One thing is certain: for the vast majority of young children, curiosity comes naturally because so much of the world is foreign to them. But there are obstacles. Faced with the unusual, unknown, unfamiliar, and uncertain, children might feel curious, they might feel anxious, or a little of both. Consider our child's first innocent romantic crush. Doodling pictures of hearts. Etching initials into the bark of trees. Daydreams of giggling bodies rolling down hills in unison. The intrigue is explosive....what will it feel like to hold hands? to lie next to each other with a shared view of the stars, talking and laughing all the while? And yet, the anxiety can be overwhelming...what are you supposed to talk about? what do you do differently once you're "with someone?" How our children regularly handle this conflict between their feelings of curiosity and feelings of anxiety will determine how they feel about themselves and what they do with their lives. Do they explore or escape? Do they strive toward dreams and aspirations or work hard to avoid failing and making mistakes?
As parents, we can help them on their quest. It is a gift to nurture our child's curiosity and help them better tolerate distress. After all, we don't just want our children to be interested when something fascinating lies in front of them such as the rising gull-wing doors of a parked DeLorean. We want them to be able to wield their curiosity like a laser on demand. We want them to be able to direct their attention to what they care about, develop passionate pursuits, and discover what is interesting in seemingly mundane and boring events. Learning to write in cursive script might not be inherently interesting but it can be. The same goes for mowing the lawn or eating dinner with the family.
No two moments are alike and with the right mindset, there is novelty and intrigue to be found nearly everywhere. It's during these moments when they feel curious, explore, discover, and grow, that children feel most alive. What our children focus their attention on will become the seeds of their personality and the story of their life. Thus, let's train our children to become curious explorers and help them live a rich, energizing, meaningful life.
The scientific research is clear that children who often experience curiosity and wonder, and act on these feelings to explore their world fare better at school, in relationships, at work, and end up being intelligent, creative, satisfied people. So what are some ways to cultivate curiosity in our children?
1. Teach them to be flexible thinkers and doers. Instead of teaching them the proper technique for hitting a baseball, show them that this is one way to stand and grip the bat. Show them that what is important is hit speed and that the bat swings through the ball but there is no single way to do this right. Show them footage of different people holding the bat in different ways with great success. Teach them to view "facts" from multiple perspectives. Are people today smarter than people who lived 5,000 years ago? Don't tell them yes or no because the honest answer is it depends. If you look at the navigation skills of explorers and the architecture of Ancient Greece, profound feats were accomplished. At the same time, it's only in the last 100 years that going to the doctor actually helped if you had a gun shot wound or flesh-eating disease. Before then, doctors were ignorant about germs and failed to wash their hands before digging in. Whether people are becoming more advanced over time depends on what is meant by intelligence and what was achieved with available information and technology. Remind your children that there is always more than one perspective to look at an issue and they should consider more than one whenever possible.
2. Ask them to practice suspending judgments about people. We often know very little about the early lives of our adult friends but think we know more than we know about them. We often think we know everything about close friends after a few months of spending time together on a regular basis. What we forget is that we are limited by what they want us to see, what we want to see of them, and what we explore. The amount of unknown terrain far exceeds the known. Teach them to always remain curious, don't fall prey to stereotypes, and continue learning about other people.
3. Provide an environment that supports their autonomy. Children are more curious and find it easier to persist in the face of obstacles, and are more creative when they are given support to make personal choices. Try to ensure that the bulk of activities in their lives map onto their interests and give them challenges that push their skills to the limit. If not, they will fall prey to frequent boredom and worry. Children need to feel a sense of ownership over their own actions instead of feeling controlled like "pawns" by pressure, guilt, and the rules and regulations of adults. If you require your child to do something, provide a rationale for why the activity is useful, important, and valuable to them. Help your child find a meaningful, personal connection and they can transform boredom and apathy into curiosity. Pressure your child, focus on obedience, and try to control them and they are likely to rebel and be confrontational to reclaim their freedom (adults are no different). When parents attempt to identify their child's interests and be responsive to what they care about, curiosity has a chance to flourish.
4. Help your child feel competent. You might think that all your child needs to be curious is the ability to recognize what is interesting, complex, mysterious, and uncertain about the world around them. This is not enough. They also need to feel capable of comprehending the novel, complex thing that caught their attention. We have a basic need to feel competent and if children don't feel this way, they are more likely to flee than explore. Creating opportunities for skill-building and success is an important process. One way to do this is to allow time for play, free of constraints such as the fear of failure and mistakes. It is also important to dole out praise and constructive feedback to your child.
5. Be your child's safe haven. This might seem counterintuitive but to take risks, act on our curiosity, and experiment with new ways of thinking and acting, we need to feel safe. At any age, we are more curious when we possess secure, safe havens -- other people that support our explorations, who let us effortlessly be ourselves. Also, when we share our interests with other people and they listen and are responsive, these events become even more interesting and meaningful to us. When other people validate what makes us curious, we literally become more curious and want to pursue similar activities with greater enthusiasm. Provide this support system for your child. Be responsive when your child shares past explorations or future plans with you. If they feel uncomfortable, let them know that anxious thoughts and feelings are natural when trying new things and taking on just manageable challenges. When you are accepting of their negative feelings, they will learn to do the same. Not only will you enhance their curiosity and tolerance of pain, you will also strengthen your relationship with them.
6. Schedule regular doses of novelty and challenge. Far too often, we select activities for our children that are easy for them to perform because we want them to feel intelligent and in control. Help them select activities that require them to stretch their skills and knowledge to the limit. In some cases, entirely new activities are chosen. Often activities just need to be tweaked. For instance, if your child likes to cook, instead of following recipes, allow them to energize the activity by being more creative with ingredients, playing music in the background, or inviting their friend to join. These new experiences are visible in the brain. By repeatedly being curious, our children become more open to new experiences, more comfortable dealing with tension and anxiety, and more intelligent, wiser, and resilient.
Our children can't feel good all the time but they can almost always be profoundly aware, open-minded, and curious. With this mindset, they are liable to catch happiness, meaning in life, wisdom, and plenty more of what a good life entails on the way...
How do you nourish curiosity in your child?
How do you help them manage anxiety in an uncertain, unpredictable world?
How do you help them to create a vital life that matters?
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. If you are interested in more, read about his book and research at www.toddkashdan.com. And if you do read his book, contact him as he loves to hear from readers...
Follow Todd Kashdan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/toddkashdan