Search not to find what lies too deeply hid Nor to know things whose knowledge is forbid.
That bad advice is from John Denham, an English poet and politician in the 17th century. Bad advice, but also really common in our culture.
If we want to raise curious kids, it’s worth noticing that the culture would often just as soon have them not so curious. There’s one especially strange and disturbing character that pops up in religion and folklore around the world and throughout history: the curious and disobedient woman.
The story generally goes like this: A god or wizard gives a woman total freedom with one exception. The one thing she must not do/eat/see. She battles briefly with her curiosity and loses, opening/eating the door/box/apple and thereby spoiling everything for everybody.
Curiosity didn’t just kill the cat, you see. It unleashed disease, misery, war, and death on the world and got us evicted from a paradise of blank incuriosity and unthinking obedience.
I see traditional religion less as the source of human hatreds and fears and prejudices than a repository for them, the place that we put them for safekeeping against the sniffing nose of inquiry. They sit protected by a veil of sacredness to which nothing is so threatening as curiosity. And since the story of the curious, disobedient woman includes three things powerfully reviled by most religious traditions—curiosity, disobedience and women—it’s not surprising to find them conveniently bundled into a single high-speed cable running straight to our cultural hearts.
I could do pages on Eve alone and her act of disobedient curiosity with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Was she really punished for wanting to know the difference between right and wrong, or just for the disobedience? How could she know it was wrong to disobey if she didn’t yet have knowledge of good and evil?
And then there’s Lot’s wife—poor, nameless soul—a woman (✓) who was curious (✓), and therefore disobeyed (✓) instructions to not look back at her brimstoned friends and loved ones.
It’s not just a Judeo-Christian thing. Islam even coined a word for a disobedient woman—nashiz—and decreed an assortment of punishments for her in sharia law.
But neither Eve nor Mrs. Lot was the first nashiz woman to cross my path. That honor went to lovely, nosy Pandora.
Pandora was framed
Pandora was designed for revenge on humanity by the gods, who were angry at the theft of fire by Prometheus. According to Hesiod, each of the Olympians gave her a gift (Pandora = “all-gifted”). She was created by Hephaestus in the very image of Aphrodite. Hermes gave her “a shameful mind and deceitful nature” and filled her mouth with “lies and crafty words.” Poseidon gave her a pearl necklace (which, unlike the deceitful nature, for example, was at least on her registry).
But the real drivers of the story were the last two gifts: Hermes gave her an exquisitely beautiful box with instructions not to open it, while Hera, queen of the gods, blessed her with insatiable curiosity.
Long story short, once on Earth, Pandora’s god-given curiosity consumed her and she opened the box, releasing war, disease, famine, and talk radio into the world. Realizing what she had done, she clamped the lid on at last, with Hope alone left inside.
There are some exceptions to this narrative. In the Grimm’s fairy tale “Fitcher’s Bird,” a sorcerer abducts a young woman to be his bride, one of three sisters, telling her she will be happy if only she follows his instructions. He gives her an egg and says to take special care of it, never setting it down. Every room in his house is hers to explore except one, which is forbidden on penalty of death. She becomes curious, of course, and when she enters the forbidden room, she discovers a basin of blood with dismembered body parts in it. Shocked, she drops the egg. The sorcerer comes home, finds the broken egg in the room, realizes she has been disobedient—then cuts her up and puts the bits into the basin.
He abducts her middle sister, and all of the steps repeat.
Finally, he abducts the youngest sister. Before she explores the house, she disobeys instructions by setting the egg down. When she enters the forbidden room, she is shocked but doesn’t have an egg to drop and so leaves no evidence that she has been in the room. She does however recognize her sisters’ parts in the basin—the Brothers Grimm are appropriately named—and reassembles and resurrects them.
Long and complicated story short, the story then flips the curious woman trope on its head. The three disobedient sisters use their intelligence to trick and exhaust the sorcerer, then trap him in his house and burn it to the ground.
I’m leaving out a lot of details. But having studied folklore with the great Alan Dundes at Berkeley, I have to geek out just a bit here in hopes of encouraging you to look into folklore in a deeper way and have your kids do the same. It offers an unbeatable window into who we are by understanding the tales we tell. Folklore scholars have identified hundreds of tale types with very deep roots, often going back to the Bronze Age, assigning them numbers in the Aarne-Thompson index. Rumplestiltskin derives from Aarne-Thompson 500, “The Name of the Supernatural Helper.” “Beauty and the Beast” is Aarne-Thompson 425. Aarne-Thompson 328 is “Boy Steals Ogre’s Treasure.” And Fitcher’s Bird comes from Aarne-Thompson 311, “The Heroine Rescues Herself and Her Sisters.” In Italy it’s “How the Devil Married Three Sisters,” in Norway it’s “The Old Dame and Her Hen,” in France it’s “Bluebeard”—all flowing from the same ancient tale of a curious woman whose disobedience saves her.
But Fitcher’s Bird is an exception. There’s a much greater tendency in our mythic history to revile women and blame them for evil, and that makes me angry, especially as a father who want to raise curious daughters. But if we want to improve on what we’ve inherited, we have to move past anger to comprehension. As a parent, I want to encourage the same impulse in my kids—not just railing against our more unfortunate tendencies, but saying, “Why are we that way?” By knowing why an idea came into being in the past, we can look at the present and decide whether it makes any sense to keep those ancient ideas alive. That’s freethought in a nutshell.
By disallowing curious questions, sacredness does the opposite—it allows bad ideas to be retained as well as good ones.
Let the wrongness be
I grew up in a churchgoing family, but luckily that my parents never pushed any metaphysical answers on me. Instead, they instilled a strong curiosity about the world that made me burn to find real answers. This is a key point. I sometimes feel a sense of urgency from nonreligious parents to pack as much truth as possible into their kids’ heads so there won’t be any room for nonsense. When a freethinker’s child floats a wrong hypothesis, this little tic begins at the corner of the parent’s mouth. Kill the Wrongness, says a little voice, before it takes root. Sure, that might get the Rightness installed in that moment—but what about all the future moments, including ten thousand times when you won’t be in the room?
I blew this moment many times when my firstborn was young. That’s what firstborns are for. But by the time his younger sister came to me in kindergarten and said she had figured out how the Earth turns, and I asked how, and she said, “I think it’s the wind blowing against the mountains”—I didn’t lean in and say, “Ackshually…”
Here’s the thing. Erin was never going to be 45 years old and still thinking that this (frankly captivating) idea is true. She would eventually learn what turns the world. Less certain in that moment was whether she would become a curious and disobedient woman, pursuing her questions wherever they led.
So instead of correcting her, I said, “Cool, I never thought of that!”—because it was, and I hadn’t. Then instead of walking away with a stroke of red pen across her mind, she glowed, happy in the act of figuring the world out, and all the more likely to do it again.
So no, we don’t have to fill our kids’ heads with the right answers. Instead, give them a curiosity that won’t rest until they find answers on their own, then revisit and revise them for the rest of their lives.
As a bonus, their self-acquired answers will have more staying power than authoritative answers from Mom and Dad. If I just give my kids a lot of answers that I discovered, tied up with a ribbon, they are robbed of the ownership that comes from the process of acquiring it. They end up standing on a foundation full of holes, knowing answers without knowing why they are true.
That’s one reason I’m raising freethinkers instead of atheists. If kids have autonomy over their own process, fueled by a ravenous curiosity about the world, they will know each brick in their worldview because they placed it themselves. That’s the road less traveled that my own parents put me on—and that has made all the difference.