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Challenge: Curious George

How to foster the 'right' kind of curiosity

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Children are born curious. In fact, 4-year-olds ask an average of 400 questions per day. Sadly, by middle school that number drops to almost zero, and the questions they do ask are more along the lines of “What’s for dinner?”

It’s easy to panic about how the restrictions put in place by the current pandemic might inhibit curiosity, but I actually think it has given us the opportunity to cultivate curiosity in our children (and ourselves) in a way that may be more advantageous in the long-run.

Here’s why.

There are some downsides to our education system here in the U.S. Children are given information and taught to remember it “for the test,” leaving them ill-equipped to practically apply knowledge to the world around them. Furthermore, kids are overwhelmed with homework, leaving little time for rest and family bonding which are so essential for development. These teaching methods — which create extrinsic motivation in children — combined with the lack of time for anything else leave little breathing room for the development of intrinsic curiosity.

While I know many parents are counting the days until school reopens, I encourage parents to use this time to foster curiosity in their children in a way that most schools cannot.

For younger children, this means spending more time outdoors. Young children rely on their senses to explore the world around them. As a parent of a toddler, I began to feel concerned about the effect of constant hand-washing and reminders “not to touch.” I therefore make it a point to “get dirty” outside as much as possible. I’ve been amazed how much curiosity and imaginative play emerges when we play in the mud.

Parents of older children can use this time to let their kids take an online class they would not have the time to fit in amongst their otherwise busy schedule. You might also encourage your child to read a book that wouldn’t have appeared on their reading list. Most importantly, I urge parents to step back and let their children make these choices for themselves. It is important to embolden our children to explore things that are interesting to them, free of outside influence.

We can then use the additional family time to have real conversations with our children about what they are learning. This is not only healthy for them, but it’s advantageous for us as well. By encouraging curiosity in our children and participating in the learning process, we can harness what Zen Buddhists call “a beginner’s mind.” One of my greatest joys as a parent has been seeing the world through my child’s eyes. There is immense freedom and joy that comes with releasing preconceived notions about how we (always the expert...) expect the world to work.

The cognitive flexibility that comes with curiosity and imagination has become highly sought after in business. Some companies administer formal assessments that measure these qualities as part of their interview process. Many large corporations now have “play rooms” for their employees to use because research shows such a strong correlation between free play and creativity. When stuck in front of a computer screen or classroom all day long, perspective narrows, self-consciousness increases, and fear of failure intensifies.

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