in that?”, we talk to him about it, and I explain that it’s a special rolly chair. Hopefully, even though still awkward at times, people feel respect instead of shame.

    Of course it was a different situation when my daughter also asked if my very good friend had a baby in her tummy when she didn’t. I was glad she didn’t hear that one, and we had a conversation about that later. But even then, I feel a conversation is better then just a “you don’t say things like that…”

    1. Wow, that ended up being quite long…

  7. I don’t mind the “what not to say to” series only because it forces people to be more sensitive to the motive of the question. Some people ask cruel questions because they have awful thoughts. Some people ask cruel questions because they are thoughtless. And some people ask cruel questions because they think they have a right to all the answers to anything they’re curious about even if it hurts someone else. I think realizing that we (as adults) don’t need to have an answer to every question that passes through our minds is a good thing.

    On the other hand, as the mother of a child who had a disfiguring disability when he was younger, I will always take honest questions over whispers, stares and pointed fingers. If you asked me what was “wrong” with my son I had the opportunity to educate, if you just stared and whispered about him to your parent or friends, chances are you didn’t learn anything.

  8. I work in a multiple disabilities support classroom and I’ve finally learned how to field questions from other students in the elementary school. It took me a while–I was always too shy to ask the questions (what’s wrong with him? Why does she drool? Why can’t he talk?) but now I’ve mastered some answers that let the children know that my students are just like them in some ways, and they also have their own special differences. It’s a fascinating exchange, and I love watching the “regular” students come to embrace my kiddos!

    1. Could you share an example? I have a very curious, scientifically brained 5 year old and he wants to know what makes the kid different and why. I am usually at a complete loss.

  9. I do think a lot of it is in HOW the question is asked. Some people are purely curious (yes, they are twins, yes, I have my hands full!), but the same questions get annoying over time and I try not to be too annoyed.
    However, I think one of the most annoying things is when people assume and then make statements. Costco is like the worst! Even I am bad at it. You know all the samples they give out? One lady was offering pre-packaged chicken sandwiches (in packages of 12!) and there was a family with what I assumed (based on skin color) to be 4 kids. So I kind of jokingly looked at the mom and said, oh, so that would be one meal, right? And having no children with me at the time I felt the need to say, “I have 4 kids too”. Except about 30 seconds later the dad leans over to me and says, “I only have 2 kids, the other 2 are my niece and nephew”. Oops! See, the assuming got me in trouble…
    But hopefully I wasn’t too annoying to them!

  10. The stupidest question I got when my twin boys were little (over and over again)
    Are the natural? (Really, what else could human babies be?) Not to mention how incredibly personal that question really is.

    1. I want to add a question of similar thoughtlessness that we got many times while pregnant…”did you plan this one?” um yes we did, actually…not that it’s any of your business!

  11. Just oh my word on the things you’ve been asked.

    I’m actually surprised I don’t have better stupid question/comment stories. They’d make for good blog posts. One weird comment I got when someone saw my obviously disabled son was just, “I had five healthy children.” That’s all she said. Wasn’t sure what to do with that other than – OMG are you friends with Beth and do you even know that 5 Kids is A Lot of Kids? I just smiled and said congratulations even though she was close to 80.

    I usually like questions if I can turn them into something educational. I even wrote about it here. http://teamaidan.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/letter-to-the-others/

    This was great.

    1. Heather I love your blog and I am one of the ones who would smile shyly because I would not want to offend by saying the wrong thing or by intruding into your life unwantedly. But as the mother of a young boy with a lot of natural curiosity, it’s a question that I can see him asking one day. Now I can tell him that it’s wrong to ask ‘what’s wrong with him’ because there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with different, it’s just different and that some of us wear it on the inside and some on the outside but I’m embarrassed to admit I can’t think of an alternative way to phrase the question. Please could you educate me so that I can educate my son? I’ve re-written this reply 5 times because I’m so nervous about offending you, but that’s kinda exactly what this post of Beth’s was all about, so I’m putting my ignorance out there in the hope that you’ll excuse me for it and help me out of it and I would thank you greatly for the assistance <3

