© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Best Practices 3: Promote ravenous curiosity

br2What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.
BERTRAND RUSSELL, in Sceptical Essays (1928)
_______________________

t5409here was a time when I was a quiet, closeted nonbeliever. It was a smallish moment that tipped me from passive disbelief to secular humanist activism. Not some Robertson/Falwell nonsense, nor a Bushism, not the abuse of children nor the disempowerment of women nor the endless throttling of science, not some reversal of social progress nor the spreading of ignorance and hatred and fear. These are all good reasons to become an activist, but the thing that tipped me was a simple moment of incuriosity.

My son Connor had always been a fantastically curious kid. I saw him once off by himself at the edge of our local wading pool, oblivious to a hundred other screaming, splashing kids, studying a tiny plant growing from a crack in the cement. For fifteen minutes. That’s my boy.

(via xkcd)
xkcd340902

We had him in a Lutheran preschool, a great local program where he received a low-key, brimstone-free exposure to Judeo-Christian ideas and some early practice engaging those ideas with fearless curiosity. But there came a point, toward the end of his third and final year there, that I wondered if he had picked up something else.

One Sunday afternoon in April 2000, following him up the stairs of our home, I said, “Connor, look at you! Why are you growing so fast?”

“I don’t know,” he answered with a shrug. “I guess God just wants me to grow.”

“…”

That reply would make a lot of parents all warm and woobly inside. Me, not so much. For me it was a sucker-punch to the heart. He had given his very first utterly incurious reply. He didn’t have to care or wonder about his own transformation from infancy to kidhood — he’d handed off the knotty question to God.

It kicked off a whole new phase in my life, that moment on the stairs. The next morning, the day after attending our Baptist church (for the last time), I dropped my son at his Lutheran preschool and headed off to my job at a Catholic college. When I got to work, I started posting timid quotations from nonbelievers on my office door with a sign inviting discussion, hoping to draw out debate or expressions of interest or even agreement from some of the closeted nonbelievers I knew were on campus.

Two years later, I published a satirical novel about a humanist professor at a Catholic college. A year after that, I came to blows with the college administration over free speech and hypocritical college policy. Three years after that I quit the job, and a year later Parenting Beyond Belief was born.

It all goes back to my allergic reaction to my son’s moment of bland incuriosity.

It was just a case of the intellectual sniffles for Connor. I’m sure he was back on his curious feet five minutes later. But it helped me to define one of the central values of my own life.

It’s not that religion is inherently incurious. Religion and science are both planted in the cortical freakishness that demands answers. It’s just that religion wants the answers it wants, while science wants the answers that are in the answer key. Also known as “the actual answers.”

Kids start off curious. Our job is to simply prevent it from being blunted by familiarity and passivity. I try to wonder aloud myself ( “I wonder why different trees turn different colors in the fall”) to keep my kids dissatisfied with the mere surface of things — the coolest stuff is behind the curtain, after all — and to always, always reward their curiosity with engagement, no matter how tired I am.

Not that I have to try all that hard. I have a house full of full-time wonderers, 100% distractable by their curiosity. Now that Becca’s teaching again, I’m the morning guy, and it only took a week or so for me to realize I can’t simply send Laney (7) upstairs after breakfast to put on her socks and shoes. When ten minutes pass and the bus is in view, I sprint up the stairs to find her engrossed in a book, tracing the rain on the window, or trying to sing while drinking water.

Saturday I watched the final game of her soccer season with Laney as goalie. When I saw the hot air balloon rising over the horizon, I knew without a doubt what would happen. Sure enough, five minutes later the balloon caught her eye, and she stood enchanted, unable to take her eyes from it as the ball sailed by and into the net.

Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, but I imagine it’s responsible for more than a few easy goals.

Her body language and crimson face broke my heart. It took her several minutes to clear her head and wipe the tears from her eyes.

When we got into the car at the end, I didn’t say “you’ve got to focus on the game.” She got that message clearly enough, as she will all her life. Instead I asked if she saw that amazing hot air balloon.

She lit up. “It was awesome,” she said. “I wonder how they work?”

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This was written on Monday, 24. November 2008 at 09:32 and was filed under best practices series, My kids, Parenting, Science, values, wonder. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Dale – I think I will stop trying to explain my life/parenting philosophy to others and instead direct them to you. Well, maybe not, but you do a damn fine job of hitting the nail on the head as far as I’m concerned.

