Are you unintentionally stifling your child’s drive to learn?
By 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, benefiting socially, emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually.
Curious souls tend exhibit a wide range of positive adaptive behaviors. 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-ons 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.
“What begins as a robust trait becomes more fragile over time,” says Susan Engel, a professor of psychology at Williams College and author of The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. “It’s shaped by experiences with parents, teachers, peers, and the learning environment.”
Just as curiosity can be successfully fostered in any child, says Engel, it can also be squelched, often by the very well-meaning adults tasked with educating them. In fact, she points out, 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 channeled into the best form of creativity. For parents who are new to slime-making, the white substance is probably corn starch, and it’s really, really hard to clean up! The Day-Glo fingerprints are from food coloring, also a bear to remove. What’s a harried parent to do? “Let them make messes!” advises Engel. 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,” says Engel. In studying what inspires creativity in classrooms, Engel found that children were 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. Engel advises seeking out schools that have lots of “ambiguous” materials at hand, including books, images, objects, and tools that spark inquiry. Another reason to look for what Engel calls the “curious classroom?” In a 1984 study, developmental psychologists Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes 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 US magazine at the hairdresser). “People get kind of highfalutin about gossip,” says Engel. 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 for fostering curiosity.
“Let them be bored,” says Engel, who notes that 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,” says Engel. The secret to encouraging curiosity, she says, 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, advises Engel. 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 inquiry,” says Engel. “I think 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, says Engel, 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. In a 2015 article in Education Leadership, Harvard child psychologist and author Paul Harris writes that information-seeking through questions can be thwarted or encouraged, depending on how parents engage with their kids.
Even more interesting, writes Harris, “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,” says Engel. “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 because 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 skateboard down your steep street. Physical danger aside, curiosity can also lead to discomfort and embarrassment, says Engel, like “when a child asks their parents to explain that strange sound they heard from their bedroom last night.”
The curious child, the one thirsty to seek out the new, even at some risk, can have an intellectual advantage. In a 2002 study of 1,795 3-year-olds, those who showed high stimulation-seeking scored an average of 12 points higher on IQ tests by the time they were 11. 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,” advises Engel. “Children are better than we think at taking care of themselves. And [kids] need to learn how by doing it.”
Put 'curiosity' on your 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, suggests Engel, 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, notes Engel, “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.”