Give the Gift of Curiosity to a Child for the Holidays
December 21, 2010
There it was again. That word. I was reading an account of the acquisition of Newsweek magazine by Sidney Harman, "the 92-year-old-stereo-equipment magnate" in the January issue of Vanity Fair. The author of this article, John Heilpern, acknowledged the cynicism that this acquisition has engendered -- since Harman is elderly and since he has never worked in journalism before -- concluding, nonetheless, that this could just succeed and marveling at Harman's "clear-eyed" optimism.
What would he like inscribed on his tombstone? Heilpern asked Harman. "Still curious," was Sidney Harman's response. And that's the word: curious.
I am an inveterate reader of biographies and even obituaries of the people I find fascinating. I can't tell you how often that word is used to summarize these fascinating people's life courses: curious.
A decade ago, I attended the 90th birthday of Chicago philanthropist, Irving Harris. Speaker after speaker praised his successes in improving the lives of young children, especially those children most at-risk. After the accolades, Irving Harris spoke. He said just a few words, but they have stayed with me over the decade since. He said that he was born curious and that he was lucky--he remained curious all of his life.
Curiosity was indeed a hallmark of Harris' life. In his later years, he delved into studying the brain development of young children and then argued persuasively for a societal investment in young children before problems emerged, rather than waiting to trying to fix problems in children when they were older. His was truly a life of accomplishment and meaning.
If being curious is a key to living a life of accomplishment and meaning, it is striking to me how little attention we pay to promoting curiosity in children. When we talk about what we want for our children, we usually talk about wanting them to be smart, to be good people, to be happy. Few of us say that we want our children to be curious.
In fact, curiosity can even be seen as a pesky trait. Think about when toddlers and preschoolers get into the "what's that" stage -- when they can't stop asking questions, wherever they are. How many of us have heard a parent (or been a parent) who has tried to quiet our children's incessant questions.
Science is increasingly telling us how essential curiosity is to learning. It is also telling us what we have to do to promote curiosity in children.
First, Irving Harris was, as usual, correct. We are born curious. One can even think of this as a survival skill. We are curious about what's new, what's different in order to try to figure it out, even master it. Researchers in infant development use the drive of infants to explore what's new as a way of differentiating and measuring what they have already learned and what they have yet to learn.
Second, Harris was right about something else. We can rob children of their inborn curiosity if we shut them up when they are asking questions. We can also rob them of their inborn curiosity if we supply the answers to their questions without then giving them opportunities to act like scientist and arrive at their own conclusions -- with our help, of course. The studies of Laura Schulz of MIT, one of the pioneering researchers on curiosity, have made this clear.
I think of my son when he commented offhand that boys were depicted more negatively on television than girls. Rather than ignoring his comment or giving him my opinion, we created a little experiment. He kept a notebook beside the TV so he could count up the time that boys were presented negatively (as too mean, as too aggressive, etc.) on TV compared with girls. His results indicated that he was correct -- but, as we pointed out, his results indicated that boys were on TV shows more often than girls or at least in the shows he watched. And that led to a second and a third experiment.
It is the holiday season and many of us are probably rushing around, thinking of last-minute gifts for our children. My wish for the holidays is that in addition to any material gifts we give them, we also give them the gift of curiosity. By that I mean:
- We help them pay attention to something they really want to learn more about;
- We listen to their questions; and
- We help them find ways to experiment to answer their own questions.
Curiosity is indeed a gift that keeps giving.