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 24. November 2008 @ 12:12 pm

  2. I’m guessing that it becomes more of a normal response over time, but I’d think trying to actively foster that kind of curiosity rather than simply saying “keep your head in the game” must be somewhat hard to make come natural. Though I’d probably be looking at the balloon as well, I’m not sure my response to the event would have been to encourage looking at it.

    Do you ever have concerns about the line between encouraging curiosity and being too lax on structure and focus? I’ve known some who were raised by totally free-spirited parents who definitely encouraged curiosity, but in working too hard to discourage rigid thinking wound up not encouraging self-discipline as well. You sound like you do a great job walking the line there, but I’m interested in how you approach this or what your take is on it.

    Comment: carpespasm – 24. November 2008 @ 8:21 pm

  3. […] parenting often bring me back to things written by Dale Gowan. I absolutely love this post about promoting ravenous curiousity in kids. Dale says: Kids start off curious. Our job is to simply prevent it from being blunted by […]

    Pingback: Beyond Attached: Wild, Inspired, Tranquil, Ravenous Curiosity, Playful… « PhD in Parenting Blog – 24. November 2008 @ 10:59 pm

  4. Do you ever have concerns about the line between encouraging curiosity and being too lax on structure and focus?

    The trick is to know your own kids and their tendencies. My middle child is sometimes too concerned with coloring inside the lines, so we try to loosen her up. Laney is sometimes too unfocused, so we spend a lot of time fiddling with her focus lens.

    But the key to the story above is that she had already received the focus message, loud and clear, in the shock and humiliation of watching that ball sail by. The important thing at that moment was to keep her from falling too deep into that message and away from the wondering curiosity I so love about her.

    So be sure when you step, step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s a great balancing act.
    DR. SEUSS

    Comment: Dale – 25. November 2008 @ 7:32 am

  5. Great post Dale-I’m glad this is included in the best practices. I often find that just when I feel like my kids are getting too jaded, they surprise me with something amazing. I do need to spend more time encouraging that wandering mind…
    -Kelly

    Comment: matsonwaggs – 25. November 2008 @ 10:12 am

  6. Ooo – I love that xkcd. I hadn’t seen it before. I spent a half hour searching the archives for it so I could save it in my bookmarks, but never found it. Do you have the direct link?

    Comment: tgbarton – 25. November 2008 @ 10:33 am

  7. Sure, it’s titled The Difference.

    Comment: Dale – 25. November 2008 @ 10:41 am

  8. I figured it might be something like that Dale. Watching my niece and nephew grow up it’s easy to see where both have strengths in some areas the other doesn’t. My mom used to say “God gives you the first child to see how wonderful a child can be, and the second to show you how different they can be.” I don’t agree with the God part, but that’s a pretty spot on insight otherwise I think.

    Comment: carpespasm – 27. November 2008 @ 8:00 am

  9. that’s an important point. It’s all too easy to discourage curiosity in favor of my own convenience. Something I need to work on.

    Comment: antimattr – 27. November 2008 @ 11:12 am

  10. […] parenting often bring me back to things written by Dale Gowan. I absolutely love this post about promoting ravenous curiousity in kids. Dale says: Kids start off curious. Our job is to simply prevent it from being blunted by […]

    Pingback: Beyond Attached: Wild, Inspired, Tranquil, Ravenous Curiosity, Playful… | PhD in Parenting – 04. February 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  11. I guess my thought on this reflects carpespam’s, but mine takes a slant towards, how useful is a goalie that spaces out when a hot air balloon appears in the sky?

    I applaud the sensitivity to her feelings, and I would probably have done something similar, but in the larger picture, couldn’t it be okay to simplify some parts of life, i.e. establish some axioms, in order to accomplish usefulness?

    Comment: tobyo – 23. February 2009 @ 2:06 pm

  12. how useful is a goalie that spaces out when a hot air balloon appears in the sky?

    Not very. But as I noted,

    When we got into the car at the end, I didn’t say “you’ve got to focus on the game.” She got that message clearly enough, as she will all her life.

    Both messages are important, but only one (usefulness) is typically hammered home. And the fact that she is 7 instead of 14 also matters, at least to me.

    Comment: Dale – 23. February 2009 @ 2:26 pm

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