Why do boys have nipples?
How come heavy people float but tiny rocks sink?
Is there a difference between cookies and cake?
Can we eat cake for breakfast?
Each new question throbbed at my temples as I repeated in my head: Questions mean they’re engaged. Curiosity is good. Education is important. Don’t burn the eggs!
It is logical to assume that positive parent involvement leads to academic success in children, but that doesn’t necessarily mean parents have to accept the burden of providing kids with all the answers. This distinction — between supporting and enabling — is only just now being discussed among experts in psychology and education.
“Parents don’t need to know all the answers to kids’ questions. In fact, when we enable kids to follow their curiosities and interests, they learn much more,” says Diane Tavenner, author of “Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.” “As they learn more, they get better at learning and this becomes a virtuous cycle.
“As parents, our role is to take their questions about the world seriously and get curious with our kids,” Tavenner adds. “By modeling the process of independent learning — whether that’s going to the library or searching online — we demonstrate how to discover information and ideas that may spark a lifelong passion.”
But this idea of educating by withholding certain information is counterintuitive for a lot of parents. Even as my eggs blackened in the pan and my pajama pants sagged to the floor along with my crying preschooler, I felt certain that not answering every question would somehow damage my kids’ developing sense of wonder and intellect.
It turns out, though, that my guilt might have had more to do with contemporary parental expectations than actual academic outcomes.
A 2011 article published in the Atlantic argues that modern parents feel an intense pressure to be able to do “everything” for their kids, and it is this focus on perfection that drives the increasing epidemic of parental guilt and anxiety. More importantly, the article makes the case that being a super-parent doesn’t actually lead to having happier, healthier children.
Learning requires some amount of struggle and self-motivation. Tavenner makes a similar argument in a recent article published by the Character Lab, a nonprofit organization that promotes character development. “Only when students have a reason for learning,” she writes, “do they bring their full attention and energy to their work.”
Kids are naturally curious creatures, especially at a young age. Their brains have millions more neurons than an adult’s, all poised to form connections and associations about the world. Even if parents possess the knowledge to impart to their children, without the reward of first struggling and then seeking the answers, kids may end up losing their curiosity rather than nurturing it.
Curiosity killed the cat …
Maybe, if what you’re curious about is what happens when you stick a paper clip into a light socket. But not usually.
Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the Character Lab, says, “If we answer all the questions that confront our children, we steal from them the opportunity to think, struggle, and learn.” And it is precisely that grit that children develop through trial and error that prepares them for future challenges.
Take my kids’ silly question about the difference between cakes and cookies. It’s not exactly rocket science, but sweets are something my kids were already interested in, and the question has a simple, testable answer. My kids are curious about the classification of sweets. So the first step to piquing curiosity is to validate the question.
While I easily could have regurgitated the answer while juggling my morning routine, that wouldn’t have encouraged exploration on their part. Instead, I offered a follow-up question.
“And what about biscotti? Cake or cookie?”
At this point, they were practically bouncing in their seats. The next step is to motivate them enough to seek the answer for themselves. Psychologist George Loewenstein suggests curiosity is a need that drives behavior much like hunger, and it results from a perceived gap in knowledge. Especially if someone else already knows the answer. Ever notice how kids love hints? Loewenstein and his colleagues argue that curiosity is piqued most when learners have some knowledge of a subject, but not enough to confidently answer the question.
“I’ll give you a hint: Cookies and cakes react differently when you leave them out overnight. What do you suppose happens?”
At this point, I had nurtured the seeds of their curiosity, and hopefully they would immerse themselves in discovering the answer. They expressed an interest in a topic; I validated that question for them, implied I knew the answer and provided a starting point for further exploration. Now all that was left was for them to set up the experiment.
So, back to the rest of our proverb.
Curiosity killed the cat … but satisfaction brought him back.
Discovering answers to difficult questions is highly rewarding. Even if children initially feel frustrated or uncomfortable by a parent refusing to spoon-feed them knowledge, they will probably develop greater self-esteem, confidence and desire to learn by seeking their own knowledge. Even more importantly, they will learn which questions are worth asking, and which ones only waste their time.
Of course, kids won’t successfully find the answers to all questions simply because they’re curious. But if nothing else, encouraging kids to remain inquisitive could give them the experience of experimentation and research. Sometimes even the questions that remain unanswered can drive us to keep learning, and lead to more questions and future opportunities.
Not to mention, parents will get a break from the inquisition. Even if, in the case of the baked goods, it means cleaning up a few crumbs.
The next time your kids are sitting around the breakfast table, peppering you with questions faster than you can pepper their eggs, remember that you don’t have to answer every inquiry. Take a deep breath, soak the charred frying pan, let go of the guilt and remember:
Curiosity may have killed the cat … but it could save your sanity.