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Transcript of an episode from the Raising Freethinkers podcast

I’ve been writing and speaking about nonreligious parenting for about 25 years, and I’ve done hundreds of interviews in that time. Most of the questions I get are pretty standard—how are you gonna raise your kids to be ethical, how does discipline work in a nonreligious home, how do you talk about death…good questions, appropriate, but I can answer them in my sleep. I often do.

But there’s this one question that pops up every once in a while, and it irritates me because it’s a really good question that for the longest time I didn’t have an answer to. At least not a good one. So the question would be halfway out of the reporter’s mouth and I’m thinking “Oh damn, I still haven’t come up with a good answer to that.”

The question is this: If there was just one thing I could give my kids, other than the certain knowledge that their father loves them, just one thing I could give them to carry through their lives, what would it be?

I would always say it can’t be done, and I’d rattle off this list of seven or eight things: Empathy, Courage, Honesty, Humility, Openness, Generosity, Gratitude. Critical thinking. Compassion. Skepticism. Okay that’s ten. See, it grows. I even wrote a chapter in Parenting Beyond Belief called the Seven Secular Virtues that included a list like that.

But it bugged me to dodge the question that way. Isn’t one of those most essential? Isn’t there one that leads to all the others?

At one point I had it down to three. Critical Thinking, Empathy, and Happiness. Still not satisfying. Is there really nothing that unifies those three things? If that kernel existed, I wanted to know what it was so I could understand the essence of my own parenting values.

Then I thought back to that defining moment in my early parenting that I described in the first episode of this podcast, my son Connor giving his first incurious reply.

I’ve talked about the same thing related to Santa Claus. I loved the idea of Santa Claus too much to ask any really penetrating questions at first. But eventually, my curiosity got the best of me, and I wanted to know what was real more than I wanted to believe any single answer.

That same curiosity is what led me to explore religion. I really don’t understand people who are not interested in ultimate questions. How could you not be? But I find that religion too often stops at the first comforting hypothesis. They don’t stay curious.

When my Dad died unexpectedly at 45, I was grief-stricken, but also kind of fascinated as I stared into the casket: where was he? I was curious, relentlessly curious.

Thinking back on all of this, the more I thought, the more I realized that I had the answer, the grand unified theory, the one thing that leads to almost everything else I want to give my kids. It’s curiosity. If I was in the odd and unlikely position of being able to instill just one thing in my children, lifelong curiosity would be that thing.

You might be thinking that curiosity is great, but something else is more important—critical thinking, maybe, or empathy, or honesty or courage. But I’m going to suggest that curiosity is at the root of all of those values and more.

Take CRITICAL THINKING – If you are genuinely curious about the world, you want to see it clearly. At some point you’ll notice the human tendencies that get in the way of seeing it clearly. Confirmation bias is the big one, seeing things as we wish they were, not as they actually are. So you go looking for tools to control those tendencies and guide your inquiry. Critical thinking is that set of tools. But don’t start by handing kids the tools—instead, build the hunger, and they will seek the tools to satisfy that hunger.

In his book Citadelle, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote something that was later refined into this:

If you wish to build a ship, do not divide people into teams and send them to the forest to cut wood. Instead, teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.

That’s the idea. If you want critical thinking, start with curiosity.

HONESTY is part and parcel with critical thinking, so that comes along for the ride.

COURAGE is another product of curiosity. The genuine hunger to see the world as it is requires giving up a lot of comforting ideas. And that requires courage. Curiosity is the opposite of fear in that way – it drives us out of our shells, out of our myths, into the world.

Remember the Block and Block study I talked about in episode 5, the one that found that preschoolers with a lot of anxiety and a high startle reflex were more likely to become social conservatives—more fearful, less tolerant, and less comfortable with difference?

To avoid that, create a foundation of relaxed confidence from which our kids can go forth and explore the world courageously and curiously.

And what about EMPATHY? What does that have to do with curiosity?

Empathy doesn’t start until you are curious about another person’s perspective. When you wonder what it’s like to be someone else, especially someone of a different race, gender, age, nationality, sexual orientation or situation, someone who has different struggles, different privileges—that’s when empathy becomes possible. And it can’t begin until you are curious.

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker describes a period in the late 18th century when human rights and civil rights and ideas of social equality began to take center stage. There was suddenly a greater concern for other people, an increase in empathy. Incomplete, yes, but it was a start. And the historian Lynn Hunt noticed that this was also the heyday of the epistolary novel, a story written as a series of first-person letters or diary entries.

As Pinker describes it:

In this genre the story unfolds in a character’s own words, exposing the character’s thoughts and feelings in real time rather than describing them from the distancing perspective of a disembodied narrator. In the middle of the 18th century three melodramatic novels named after female protagonists became bestsellers: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, and Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Hélöise. Grown men burst into tears while experiencing the forbidden loves, intolerable arranged marriages, and cruel twists of fate in the lives of undistinguished women (including servants) with whom they had nothing in common. A retired military officer, writing to Rousseau, gushed: You have driven me crazy about her. Imagine then the tears that her death must have wrung from me … Never have I wept such delicious tears. That reading created such a powerful effect on me that I believe I would have gladly died during that supreme moment.”