      1. Christina – Thank-you so much for your kind words and for BEING BOLD and taking the time to ask. I’m not at all offended because I appreciate these opportunities to interact. You’ve made my point so clearly by saying that you might shy away which is exactly what I DON’T want. Honestly, I wouldn’t try to give your son different language. “What’s wrong” is the best vocabulary most people have to enter the discussion. If your son asked, I would tell him a little bit about Aidan and how his muscles don’t work the same way but he can still drive a chair (something most other kids don’t do!). etc. I think a good follow up discussion, with age appropriateness in mind, would be to then talk about the word different and commenting on some similarities (Aidan loves to go fast!) The other HUGE thing is just modeling behavior. If you stop to say hello and ask my son’s name or comment on something (he’s got a great giggle – I wonder what he finds so funny) that is the best tool you can give your son in how to interact. And if your son stares don’t be surprised if I just say, ‘His name is Aidan. What’s yours?” I love to open the door when I can. I can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciate when people smile and say hello or even ask weird wonky questions. It’s easy to feel invisible in Disability World and it can get pretty lonely.
        It was very nice to meet you and I hope you’ll continue to follow along on our journey. Thanks again for the question.
        Heather

  12. Beth, you are an angel. And so, so right. Excellent post. I couldn’t put my finger on it as well as you have, so thank you for writing. Also, I’m now going to steal your FiveKids response. That’s great. I always get all weird, and stop making eye contact, and start fidgeting with things, because I get so uncomfortable wondering what they think of me (as if that matters, I know).

  13. It’s all about the CATEGORY of “Question”, right? There are those who really want to KNOW, and I’m all for that. I homeschool, I have a child with a life-threatening allergy, I have a child with speech issues, and shyness issues , I’ve been waiting for FIVE YEARS for a China adoption that now looks like it won’t happen – ASK ME about anything, and I will gladly engage you in conversation and we can bond and argue and agree and disagree and become fast friends in the process.

    Then there are those people who just have no self-control and can’t help blurting out the first thing that pops into their heads. “Did you KNOW that your son has trouble with his “r” sound?” (Ummmm, yes, yes I did. Seeing as I LIVE with him, and have to DECIPHER everything he says, it’s kind of a given that I’d notice). I find I can forgive these people; they mean well, mostly.

    AND THEN there are the stupid, insulting comments DISGUISED as questions. THOSE get me rolling me eyes and contemplating violence. Like when my son grew into toddler-hood and began looking more and more like his dad, and someone at our church said “Man, he looks like his dad! At least you know he’s your husband’s, right?” and then stared at me, waiting for a response to her “question”, and I stared right back, wondering if I should respond with words or just punch her in the throat for implying what she was implying.

    Making your voice get higher at the end of a sentence and adding a question mark does NOT make something a question. Just saying. 😉

  14. I say consider the reason behind the question before asking. Is it just so you can inject your opinion? Do you have a negative preconceived notion about what you perceive to be the most likely answer? If so, then keep your mouth shut. (ie You believe people should overpopulate by having more than one child per parent, so you say – Don’t you think FIVE children is a bit much?)
    Or is it out of concern, curiosity or camaraderie maybe? If so, go ahead. (ie You have a fascination with someone who can handle so many gifts and challenges with more children than yourself, so you ask — Wow, what’s it like having five children?)

    See the difference?

  15. there ARE a few things I really wish i’d never been asked …. but mostly I’m fine with questions.

    I think the worst one was when I got pregnant a few years after the birth of our highly disabled daughter one woman who should know better (the grandmother of these precious children) said to me “but what if this baby is just like ‘her’???” Well then … I guess we’ll love him/her just as much as we love her!!! I think the lack of using her name bothered me as much as the question, as tho she were a thing rather than a beloved child.

    Other than those sort.. I welcome questions. As a mother of three disabled children (one obviously so, two autistic) I have many amazing stories to share and I LOVE to talk about my kids and their victories!!!

  16. As an adoptive and birth mom, and also a Christian, I tried to have a sweetly seasoned answer for all of those questions, until one day in the grocery store, while I was also babysitting some additional children (each one of the children being of a different hue) the dreaded, “oh you are so awesome to be adopting THOSE children” statement came at me. From some unknown place within I answered calmly, “oh they’re not adopted, they all have different fathers”! (which in a purely technical sense was a true statement) Even now, with the oldest age 45 and the youngest age 26 I wonder if some day in heaven a women will walk up to me and say, “how did YOU get here?” The look on her face was a moment to remember! And I felt cleaned of the need to actually respond – just once. I still laugh when I think of it.

    1. Oh that is glorious!!! I found that the best way to get to meet every member of a small town is to carry a preemie babe in your arms through the supermarket. I got so tired of all the goos and gahs and general advice. But also the constant “Oh you forget how small they are, don’t you?” To which I eventually decided to have some fun and say something like “well he’s not due for another X weeks” – makes their eyes go big and round (just long enough to grab what you needed and make for the exit).

