Curiosity and Parenting

March 21, 2010

I have been doing a lot or science reading recently, particularly some essays written by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Much of it has touched on something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about in my role as a teacher as well as a parent. That is, curiosity. I am, as Cate can attest, frequently awed by the total lack of curiosity my students seem to have. Many of them openly profess that they do not care about anything and are not interested in anything. I find this not just alarming, but unbelievable. How is it possible to be so incurious? A while ago, I had a discussion with my friend Justin about just this thing. We wondered whether curiosity was inborn and whether it could be taught.

But something I read recently from Tyson reminded me of something I should never have forgotten. He says about kids that, “we spend the first year teaching them to walk and talk and the rest of their lives telling them to sit down and shut up.” Children, he is pointing out, are born scientists. They are naturally curious. Nothing is a better reminder to me of this than when I watch my daughter crawl around and get into absolutely everything. Especially the things we don’t want her to get into.

I am fortunate, I think. I almost always had my curiosity encouraged. While, like any child, I drove my parents crazy with questions of “Why, why, why, and how come?” I was never discouraged from asking them. I do not think that it is a coincidence that I grew into a curious adult who still seeks out information on new topics of interest.

So much of our society teaches children not to ask questions. Parents believe they need to be god-like in their knowledge. Churches that assert that all answers lie in god are often careful to make sure it is known that questions will not be tolerated. Both of these things are a shame and both of them have roots in the same fear of ignorance. There is nothing wrong with a parent saying, “I don’t know.” There is no reason that simply because we do not currently know answer, we should assume that we will never be able to know it and thus, the only explanation is god, which is really no explanation at all. The result of all of this is that I have students who willingly believe that he world will end in 2012, but think evolution is the biggest load of crap they have ever heard of. They have been taught not to question and to put their trust in the mystical and mysterious.

I am fond of saying that if an idea or belief doesn’t stand up to questioning, it is not because there is something wrong with the questions. What I hope to be is a living example of that. It will not be that long until my daughter starts to ask questions. Only a little bit after that, she will start to want to know why Cate and I set our rules the way we do. I want to try my best to make sure that we always tell her why. This means that we actually have to think about the rules we make. It also means that we have to be willing to admit we are wrong when our daughter points out flaws in our logic. We will, I am sure be forced to change. I am sure, also, that “because I said so” will escape my lips at least once or twice. I will try hard to prevent it, but to err is human, and I have a long history of erring.

Most importantly, I want our daughter and her future, but thus far theoretical, sibling to also know that it is ALWAYS okay to ask questions. That it is always okay to be curious and to want to know not just the answer, but why it is the answer and if there are any other answers that work just as well. That is how humans got to where we are today. The best parts of our history are filled with the questions why and how. These are the parts I hope continue.