The philosophers of the Enlightenment marveled at the way novels engaged a reader’s identification with and sympathy for others.

And the act of engaging the story in the first place, the act of picking up the book, and of continuing through it, is an act of curiosity.

Now the balance between curiosity and fear is not always easy to strike, and before I paint myself as this intrepid, curious seeker of all knowledge, let me tell you about the times that I am NOT curious.

Every day of my life that I am at home, I have an opportunity to investigate something that, if true, would be THE most astonishing, amazing, world-changing thing ever discovered. And I absolutely turn my back on the opportunity to discover it.

It happens every time I climb the stairs out of my basement.

Our basement is in three sections, and because I’m the one who pays the bill, I turn the lights off in each part of the basement as I pass through on the way upstairs. So I’m being followed by encroaching darkness. As I reach the stairs, there’s one bare bulb ahead of me and a yawning darkness behind me.

As I go up the stairs, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up – EVERY TIME –and my step quickens, and I take the last few stairs two at a time and slam the door behind me. Once in a while one of my kids or my wife is in the hallway at the top, and I quickly adopt a casual stride, which  never works.

In evolutionary terms, it’s a cheetah I’m running from, right, or some other predator back in the dark cave that’s going to eat me. But in my mind, it’s what? A ghost. I am afraid of seeing a ghost.

Why! Seeing an actual ghost would be the coolest thing that ever happened to me. But FEAR keeps me from being curious.

I shouldn’t do that. The next time I come upstairs, I should walk up the stairs slowly and backwards, looking straight into the dark, HOPING to see a ghost please. I won’t, but…I should.

There’s a reason I put the curiosity series right after the fear series. Fear is the enemy of curiosity. We can’t just banish fear by force of will and install curiosity in its place. But we can create an environment for our kids that minimizes fear so they can reach out and be curious.

Now as it happens, research has discovered some practical reasons to encourage your kids to be curious:

1. Health: In a study published in Psychology and Aging, more than 1,000 adults between 60 and 86 were carefully observed over a five-year period, and researchers found that those who were rated as being more curious at the beginning of the study were more likely to be alive at its conclusion.

2. Intelligence: A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that highly curious toddlers would have higher IQs and reading abilities when they were 12 than toddlers with low levels of curiosity.

Other studies have shown that high levels of curiosity in adults are connected to greater analytic ability, problem-solving skills and overall intelligence. All of which suggests that cultivating more curiosity in your daily life is likely to make you smarter.

Now my kids and I actually had a conversation about this when we were watching the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, I think it was 2008, right, Beijing. One team came out with an unusual flag, kind of like two overlapping pennants. Erin said, “What the heck is with their flag?” And I said, “Oh, that’s Nepal. It’s the only country with a flag that isn’t a rectangle.” And both of my girls turned and looked at me like I was an exotic zoo animal. Delaney said, “Why in the world do you know that?”

The answer is that I was a curious kid, and my parents encouraged that by buying me a 16-volume Internet called the 1968 World Book Encyclopedia. And I spent hundreds of hours, maybe thousands of hours, leafing through this thing.  I would pull out a volume, pull out the letter M, and just open to a random page and learn about something. I loved the fact that you could just land on a random topic that you knew nothing about and learn something. And if it wasn’t interesting, I’d glance around until something was. I was especially drawn to the illustrated layouts, like waterfalls of the world, or tallest buildings, and one was flags of the world. And a quick scan of the page would immediately land your eye on Nepal,  that unusual flag. And I remembered because it was interesting. An awful lot of what’s in my head now came out of those books.

My kids have a different kind of Internet called the Internet. And they do exactly the same thing. They watch a video or read an article, then something in that right column of suggestions catches their eye. It piques their curiosity. This is a whole different way of accumulating knowledge from the traditional educational model. Instead of a formal process in which the next thing is dictated by the curriculum design, our kids are absorbing knowledge in a sequence driven by their curiosity. I honestly think this model is wiring our kids’ minds up in an entirely different way from ours, and I’ve seen plenty of evidence that my own kids are more divergent and creative thinkers than I ever was. Maybe that’s why.

So curiosity-driven learning leads to the next one:

3. Happiness: A Gallup survey of 130 countries identified two factors that had the strongest influence on how much enjoyment a person experienced in a given day: “Being able to count on someone for help,” and “I learned something today.”

There are other relationships between curiosity and happiness. In his book Stumbling on Happiness Daniel Gilbert shows that we are less likely to find joy as a result of a planned activity than by simply stumbling upon it when we’re following our curiosity. By cultivating curiosity in our kids and ourselves and keeping them open to new experiences, we increase the likelihood of encountering those surprising and satisfying things.

We’re going to follow the same plan as the fear series. After this basic intro, I’ll pan back to look at some of the broader cultural messages around curiosity—many of them unhelpful—then Part 3 will get down to the practical question of how to raise curious kids.

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.