  17. If people didn’t ask horrible questions most of us would lose out on some pretty awesome stories to laugh about later! And frankly, we can’t control others, only our own reactions. I’m with you Beth.

  18. There will always be questions that make me want to punch little old women in the mouth, but I know I’ve said stupid stuff of my own. I suppose that’s all I can say about that.

  19. My husband and I are a blended family. I had four daughters from my previous marriage. My husband had 1 daughter from his. We married a year and a half ago, blending our girls together in an estrogen filled mad house. Then we decided that we would like to add to the fun by having one last child together. Yah… we’re nuts like that. Well shocker of all shockers, we had a son. A boy… that mystery gender we have no experience raising.

    My favorite question to hate these days is more of a statement really. People peer into the stroller or bassinet and say; “OHH, so you guys just kept trying for that boy huh?”

    No – we didn’t just keep pumping out unwanted daughters until we won the lottery and got a child with a magical penis, But thank you for asking. Ugh…

    1. We have 3 sons and people always ask if we’re still trying for a girl. Uhm, no, we stopped at two and my Mr. had a vasectomy after the 3rd surprise blessing to ensure we’d have no chance at any extra blessings. Why are my sons and your daughters not good enough? Oy, people.

      1. I have the same problem (although I have three girls). I was still pregnant with #3 when people started asking if we would keep trying for a boy.

        1. I had a girl and then a boy and I hated the “so now that you have one of each you’re done right? And now that I have 5 kids, it is “how many more are you going to have?” People are stupid, even if questions are not.

          1. I also have one of each with the boy being second and it irks me when people act(ed) like my husband must have been so relieved to get “his” boy. Actually he really wanted another girl because the first one rocks so much. Now we have two kids that rock!

  20. “Pretty soon I’m going to start responding with “The 12th of Shut Your Face””
    Holy. Awesome. Batman!

  21. Right on! I agree with you, especially: “But I’ve found over time that most people who ask questions are looking for a deeper connection. Or are trying to find answers for their pain.”

    I’m an adoptive mama and often feel that I’m treading gingerly when reading adoption blogs. Lots of hurt out there, so lots of indignation, fury, and judgment.

    And since I’m by nature a suspicious person (it’s a German post-war thing I inherited from my crazy family), I really appreciate the encouragement to assume the other person’s goodwill. Even when it’s said badly, I try to remember that people are looking for connection and that 99.9999% of what they say is about THEM not about ME. I think there’s an important balance between being open to that connection and guarding yourself against becoming a dumping ground for everyone else’s shame and insecurity.

  22. In general I think questions are good. But as the mother of an awesome girl who is, at least so far, an only child, I am getting real sick of “When are you having another?”. Pretty soon I’m going to start responding with “The 12th of Shut Your Face”

    1. Oh, I hope you do start responding with “The 12th of Shut Your Face”! Especially to nosy strangers. 🙂

      1. We would always respond with, “not for at least another 9 months”.

    2. We always respond with, “We aren’t having another. We got it right the first time.”

  23. as a rule, i would say yes, asking questions IS good. but you DO have to be careful in highly sensitive situations – anything involving death (of a family member or friend, or an unborn child…) in those situations i think questions are STILL OKAY – but be careful before you ask them. pray over your words. ask Jesus to put his hand over your mouth if needed. when my best friend died, i was exhausted with the question “were you close” or “how close were you” – as if that made a difference? should you be more sad or less sad based on my reply? i intend to model good question answering skills to my children, but so far they’ve only learned “what not to answer” from me – because i struggle with questions worded .. not poorly .. but without any thought put into them.

  24. Beth,

    Growing up in a family of “Don’t ask the tough questions because I might be uncomfortable answering”, I have been an open book to my kids, friends, and to their chagrin, my family. Ask me anything! Has been my motto for years. I applaud you for encouraging the answering of questions appropriately, or at least responding (to the rude, inappropriate questions) appropriately. As always, you go girl!

    Devi

  25. Ask questions! I have always been a blurter of questions so I just expect them back and get surprised when people don’t ask questions.

    I knew when I was in my early 20’s that having kids was not for me. I have heard often and with such sadness, oh, you don’t have kids (cue sad face). Since I am in my 50’s now I hear, oh you didn’t have kids . . . Now I respond with, no I didn’t but I will get to retire at 58, how about you? Will you ever retire? Have your kids left home (in their 20’s or 30’s).

    I figure everyone’s life is different, if they want to question my choices – be prepared for me to question theirs!

    I think the only question to not ask is “Are you pregnant?”. Really anyone can have a tummy and that question can get you in so much trouble.

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