Reading Time: 8 minutes

There is a sentence that gets said a lot in our house. We’re watching a show and somebody asks Where else have I seen this guy? or, How do they do that special effect? Or we’re having a conversation at dinner, and somebody says If prunes are dried plums, where does prune juice come from? or wonders what percentage of climate change is actually attributed to cow farts. [Cow belching is worse.] And we’ll continue with the movie or the dinner for another 10 seconds, then someone says the sentence:

Okay, that’s gonna drive me crazy.

…and grabs their phone and gets the answer in a few seconds.

First of all, we forget how mind-blowing that is. It’s become commonplace to do that, but it is not normal. Within my adult lifetime we have gone from asking a question, then deciding whether you cared enough about the answer to go seek out card files and books on shelves in libraries with limited hours to having instantaneous access to an easily-searchable portal to virtually all human knowledge in our pockets at all times.

The distance between question and answer has shrunk amazingly. Well no, that’s not exactly right. The distance can still be just as big, depending on that second step—caring enough to find out. That’s curiosity.

I am thrilled with how much curiosity seems to have nested in the bones of my children, and that sentence—okay, that’s gonna drive me crazy—is the evidence.

So the first three parts of this curiosity series looked at curiosity as the root of many other values, as a topic of myths and legends, and as an inspiration for scientific inquiry. I’ll close out the series by getting practical: How do we go about raising curious kids?

The best advice in parenting generally is to show, not tell. It works for almost everything we want our kids to learn. If you want ethical kids, let them see you being ethical. Let them see you making the bed, being kind, saving a little bit of each paycheck, appreciating diversity.

Curiosity works the same way. You want your kids to see you being curious. And if you want to turbocharge that curiosity, link it to something that comes very naturally for kids, especially when they are really young: a sense of wonder.

The tendency toward wonder comes pre-packaged.  But like many other developmental windows that are open wide during childhood—languages, musical abilities—a sense of wonder usually diminishes over time, until we start to see things like spiderwebs, cell phones, and our own bodies as everyday objects instead of the wonders they are.

To connect natural wonder with curiosity, start young. Though development of language varies, babies will generally turn toward your voice at three months, talk baby talk at six months, understand basic words at nine months, and say simple words at 12 months. So even before your child turns one, the words you say are beginning to shape her own vocabulary and the way she sees the world.

And one word your kids should hear you saying a lot, even at this age, is WOW.

A sunset, an animal, a waterfall, it’s all an invitation to demonstrate your own sense of wonder. Then follow it up with “I wonder…”  Wow, look at that sunset. I wonder why it’s red? Touch a roly poly and it rolls up. Wow, I wonder why it does that?  I wonder if fish sleep.  I wonder why light goes faster than sound. I wonder what it’s like outside of the universe. Doesn’t matter whether you have the answers or even whether there are answers. Just plant the seed that the world is wonderful and worth understanding. Plant it early and often. Their curiosity will do the rest, and as I described at the beginning of this series, if they develop ravenous curiosity, they will reap the rewards in everything from intelligence to empathy to their own happiness.

Developing wonder and curiosity requires time, opportunity, and practice.  A few tips:

First, make sure your kids have unstructured time. Most of us today are the victims of wall-to-wall structure. Wondering, creativity, independence, and a host of other assets require regular opportunities for completely unstructured time. That’s time with no instructions and no script. 

If kids develop ravenous curiosity, they will reap the rewards in everything from intelligence to empathy to their own happiness.

If you’re starting late, and your kids are accustomed to constant structure, the lack of a script will lead to an immediate and familiar protest:  “I’m bored!”  Lead them not into the TV room or yet another group sport, but deliver them from structure.  Depending on the age of the child, you can point them to a box of sidewalk chalk, a sandbox, a patch of woods, a magnifying glass, a microscope, a telescope, an aquarium, a tidepool, the sky—all of which are invitations for kids to engage their own creativity, reflection, and wonder.

Unfortunately, giving kids opportunities for unstructured time is harder now than when we were kids because of the weird, neurotic hyper-safety obsession we’ve developed, one that runs counter to all statistics of actual risk. I was let out the back door on a Saturday to ‘go play.’ But I then connected with half a dozen other kids who’d gone out their own back doors with the same instructions. Now I know what this is sounding like, this ‘when I was a kid’ stuff, and I hate that, but this particular aspect of childhood has undergone dramatic change in the last 20 or 30 years, and I do see it as a loss, in large part because of the loss of the unstructured time that lays itself open to the experience of wonder and curiosity.

So we just have to recognize the need and find opportunities where we can. One of the best opportunities for unstructured wondering is the family car trip. For the love of wonder, try not to turn on the DVD player! I know, sometimes it’s just too effective, but it pushes away a great opportunity to unstructured thinking time. One philosopher I know—Amy Hilden, who wrote a piece for the first edition of Parenting Beyond Belief—Amy credits staring out the window on long car trips as her first experience with philosophical wondering.

Even structured family activities can lend themselves to wonder. A trip to the zoo, the aquarium, the science museum, the planetarium, or even a walk in the woods all provide an opportunity to ponder things beyond what Richard Dawkins called “the anesthetic of familiarity.” It’s in places like these that kids can learn to see the world in a different way.

