On a recent Saturday, my husband and I were headed out to compete in what we fondly refer to as the “Suburb Olympics” — grocery shopping, dry-cleaning drop off, Target, hockey practice. We hadn’t even backed out of the driveway when our 5-year-old started his standard rapid-fire line of questioning.
“How many orca whales live in Florida?”
“Did the Buffalo Bills beat the Giants this year?” (For what it’s worth, we live in Minnesota.)
“Can ashes from a volcano burn you?”
“How many sixes are in 10?”
“Did the Jets beat the Packers?”
“Can a great white shark kill you?”
“Did the Ohio State Buckeyes beat the Badgers?” (Are you sensing a pattern?)
“What’s your favorite farm animal? Mine is a goat.”
The kid is destined to be an FBI agent specializing in interrogations. This is a regular occurrence and one we find generally amusing, if a bit exhausting.
“It’s maddening, isn’t it,” I whispered. My husband looked at me.
“It’s fascinating you don’t see it,” he said. “When I first met you, I thought no one had ever been as interested in me as you. It didn’t take long to realize you are just that curious about everything. It’s the thing I love most about you.”
“That’s so sweet,” I said.
“I’d give anything if you’d stop asking so many questions during movies, though.”
To me, curiosity is necessary. It is a trait I admire in others, and one I nurture in myself. My desire to learn has become more pronounced with age, and it’s a characteristic I am desperate for my three children to have. I want them to be the ones constantly asking questions, seeking more knowledge. Of course, I don’t want them to be the pretentious know-it-all who believes they are the smartest person in the room. We all know one of those. No one wants to be around that guy.
These questions our son asks are draining at times, yes. But even worse than a child who asks 47 questions on a 10-minute car ride would be a child who asks none at all.
Alas, we have one of those too. On a recent trip to Scotland to visit my husband’s family, my daughter’s most frequent question was, “What’s the WiFi password?” She seemed to take little interest in the country’s rich history, traditions or culture. The most excited I saw her get was while we were out clothes shopping in Edinburgh.
“Of course,” one could say, “she’s a 13-year-old girl.” And while I’ll give her some slack on this rope of life, it will likely be enough for her to hang herself if she doesn’t eventually look up.
While some curiosity is innate, it is a trait that must be continuously fostered. Inquisitiveness ebbs and flows, depending on our age, life stage and the company we keep. This is both reassuring (in the case of my daughter) and cumbersome. Parents can play an active role in cultivating a child’s ability to ask questions and seek answers, but doing that requires persistence.
Here are five ways to foster an inquisitive spirit in your child.
When your child asks you a question, don’t immediately answer. Encourage them to find the answer themselves. Point them in an age-appropriate direction — the Internet, the library, a documentary — to help them build confidence by finding answers on their own.
Answer a question with a question. When my son asked if ashes from a volcano can burn you, I asked if he thought they could. He said he definitely thought they could burn you, so you shouldn’t build your house right next to a volcano. Then he thoughtfully added, “Unless you have a giant box of Band-Aids, then it would probably be okay.” Makes sense to me.
Change your favorite bedtime story. Mix up the characters or the scenes in the book. Add or remove characters, or change the ending. Ask your child to imagine what the outcome would be if different parts of the story changed.
Give your children learning assignments. When an older child asks for something — a sleepover, money for new clothes, a later bedtime — have them research a historically significant person before they can get the desired item or activity. It could be an inventor, a world leader, an author, or an ordinary person who made this world extraordinary. Have the child write about what motivated the person to become great.
Play a game of “Would You Rather.” Pose either-or questions to your child, such as “Would you rather be Spider-Man or Batman? Spend the night sleeping in the rain or the snow? Live in a warm state or a cold state?” Or my husband’s personal favorite, “Would you rather fight 10 horse-sized ducks or 1 duck-sized horse?” And so on and so on, always asking why they chose their answer. An added bonus: this can distract kids from beating on each other in the back seat during long car journeys.
These small steps can help jump-start conversations and get children thinking for themselves. Answers to many of their questions are at the tip of our children’s fingers, courtesy of Internet search engines. But a few little changes can help cultivate an environment where learning becomes fun, and they are thinking critically and independently, coming up with their own answers.
Julie Scagell is a freelance writer and mother based in Minnesota. Find her on Twitter @74AMB.
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