Do we really want curious kids? They can get on our nerves—always asking questions, testing boundaries, challenging our own assumptions and beliefs, scaring the hell out of us. Do we really want to do what it takes to raise curious kids? It can be exhausting.
If you would answer, “yes” to these questions, especially if it was less annoying and exhausting, stick with me here.
Beyond our frayed nerves and exhaustion, I think a big reason that curiosity is given more lip service than focused attention has to do with a curiosity conundrum. By this I mean that it’s tricky. Hidden in the adventurous, creative, inquisitive, intellectual trait that we call, curiosity, are two distinct types of curiosity that work together and are at odds with each other. I call these two types:
Free range curiosity
Free-range curiosity is a lot like basic science. It is the pursuit of inquiry, adventure, questioning and exploration without a primary concern for how discoveries and knowledge may be used. It’s the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It’s the pursuit of adventure for the sake of adventure. It’s the incessant, and sometimes embarrassing “Why, what, why?” of childhood. It’s taking things apart (although we could argue that this is applied to get on our nerves).
Applied curiosity, like applied science, uses information that exists and applies inquiry, adventure, questioning and exploration in pursuit of a solution to an existing problem. Applied curiosity often takes a handoff from free-range curiosity. It’s planting candy in the garden to see if a delicious candy tree will grow in place of the disgusting tomatoes. It’s going to a summer science camp to determine the science subject that will be best to pursue in high school.
When we lament that we’re born with massive curiosity that seems to dwindle with age, we’re generally waxing nostalgic for free-range curiosity. When we’re telling our kids to get curious about what classes they should take to get good grades to get into a college that will provide the best chance of getting a good job and paying some bills, we’re generally talking about applied curiosity.
Both are important.
Your kid pointing, “What’s that? What’s that?” is cute when your kid is four-years old and pointing to her preschool classroom, and not so cute in her junior year in college and she’s pointing to next year’s potential college schedule (or swiping through Tinder). It’s hard not to mentally calculate the return on an education investment within days of being moved by the graduation message de rigueur to follow passion.
But can you follow a passion that you don’t know exists? Might a better message be to follow curiosity? If so, this requires that we don’t entirely replace free-range curiosity with applied curiosity. But how do we teach and foster this? What is the best way to raise curious kids? Good question. You’re curious.
Here are the top five things to do to raise curious kids.
Mind the curiosity conundrum.
Be aware of the type of curiosity you’re trying to foster…and when. Teach your kids about the two types of curiosity and provide opportunities for tapping into both types. Here are some examples of activities you can do together that are age-independent.
Free-range curiosity: Imagine yourself as tourists. Take a walk in an unfamiliar neighborhood together. Notice as many new things as possible. Find things that make you happy. Find things that make you sad. Find boring things. Find mystique in the mundane.
Applied curiosity: Use those new things to think up a new hobby, business idea, or philanthropic opportunity. If you’re really fancy and intent on being remarkable, take action.
Ask curious questions.
Questions to which you know the answer are great for younger kids. Ask questions that inspire curious exploration and thinking like, “How can you tell which spice would make these cookies taste bad?”
Responding to their curious inquiry with questions helps foster applied curiosity in the pursuit of figuring out answers. “Oh, good question. What makes you ask that? What do you think?”
The curious questions you ask should change, as kids get older. It’s helpful to ask curious questions that you’re genuinely curious about so they don’t feel like you’re setting them up for a lecture or lesson. Try questions like, “What, if anything, should robots or artificially intelligent machines not be programmed to do for us?”
Asking preposterous, fun, philosophical questions fosters life-long free-range curiosity. Examples: How do you describe a memory? What should we name the first established city on Mars? How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are? How do you decide that something doesn’t exist? What do you believe that would surprise most people? What advice would you give to your 80-year old self?
Pay precious attention to questions.
Treat questions like your kid is telling you they just won an Olympic gold medal. Okay, maybe not all questions require that much excitement, but they do benefit from being treated like the precious treasures they are. The frequency of the question, “Can I ask you something?” will be asked in direct proportion to the attention you give it.
Respond to questions with clarifying questions. The easiest way to know what is meant by a question is to ask. Not every seemingly deep question is as deep as it seems. Not every question is worthy of a lecture or a teachable moment. Some are. Be curious about the difference.
Create curiosity confabs.
Set aside a specific time and place where you play with and tackle curiosity. Bring articles, books, studies, pop culture tidbits, critical thinking strategies, stories of adventure, and things that make you go, “hmm.” Ask everyone to bring curious questions. Leave this stuff out for when moments of serendipitous curiosity strikes.
These curiosity confabs provide the added benefit of providing a time and place to redirect non-urgent questions that are asked in inopportune contexts (like last week in the bathroom when I heard a little boy point to a heavy woman and ask how she’s able to pee).
Be a curiosity role model.
Show your kids how it’s done.
Say, “I don’t know…yet.” Foster a culture of being aware of and comfortable with being wrong.
Elevate curiosity. Let them see you assess a seemingly rude person, unexpected situation, or difficult challenge by elevating curiosity ahead of criticism, judgment, fear and complacency. Explain how you actively reorder your brain to elevate curiosity and they will learn to do the same.
Curiosity needs to work out. It’s like a muscle. Take it to the gym. Take your kids with you.
The book, Living Curiously: How to Use Curiosity to Be Remarkable and Do Good Stuff launches March, 2016.
In case you’re curious, join the Tribe of the Curious. Each week we share tips, tools, and the most curiosity-inspiring things to read, use and think about.