And that brings us to one of the best strategies for encouraging wonder and curiosity: Shift the frame of reference.

If you zoom in on everyday things with a microscope, turning salt into boulders and a drop of water into an aquarium of life, you’ve shifted the frame. Zoom out from the roof of your own house and into space with Google Earth or with a telescope or binoculars. Search the phrases “slow motion” and “time lapse” on YouTube to see how changing the speed of time reveals the incredible natural processes around us.

Check out The Kid Should See This for an amazing curated collection of videos that take kids out of their frame of reference.

Frame shifting can shake kids out of boredom.

I remember one time when my son was about eight, splayed across the pew of his grandmother’s high church episcopal service, as bored and incurious as he could be. Boredom by itself is not a bad thing—like staring out of the car window, a lot of creative thought comes out of it, for one thing—and a changing frame of reference can spur that creative thought. 

So I leaned over to him and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if you could go back in time and see a ritual at the temple of Zeus, see exactly what they do and say to worship that god?” That would be so cool, he whispered. He was deep into Greek mythology at the time. So I said, “Imagine you’re from the future now, and you’ve come back to see how people worship in THIS time”—and I gestured to the parade walking up the middle aisle at that moment to organ music, men and boys in robes, one guy swinging a thurible of incense, another holding a golden book in front of him, probably The Da Vinci Code, I dunno. And he sat up and engaged because it was anthropology now.

When my daughter Erin was bored studying history, I shared something my seventh-grade history teacher said that changed my own way of seeing history. He pointed out that the people we were learning about in history didn’t know how things would turn out.

Such a simple thing, but it blew my mind. Instead of this happened, then this happened, then this happened, every moment has a branching tree of possibilities. It’s one thing to say “Hitler came to power, then the Allies won, then the Cold War started…” and a very different thing to realize that people living through the Second World War didn’t know the Nazis were going to lose. In fact, for much of 1942 and ’43, there was every reason to believe they were going to win.

Suddenly I was much more curious about history.

Reframe a beautiful sunset by calling it an “earthturn.” Tell your kids to put on starblock before they go out in the starshine. While looking at the night sky, mention that light takes one second to get to our eyes from the moon, eight minutes from the sun, and four years from the nearest star.  We call our dogs “the wolves” and ourselves their monkeys.  These are all ways to reframe the everyday and kickstart curiosity.

Reframe a sunset by calling it an “earthturn.” Tell your kids to put on starblock before they go out in the starshine. We call our dogs “the wolves” and ourselves their monkeys. 

Once kids get a taste of the wonder that’s always just below the surface of the everyday world, you won’t have to prompt them a bit—they’ll lead the way, and even shake up your own way of seeing things.

When he was six, and I told my son the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, by the end of it he was frowning. And he said, “I hate that stupid Jack.”

I said, “Why is that?”

He looked at me like I was dense. He said, “He breaks into the giant’s house and he steals his goose. And then he breaks in again and he steals this magic harp. And then the giant chases him to get his own things back and Jack chops down the beanstalk and kills the giant, who didn’t do anything wrong. I hate that stupid Jack.”

I had never thought of that. So yeah, it goes both ways.

Evolution is one of the great unlockers of curiosity. Once you know that every living thing is the way it is because of selective pressures over the course of millions of years, everything becomes a puzzle. I wonder why the skunk has a white stripe on its back. What’s the advantage? I understand why frogs croak, but why do they croak in unison?

Finally, as I’m wrapping up the curiosity series, I want to touch on something I said at the end of the series on fear. I said the best thing we can do to protect our kids from fear is to give them confidence and security. Well wouldn’t you know, that’s also the best way to encourage curiosity. Somebody who’s afraid withdraws and shuts down. Only when you are confident and secure can you reach out and be curious.

The best way to instill confidence is to encourage autonomy.  We often intervene too much to spare our kids a moment’s frustration, uncertainty, or failure.  An infant crawls under the legs of the dining room chair and becomes momentarily uncertain how to get out.  She cries, and Mom leaps to her feet, ushering the baby into the open. A first-grader struggles with his seat belt—Dad clicks it into place. A middle schooler gives up on a math problem after thirty seconds, asks for help, and gets it.

These rescues add up, and eventually the child sees a moment’s frustration as a brick wall and looks to someone else for help.  Who can blame him if he never had the opportunity to struggle and sweat and muscle through those walls on his own?

Inquiry is the act of a confident, autonomous mind.  It’s the act of someone who believes she can break through the walls between ignorance and knowledge. If you want inquiring and curious kids, work on confidence—and confidence starts with autonomy.

I want my kids to see the universe as an astonishing, thrilling place to be, whether God exists or does not exist, whether we are permanent or temporary, it’s good to be here. I want them to feel unconditional love and joy at being alive, conscious and wondering. Like the passionate love of anything, a love of reality breeds a voracious hunger to experience it directly, to embrace it, whatever form it may take.

Children with that exciting combination of love and hunger will not stand for anything that gets in the way of that clarity. Their minds become thirsty for genuine understanding, and the best we can do is stand back.  If religious ideas seem to illuminate reality, kids with that combination will embrace those ideas. If instead such ideas seem to obscure reality, kids with that love of reality and the hunger of curiosity will bat the damn things aside.

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.