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

  1. YES! I agree with this! I couldn’t figure out why I always felt a little stressed out after reading those “What not to say” articles. I’m a rule follower, and so keeping track of what I could say and when and to whom was making me a little crazy! You are right on with the statement that generally we ask questions to connect on a deeper level, to get a conversation going. I think asking questions in love (even if it’s technically a “forbidden” question) is a good thing!

  2. Oh, I’ve gotten so much from reading your blog, Beth! Thank you for sharing your family with us readers! And, I love this topic and, though I’m likely ignorant of how many times I’ve spoken around the big foot protruding from my mouth, I know for a fact I’ve been on both ends of the stupid question spectrum. I, too, like to believe that many of the question askers are well-meaning in their intent, and their mouths are just not as adept as their hearts at making the deeper connection. I also concur with those who say that folks are often just speaking from personal and self-focused places and probably should have tried out their questions inside their heads before rolling them off their tongues, but I’ve found that many people really don’t have much self control in that regard and it does make for some enjoyable reading and indignant story-telling material, as well as tipping the rest of us off to helpful lessons in tact. Unfortunately, there are just so many topics we all have little experience in and opportunities to cause hurt and discomfort, that, although I agree questions should be welcome, it really would help if we all learned a bit of restraint and forethought in the question-asking arena. (And I think we should ALL examine our motivation for the question we are preparing to ask! I have a few coworkers who could really use this skill and, being one of those people who should have “processing, please wait” written across my forehead, have a lifetime’s worth of response I wish I’d made belatedly waiting to burst forth…)

    The subject area I’d like to throw into the mix is foster care, similar in some ways to adoption, but it opens the door to a whole new possibility for tactless questions/comments. As a former foster mom, the stupid questions I handled well and feel good about having contributed thoughtful, growth-producing responses to include:

    1) “How awful that the mother abandoned her newborn baby!” No, actually, I think the mother of this beautiful little girl is unlikely to have given her up lightly, is probably suffering terribly from the loss and needs our prayers, and, actually deserves a medal for carefully bringing her to the hospital to be sure she was safe despite the terrible circumstances her own life was probably in. (Also a much better story for her daughter to hear about her as she grows up to be a lovely, whole young woman soon to deal with and develop her own history.)

    2) “I don’t know how you could do foster care, I could never give them up, it would break my heart.” (The response for this one took some time and definite teeth-grinding to come up with because of the temptation to kick the speaker in the face, because basically they were, without realizing it I’m sure, insulting me to my face for being a heartless beast for “giving up” children.) My response was usually something along the lines of, “Yes, it is hard but I try not to choose whether to do things worth doing based on whether they are hard for me.”

    The number of other things I said and did and answered wrong about foster care (and other sensitive topics) could be the subject of a whole blog, I’m sure. I’ve often cringed to realize that, while I went into it with the best of intentions, the ego boost and pedestal-building attention people give you went to my head a bit and I ended up having to re-examine my reasons. There is never a time that it is OK to discuss a child’s personal history with an interested (read: nosy) stranger just to share a sad, unfortunate, but juicy story that paints you as a long-suffering saint, even if the child is not with you and the person is not likely to meet the child. No matter how big the world is, believe me, it is smaller than it seems and the story can, and likely will, find its way back to you and the child, to your own shame and potential discomfort for the child. Not sure if they give you lessons in this when you adopt but it should definitely be part of the training for fostering and/or adopting – to plan and think in advance about long-term impact…something I learned the hard way.

  3. I posted something similar on FB a couple weeks ago. Nobody seemed to get it. It’s very affirming to see the same sentiment expressed by others.

  4. I imagine I will be binge reading your blog for the next month. Because while I’m not a Mamma yet, my husband and I have plans to build a family through adoption and the old-fashioned way. (And yes, we plan to have 4, 5 is our hard limit–barring extreme circumstances, natch)
    As for the questions:
    I’m mostly fine with them, and when they’re from children or teens I’m totally fine with them. As a rule, they’re asking because they’re curious, not a jerk.
    However, I have decided that once we start having kids, I’m just going to make up a FAQ card, and start handing it out.
    Cause honestly, it’s going to be easier, and the questions are mostly going to be the same.
    Are they yours?
    No, I kidnapped them..shh don’t tell!

    Don’t you and your husband know how to prevent pregnancy?
    Yup, however if you need a lesson, I’m sure my 5 year old can help.

    Are you the nanny?
    Did you not just hear the 4 kids calling me “Mooooooom!”? Seriously?

    You get the point. Plus, my husband and I are an interracial couple, and my husband is interracial. Ohhh the speciallness. I’m sure the blogs will be epic.

  5. Great exploration of the issue of when and which questions are OK. Thanks for the post!

    I’m an older (54) adoptive white mom of African twins. My kids had a lot of early childhood traumas: dire poverty, illness (one), separation from one another for more than three years of their early childhood, serious neglect and food insecurity, abuse in the family, then the orphanage and having to learn a different language to talk to her twin (the other). They are cute kids and twins so people like to ask about them. But the questions can easily get too in-depth. Most importantly, don’t ask questions beyond maybe, “Are they your children?” and “Did you adopt them?” in front of the kids! When my nieces (adopted from China) were small, people would ask their parents right in front of them if their “mother” (birth mom) had abandoned them. They and my kids have heard, “Are they REAL sisters?” – meaning bio sisters, which they are not. My sister-in-law’s priceless reply was, “Yes, and I’m their real mother!” – before she took her kids by the hand and walked briskly away.

