Proactive Parenting: Mischief…or Curiosity?
Dear Dr T.,
I am a first-time mother, so I’m not always sure about what I am doing. But here is my situation: My three-year-old son is super energetic. I wouldn’t say he is wild, but he is into everything, tries to take stuff apart, stops and looks at anything and everything and asks, “Why?” all the time. I wish I could be like the other mothers and just relax on the couch, but I feel I need to be on top of him all the time.
My neighbor, an experienced mom, has suggested that I make it easy for myself and just chill and ignore him sometimes. But, although he certainly keeps me on my toes, and I would love a break, I don’t feel comfortable with her suggestion.
What do you think?
Though there’s no denying that your son is a handful, he seems typical, active, and actually quite wonderful. Very simply put, your son is curious – and that is a very positive characteristic. In fact, curiosity is critical for your child to learn and grow throughout his lifetime and is well worth developing in our children and ourselves. Curiosity is the gap between what we know and what we want to know – and in a normal three-year-old that gap is wide. Your son’s behavior is both healthy and age-appropriate, and you are positively doing the right thing by taking the time and energy to respond to his curiosity.
The curious child explores, questions, wonders, and by doing so learns. While you may feel that you will scream if he asks, “Why?” one more time, those questions are a good thing. They are a sign of an active mind that is on overdrive. Curiosity leads to discovery and learning. So, for example, by switching the light off and on, the toddler learns cause and effect. By pouring water into different shaped containers, the child learns about smaller and bigger. By finding out “why” he gains some understanding of his world.
Children are born curious: they touch, taste, watch, and listen to everything in their surroundings. Each experience is novel and fresh, and as parents, we want to reward our children’s curiosity by giving it the attention it deserves. We want to treat their curiosity with the respect, even though that requires more time and energy from us. As responsible parents, we want to go beyond feeding and clothing our children and develop those qualities that will serve our children well throughout their lifetime.
There are many ways to stimulate our children’s curiosity. You can encourage questions and ask some yourself so that the everyday becomes a source of interest and fascination. You can introduce your child to a variety of interests – games, puzzles, books, music, crafts, and art. You can expose your child to his world – the market, the bank, and post office. You can explore different places, like parks, trains, gardens, aquariums, and zoos, and broaden your child’s horizons by having him read books about different people, times, and countries. By awakening your child’s natural curiosity and training him to take an interest in the world around him, you are helping him live a full life because our potential – emotional, social, and cognitive – is maximized though the quality and quantity of our experiences. (Of course, all this is within the context of your family’s religious principles and beliefs.)
Curiosity is not only for the young; it is an advantage for the adult as well. Curious people are interesting people. They are not self-absorbed and thinking about themselves all the time. Rather, they are interested in others and view the world through a wide-angled lens. Because their inquiring minds are always working, they are less dependent on being entertained – by others or by video games, shows, and other electronics. Curious people are active and alive, not passive and dull.
But far too many children lose their sense of curiosity. We treat curiosity as though it is an annoyance, rather than the precious commodity it is. And we may inadvertently crush it by our attitudes and fears, to the detriment of our children.
Our disapproval, even of the most casual sort, teaches our children to ignore their natural tendency to investigate and learn. Our “Don’t touch,” “Don’t ask,” “Don’t climb,” “Don’t do that,” spell disapproval. Our children desperately want our approval and love, and to maintain it, they learn to shut off an aspect of their curiosity. And while certainly there are times we cannot allow them to touch (a hot stove), and things they absolutely cannot do (jump off the roof into a snow bank), we do want to be mindful and avoid the constant “No!”
So, for example, you may forgo expensive stuff on your coffee table to forestall the inevitable “Don’t touch.” And you may avoid have reading material around the house that you don’t want your children to read. But instead of having to stifle their curiosity and desire to read, you can stoke it by working on getting them books you are okay with them reading.
Curiosity is a gift. A curious person is not bored: he finds meaning, knowledge, and adventure in his everyday life. By supporting your child’s curiosity right from the beginning, you gift him with a quality that will bring meaning and satisfaction to himself and those around him.
The Book Nook: Dr Lawrence Shapiro’s How To Raise a Child with a High EQ is a parent’s guide to emotional intelligence. The author explains why the social and emotional skills are more important to a child’s success that intelligence. This book is very practical: It is full of games, checklists, and a variety of easy-to-use parenting techniques.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com.