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posted: 7/20/2012 11:53 AM

Parents, encourage curiosity in children

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Second in a series

"Why?" "Well, because that's the way it's made."

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"Why?' "Ah, well, we want it that way."

"But, why?" "Isn't it time for your nap?"

Curiosity is one of those personality traits that can be both a curse and a blessing. In many ways, curiosity is at the very heart of our humanity. Though possessed by some animals, none of God's creatures seem as curious as we are.

All the modern science and technology that makes our lives both simpler and more complex, the arts that add wonder and enjoyment to our existence, the intimate relationships that are so important to us, and our quest to find meaning and purpose for our lives all are dependent in some way or the other on our curiosity.

In fact, our very growth and development from infancy to old age involves a good deal of just plain curiosity. Of course, "curiosity killed the cat" (and if you own a cat, you know exactly why).

Curiosity does have its drawbacks. Overdone, it can lead us to do things we later regret, and it often severely tests the patience of those around us.

As parents, we want to both encourage a healthy curiosity in our children and, at the same time, help them to satisfy their curiosity safely and positively. All of us who have engaged in one of those "why" conversations with our 2-year-old know how difficult it is to do both. So, in the interest of parental sanity, let me make some suggestions.

• We need to remind ourselves that our children's questions are usually legitimate and important. Whether it comes from a toddler or a teenager, our kids' queries need to be taken seriously.

And even though those questions have a tendency to come at the worst possible times, we need to take the time to deal with them (if we don't, the questions will come up again and again, anyway).

We want, then, to stop what we are doing and give our child a few minutes.

• It's also important to find out what our child is really asking. A 2-year-olds never ending series of "whys" is often a request for attention rather than a real question. A teen's "What can I do?" may be a cry of despair and a plea for support rather than a request for advice.

When we work on really listening to our children's questions, we can usually figure out what it is they need and respond appropriately.

• We want to gear our answers to the age of our child. A 4-year-old's question, "Why did the bird die?" does not require a 15-minute sermon on the theology of creation and death. An 18-year-olds question about the reality of evil in the world does deserve more than "that's just the way it is."

Again, we can get a good sense of what is best for our children as we talk with them. If they seem overly confused by or impatient with our answer, it may be too complicated. If they seem dissatisfied, perhaps we need to expand on our reply.

• Give an opinion, not a pronouncement. The words "I think" can be a healthy preface to any answer. Let's face it; none of us really know it all. Even though we may like to give the appearance that we've got all the answers when our kids have questions, we really only have opinions, at best.

This is an especially important point with teens. They will have greater respect for us and listen to us more frequently if we "think" rather than "know." But even with young children it can be healthy to use "I think" regularly.

We're laying the groundwork for their own ability and willingness to be reasonable and flexible adults.

• Just as important as the phrase "I think" is the phrase "I don't know," and for many of the same reasons. We parents need to be honest about our limits (and we've all got them!). A good, frank "I don't know" goes a long way toward encouraging in ourselves and in our children a healthy humility and openness.

• Let's look upon our children's questions as a chance to teach them how to learn. Instead of just giving them the answer, we can try to work with them to discover it together. We can ask what they think, explain how we've arrived at our own conclusions and suggest further resources, questions, or areas for them to explore.

Curiosity is important. If you are curious about our role as parents in shaping and directing it, there are a number of good books on the market which can help you.

In the meantime, encourage your children's own curiosity. Share in it. Enjoy it. Be proud of it. Look upon it as a positive sign that you're helping your children in their growth and development toward a healthy and happy adulthood.

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