– Leslie Crawford
You want your child to be curious, right? Of course, you do! After all, curiosity is the drive to gather new information and experiences and it’s at the very heart of learning. Studies show that kids who exhibit a higher level of curiosity are at an advantage at school and beyond, benefitting socially, emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually.
Curious souls tend to exhibit a wide range of positive adaptive behaviours. They’re more likely to be open-minded, emotionally expressive, have strong coping mechanisms in daunting situations, and they’re predisposed to unconventional thinking (think: innovative problem solving).
Whether it’s your toddler furiously exploring every inch of their new world, your 5-year-old asking “Why?” about everything or your tween becoming myopically obsessed with the goings-on of their peers, curiosity is an inherently human trait. It’s fueled by dopamine, the same reward-seeking neurochemical that’s behind the desire to eat and procreate.
In younger kids, information-seeking abounds. One study found that between the ages of 2 and 5, kids ask about 40,000 questions. But as kids get older, this insatiable desire to know can lose some of its urgency.
Just as curiosity can be successfully fostered in any child it can also be squelched, often by the very well-meaning adults tasked with educating them. In fact, research shows that kids whose intrinsic curiosity is comparatively low are the ones most sensitive to social cues that inhibit or encourage exploration.
While no parent or teacher would purposely set out to thwart a child’s natural inquisitiveness, they often do so unwittingly. Curious to find out how grown-ups discourage curiosity (and conversely, how they can foster it)? Here are nine sure-fire curiosity killers and how you can avoid them.
Freaking out over messes
OMG! What happened to your kitchen? It’s been transformed into an 8-year-old’s version of a scene from Breaking Bad. There’s unidentifiable white powder all over the counters and floors, bright blue and orange fingerprints on the cabinet counters, and jars and vials overflowing with weird goo. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: this crime scene is none other than curiosity channelled into the best form of creativity. For parents who are new to slime-making, the white substance is probably cornstarch, and it’s really, really hard to clean up! The Day-Glo fingerprints are from food colouring, also a bear to remove. What’s a harried parent to do? Let them make messes! The slime-makers of today might be the scientists, engineers, inventors, and artists of the future.
Choosing a school for orderliness and calm
One would think that a neat and tidy classroom (or bedroom) is preferable to the one that invites measured chaos. Think again. What attracts people’s interest, including children, is something more complex and unpredictable. In studying what inspires creativity in classrooms, Children are most interested “in the rooms that had wild and complex things that didn’t act in predictable ways,” be it out-there art on the walls, terrariums housing all manner of creatures, and spaces throughout the school that invite experimentation. In a 1984 study, it was found that while kindergarten-age children asked 27 questions per hour at home, that number plummeted to only about three when they were at school. Some of this drop-off is unavoidable because kids at school don’t have the opportunity to ask questions endlessly as they might at home, but it’s not inevitable if the school environment tolerates a curious child.
Stamping out gossip
Gossip, it turns out, is a natural expression of curiosity in both kids and adults (which is why you go straight for magazines at the hairdresser). People get kind of highfalutin about gossip. But if it’s done without malice, discussing complex social relationships can be a healthy and natural way to satisfy one’s curiosity about what other kids are doing. Especially in a school setting, where so much of the day is prescribed, kids relish talking to each other in ways that are unscripted and unexpected.
Overscheduling kids’ time
It’s the curse of the modern parent — we want to schedule every nanosecond of our child’s day to make sure every moment counts. But guess what: strategic neglect is a better approach to fostering curiosity.
Let them be bored. Unstructured time can, after the initial whining, lead to the most fruitful exploration, whether a box gets turned into a car or there’s a rainy-day discovery that painting is your child’s great passion.
Choosing what your child should learn
You’ve schlepped your 10-year-old and his best friend to the local science museum to see the special exhibit on the Big Bang. The exhibit, which will only be there a month, is an outstanding learning opportunity! But all they want to do is climb the trees in front of the museum. These are valuable teachable moments — for parents.
You can’t legislate curiosity. The secret to encouraging curiosity is to avoid holding on so tightly to what you think your child should learn that you don’t allow them the latitude to explore where their inquisitiveness leads them. So if you don’t make it inside the museum this time, don’t fret. Your child is getting an education out on that branch even if he isn’t learning anything about the Big Bang today.
Perfection, it is said, is the enemy of innovation. Of course, it’s terrific if your middle schooler wins her fifth consecutive soccer game or your teen gets into a top college. And there’s nothing wrong with being happy about that. But take care that you’re not hyperfocused on the award, grade, or accomplishment. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, explores how praising the process (the hard work it took to get there) rather than the person (as in, “You’re the best soccer player!”) makes kids more likely to seek out challenges and take intellectual risks.
The goal of success is often in opposition to the inquiry. Many parents who care about curiosity find themselves conflicted when they have to make a choice between encouraging their child’s curiosity and wanting their child to ‘do well.’ Most of us want our children to get the right answer and the good grade. A good grade is nice, but really wanting to learn something, and being so interested that you can’t let it go, is a much more powerful and enduring experience.
Having all the answers
For Einstein’s sake, answer the question already so you can get some peace! Not so fast. When your child asks you a question the best thing you can say in response is, “How can we find out?” It’s also fine to admit you don’t know the answer. In fact, what’s far more important than having the answers is to engender an environment in which question-asking is the norm. Information-seeking through questions can be thwarted or encouraged, depending on how parents engage with their kids.
Mothers who asked a lot of questions had children who also asked a lot of questions. By implication, children may be influenced by messages they receive about how to have a conversation. If their mother uses language to gather information, they are more likely to do the same. So, if you are curious about why ladybugs are called ladybugs or why colds always feel worse late in the afternoon or why Pluto isn’t a planet anymore, go ahead and ask! Out loud! Role models have a big impact on kids. When kids are around curious adults, they are more interested in things around them.
Putting safety first
A big reason parents may unwittingly discourage curiosity is that it can be dangerous. The hard truth is that curiosity and the need to resolve uncertainty and the unexpected is not without risk. Your bold and inquiring tween might decide to see what happens if she zaps a magnet in the microwave or how speedily she can navigate her bicycle down your steep street.
The curious child, the one thirsty to seek out the new, even at some risk, can have an intellectual advantage. It’s a parental balancing act, to be sure, to keep children out of trouble while giving them room to grow intellectually. Parents have to balance their tolerance for potential harm with their interest in giving their children room to explore. Children are better than we think at taking care of themselves. And kids need to learn how by doing it.
Putting “encourage curiosity” on your parenting to-do list
As a parent you don’t necessarily have to do anything. Supporting curiosity as a parent is more about letting it happen. Celebrate it and share it with your child but don’t add it to the list of ways you can improve your child’s prospects. Since curious adults and kids both tend to be happier than those who aren’t, parents who begin to pursue their curiosity a little more self-consciously and become just a little more attuned to their children’s questions and urges to explore will probably be doing more than enough to promote their children’s curiosity.