    I don’t mind if kids ask me if I’m my girls’ grandma. I’m the age of some of their friend’s grandmas because I live in a region where it is still very common to marry and have a first child in one’s early 20’s. We meet kids in our neighborhood park whose moms were teen moms and whose grandmas are considerably young than I am. But I don’t appreciate adults assuming that I’m their grandma and not their mom. I was 47 years old when my kids were born to their birth mom. My neighbor had her last child (of 13!) at age 47. It is feasible! Besides, I usually pass for 48 or 50 instead of nearly 55. If I were 48, it would be unusual to have 8-year-old twin grand-kids!

    The worse was when I bought the girls their first ballet outfits at Kohl’s and the cashier cheerfully called after me, “Have a good day, Grandma!” (:

  6. I think the idea of thinking about the “why” behind the question is important. If you are the ask-er, are you asking out of prurient interest? Because it’s like a train wreck? or do you really want to understand something about the person?

    If you are the answer-er, it helps to know why, because you then know what kind of information the other person is seeking. And, I’ve found “Why do you ask?” to stop those nosy nincompoops right in their tracks!

  7. Well put! I’ve also noticed the number of what not to say articles and it does seem like at a certain point it closes down all discussion. I think intent goes a long way. And now that I’ve got a curious three-year-old, I’d like to be prepared on how to engage in the best way.

  8. My mom had half of her jaw-bone removed due to cancer in her 20’s. My _entire_ life, her face has been completely non-symmetrical, and people have stared at her, and some have asked questions.

    She has always preferred an awkward question over a stare and a hush! She always felt bad for the kids who wanted to say something but got hushed by their parents, because A) they didn’t learn about why my mom looked funny, and B) they didn’t learn how to be tactful.

    I have continued her policy wholeheartedly! Bring on the questions, and I will do my best to answer them!

  9. In three years I had three miscarriages, at 6, 10, and 16 weeks. I had a healthy, ridiculously easy first pregnancy so the losses were a great shock, each one worse than the last. There was no sign of the loss, only a silent, still ultrasound. I had been jubilant when I found out I was pregnant with my second child (yes, I consider each of these lost babies as one of my children) and told anyone I met that we were expecting again. So that meant having to tell everyone that the baby had died. I told very few people about my third pregnancy and the loss. But my fourth pregnancy had passed the magical 14 week, 1st trimester mark and I was finally in the clear and let friends, family, and co-workers know the good news. We even took our son, 3 at the time, with us to the 16 week appointment to see the fuzzy video of his new brother or sister. I am only 32 but that day is the singular worst day of my entire life. After the delivery I basically checked out of life all together. I remember one day where I thought it was a good day because i had kept a fire going in the fireplace, never mind the fact the clothes I was wearing were many days from fresh, or that my parents had my son so he wouldn’t see me all comatose and zombified, or that the only thing I did that entire day was sit in front of the fireplace and cry.

    So, sorry for the very intense back story, but these losses and my mourning and rebuilding period after them lead to some of the most horrific questions from people. People refused to call the babies by the names we had given them, Ada-Grace, Elliot, and Xavier, even after I repeatedly reminded them. And so very, very many people dumped their horror stories about losses on me while I was barely managing to army crawl through my life. But the worst, the very worst, were the questions. “What do you think you did wrong?”, “What do the doctors think is wrong with you?”, “What do the doctors think is wrong with your husband”, “I had a sister/cousin/co-worker/neighbor who lost a baby and for the next pregnancy she tried laying in traction/veganism/accupuncture/changing religions (that last one was brought up more than you would imagine) and had a healthy pregnancy, have you considered that?”, or, worst of them all, “Well, they say you shouldn’t tell anyone before the first trimester…. Did you know that?”

    Luckily for many old ladies’ noses, I was mostly a zombie and punching them would have required too much effort. There were other questions that were kindly meant and often with the caveat that I didn’t need to answer if it was too fresh or too personal. And a lot of it was just people attempting to make supportive statements that in the end were just about making themselves feel better.

    But, looking back, the most insensitive comments and crudest questions came from people who were at the very periphery of my acquaintances or complete strangers. I think I could reduce all of those “What not to say” articles to. “If whatever is about to come out of your mouth isn’t positive or meant to encourage the struggling mother, because we are all struggling mothers, keep it to yourself, you old bag.”

    For any mom’s dealing with the horrific comments/questions related to infertility and child or pregnancy loss, in the end I just started answering any and all of the questions from people not in my inner-most circle, “I don’t want to talk about it. And, by the way, the only thing you can do or say for me is to tell me you are sorry for my loss and give me my space.” Several coworkers still aren’t talking to me but I don’t see that as much of a loss. Sorry this got so long and wasn’t very funny (I did put in that bit about calling one of elders “an old bag”…)

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