There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Question, Except ‘What’s a Question?’

Posted on August 20, 2012


When you grow older some truisms and sayings seem to crumble under scrutiny. I remember teachers always saying, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” Of course as an adult I’ve realized not only is there such thing as a stupid question, but in reality most questions turn out to be stupid.

I now suspect teachers knew this and were purposely encouraging a culture of stupid questions in order to increase their chances of winning a teacher pool in which teachers would present the stupidest questions of the day and vote on who had the dumbest students.

If I’d stopped to think about this as a kid, it probably would have only taken me a few seconds to respond to the teachers with an indisputably stupid question:

“Okay, class, any questions? And remember, there’s no such thing as a stupid question.”
My hand would shoot up.
“Yes, Paul? You have a question?”
“Yeah. What’s a question?”

I realize now that a slight amount of shame at asking stupid questions can be healthy because it forces us to try a little harder to find the answer ourselves instead of doing our thinking out loud and saying everything we think as soon as we think it.

My 8-year-old, The Fonz, seems like a pretty bright kid, but he does ask his fair share of non-intelligent questions. I won’t call them stupid questions—because his mom might randomly choose today as the day she reads a post to feign interest in my blog—but he certainly asks a lot of questions that collectively cast doubt on any career prospects as a detective.

We have some version of the following conversation three or four times a day: I’ll be sitting at the table eating a sandwich and he’ll walk into the room and ask:

“What are you doing?”
I’ll stare at him for a moment with a blank expression, then turn my gaze to the hand holding my sandwich, then I look at him again, then I look again at the sandwich, and I finally answer, “Playing with Legos.”
He raises an eyebrow. “No you’re not. You’re eating a sandwich.”
“If you could tell I was eating a sandwich, why’d you ask what I was doing?”
His mouth opens but produces no sound.

If I enter the house wearing a wet swimsuit with a towel over my shoulder, he asks:

“Hey, Dad, where have you been?”
“I was playing golf.”
“But you didn’t take your clubs.”
“I guess that explains why I played so badly.”

If I come down the stairs in gym shoes, shorts, and a tank top, with a gym bag slung over my shoulder, and I open the front to leave, he asks:

“Going somewhere?”
“Why do you think I might be going somewhere? Is it because I opened the door and started to go through it?”
His eyes take in the gym bag. “Are you going to the gym?”
“I’m going to a wedding.”
“Who’s getting married?”
“Your mother. I’m hoping when she sees me in this tank top she’ll change her mind.”

I realize he’s just thinking out loud. He sees me going through the door and he knows that means I’m leaving, but instead of his brain registering the information ‘Dad is leaving’ a short-circuit inverts the first two words and he states, “Is Dad leaving?”

We’ll keep working with him and feel confident he’ll someday grow into a competent questioner. On the other hand, writing this post has reminded me how often I knock on the bathroom door while my wife is inside and and ask, “What are you doing?”

I’d ask for your recommendations on training The Fonz through this Achilles’ heel but now I’m afraid of asking a stupid question.


If you need help disguising the limitations of a dense child, you might find the following posts useful:

How to Teach Your Kids to Sound Smart (Especially If They’re Not)

How to Teach Your Kids to Sound Smart (Especially If They’re Not)–Part 2


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Posted in: Family