Nuon is a curious boy. He got it from me. I remember on the day he was born, I was carrying tiny Nuon in my arms as I showed him around the room my wife was staying in. I pointed at various objects and his already keen eyes followed my finger around. There was a glow in his eyes. “Wow” I thought, “he’s going to be an explorer!”
And he is.
He was almost three. I was lying in bed writing code, mommy was in the shower. I like looking at Nuon as he goes about his usual imaginative play. He would make random objects talk and interact, sometimes violently, as if they were people. It’s fun to watch. Then he found the bathroom scale. He’d seen us use the scale before so he stepped on the scale and looked down, imitating us and expecting some results. But he wasn’t stepping on the right place. His foot was on the edge of the scale and it tipped from all the weight on one side. As he let go of his foot, the scale came crashing down with a loud metal-on-rock noise. Needless to say he didn’t go near the scale for days after that.
Nuon’s curiosity got him into trouble. Not because being curious is wrong but because the scale is anticurious. Even I have made the same mistake with the scale when I was trying to use it while half-distracted. I realized, like the scale, many things around the house are anticurious hazards. Whenever our children go close to such a hazard, our default reaction is something like no no no, come back here or don’t touch that. Then they whine or whimper as their curiosity gets suppressed. It’s not our fault. The world is a dangerous place for children.
Just imagine a baby who was cared for in every way but kept in a dark room. Despite perfectly good eyes at birth, without the stimulation of light waves, the visual sense would not develop. The neural components of vision already present at birth would atrophy and become useless if this child did not see light for about five years. (Gabor Maté, M.D. “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.”)
What the human body needs grows and what it doesn’t withers. Our bodies do this to best allocate limited resources to help us survive in a dynamic environment with varying demands. When we exercise, our muscles grow to keep up with the activity. Inside our brains, neural connections are constantly reshuffled in a process called synaptic pruning. This brain plasticity is what allows us to get better at a skill with practice. The flip side is it works against us if we unwittingly cause underused but not unwanted connections to wither.
You might not think you are suppressing your children’s curiosity. After all, you are consciously aware of the benefits of explorative play, buy them toys advertised to promote creativity, and enroll them in enrichment classes. The fact is despite deliberate curiosity-stimulating activities, children don’t get enough stimulation.
Four hours of curiosity-stimulating play a day for a child who lives in a boring family culture isn’t going to make much of a difference. Like calories, you burn more per day by being more active throughout the day and getting things done than by spending fifteen minutes on a stationary bicycle.
Look around your house, pay attention when you are out with your kids and mind the words you use to communicate with them. What anticurious hazards can you identify?
Answer questions with better questions
Don’t be a passive search engine for your kid. In goes a question and out comes an answer, and probably a boring one. When your kid asks endless questions, why don’t you take the lead and help him ask better questions? For example, you can answer “_why is the sky blue?_” with how light is actually a rainbow and the blue gets trapped by an invisible layer of air high in the sky. Then instead of passively waiting for the next question, ask it for her, “_why is the sky dark at night?_” And teach her about the sun being at the opposite side of the world. It’s more important the child’s mind is challenged and slightly strained than the actual understanding of what’s discussed. The key is to develop the habits of lateral thinking not simply consume knowledge.
There is no right way to play
If your child isn’t putting together his Lego pieces to look like what’s on the box that’s OK. If he’s smearing drool on the soccer ball instead of kicking it, that’s OK. If the toy car ends up as a parent-hunting projectile, that’s OK. Kids play to explore and experiment. The toys are just an excuse, a starting point. They don’t play to impress people by how well they play by the rules. Let them do what they want. Provide guidance in the form of wilder and bigger ideas, like enhancing the toy car projectile with a slingshot. Make play crazy and exciting.
Freedom to pleasure and pain
Protect your children enough to prevent them from getting seriously hurt but not more. To fully experience life, children must experience all facets of it. This includes both pain and pleasure. Allow your children to get road rash, cuts and scrapes. Let them fall as long as it doesn’t break any bones. Let older kids play with knives and scissors, supervised. Let them develop competence with dangerous tools. It can be extremely liberating. The more tools a child has at her disposable, the more she can do. The explorers who find treasure are those who dare to venture far and deep.
Liberator and oppressor. Which will you be?