A habit of curiosity.
BY ALESHA SINKS
A few months before his third birthday, my oldest son entered that phase every parent dreads. I call it “The Why Phase,” and I’m sure that term is not exclusive to me and my parenting.
Somewhere in the years between their first word and the middle of grade school, most children hit this stage, a season of unbridled and unashamed curiosity. It is a beautiful thing to watch. They have none of the fears we adults associate with asking questions or lacking in our knowledge or understanding. Instead, they approach every object and situation in life with authentic and non-judgemental curiosity.
My own son asks about everything. We can spend an entire thirty minute drive discussing why cars have to drive on roads and why trains have to drive on tracks and what would happen if they switched places and on and on and on. Why do we have to sleep at night? Why does it rain? Why do have to be quiet in libraries? Why can we not see the wind?
Any parent will tell you, it is exhausting. And yet, if we take the time to step back and ponder it, it’s also magical. To watch tiny brains putting the pieces of their world together so actively and right before our eyes, is a gift. We form our ideas about the world in those early years and spend much of our adult lives clinging as tightly to those childhood lessons and observations as we can.
And yet, somewhere along the journey to adulthood, we learned that not knowing something was bad, and our curiosity began to slip into disuse.
For most adults, our brightest moments of curiosity are often motivated by judgement and jealousy, instead of wonder and the desire to form a clearer picture of the world around us and the people in it.
As a mom, and previously an elementary and middle school tutor, I’ve had a lot of time to observe children and learn about their curiosity. I could write pages about the importance of curiosity to a child’s development and academic learning, but the more important thoughts and observations I’ve had on this topic have less to do with book work and academics and more to do with our social and emotional development as humans.
I have come to believe that a healthy sense of curiosity is not only essential for developing a love of learning in children but is also essential for developing a healthy interest in and compassion for our fellow humankind.
As children we approach the world as an unknown, as something to explore and understand. We do this by drawing connections between new ideas and experiences and the things we are already familiar with. A well-loved and nurtured child will approach the world with little apprehension and a great deal of open-mindedness, eager to draw connections and build a world that fits with the loving foundation they have been given. Yet, as they build a more comprehensive view of the world and the people in it, their willingness and desire to flex and mold their ideas of the world to fit their experiences shrinks.
It happens to us all. Ideas become firm and fixed, and as adults we unconsciously do everything we can to bend and fit people and experiences to our idea of how the world works, that same idea we began forming the day we were born.
Somewhere in the years beyond early childhood, we forget how to approach each individual person and experience with a sense of openness and curiosity. This is part necessity and part learned willfulness, because forcing others into the frameworks we have created around how people should act is far easier than constantly bending and expanding our framework of the world, making room for the individuality of each human being.
With racial, gender, and socio-economic tensions at dramatic highs, our world is desperately in need of adults who can navigate these tense waters by developing deep and compassionate relationships with people unlike themselves. I believe a sense of gracious, open-minded curiosity is the starting point for these kinds of relationships.
Why “gracious curiosity”? Because curiosity itself is not enough. I learn this every time I click a link flashing headlines about a celebrity's latest mistake, my own sense of self-worth feeling a boost at someone else’s expense. The graciousness that children so often naturally possess is, I believe, the key to unlocking the kind of culture shifting curiosity we need in our world.
To me, gracious curiosity looks like this:
A genuine interest in others: their thoughts and ideas, their background and experiences, their likes and dislikes, and their framework for interpreting the world.
Active listening that leads the listener less to drawing connections with their own life and instead to further questions for and greater interest in the person they are listening to.
An openness that allows others to simultaneously inhabit spaces that seem contradictory, rather than forcing them into our predetermined framework for how they should believe and express themselves.
When we can offer our fellow humans gracious curiosity, we are also offering ourselves the opportunity to love and understand and develop compassion for another person whose experience of the world is completely unique from our own.
And I believe that genuine compassion for the way others view the world, make decisions, and move through life can change the course of our own hearts and lives, even if our core beliefs remain unchanged.
May we work to engage our natural interest in life and to create a space in our hearts and minds for questions to arise and linger. And may we invite others into a space where they can talk freely about the deepest parts of themselves, all the while knowing that their words will fall on graciously curious ears.