Curiosity Never Killed a Cat (nor Undercut a Relationship)

Kids are Naturally Curious and it Won't Hurt Them!

The other day I wrote a post about letting kids express their curosity, and drive to explore, and entertaining as many of their questions as humanly possible – whether they are asking if the moon is really made of cheese or asking why they have to take a bath. One of my favorite parenting bloggers, at kloppenmum.wordpress.com, wrote in with a couple of points I’d like to consider today. Here’s her comment in full:

Hi Nathan,
Interesting post. I’m not going to argue point by point, but just raise two things for your consideration.
1. The children I know (and have known) who incessantly ask why are in fact unhappy and out of the Continuum, and are desperately trying to find a way back. I am always cautious of our children’s whys in the first instance: is it an emotional why or a truly intellectual why.
2. There are many ways to answer why questions. I still strongly maintain the view that early intellectualisation is not useful however appealing it may seem, and all the adults I know who had a high-nurturing and early-intellectual start to life have, as adults completely rejected their parents.

Look forward to hearing your thoughts on these points. :)

When I first read the comment, I thought I might simply sidestep the initial question by asserting that I never mentioned “children who incessantly ask why”, but rather how our entertaining their interests and questions might help them feel more understanding of “our incessant ‘why’s”. That is, I believe it is we parents who are the more constant “why”ers in the family: “Why’re you doing that? Why aren’t you doing what I asked? Why are your pants filthy? Why aren’t you eating? Why don’t you have a coat on?…”

And while I could have perhaps rested on the laurels of that cutesy semantic slight-of-hand to avoid the discussion all together – as soon as I thought the above paragraph, I realized two things: 1) I didn’t mention in the previous post just how much we parents are constantly modeling inquisition to our children. It isn’t just the natural part of human nature to want to know that guides our children, but also our own almost limitless use of inquiry in our interactions with them. Even if we aren’t mining for particular answers, we’re asking “Do you like that? Was that fun? Do you want more? Are you ok? What’re you playing?…” And 2) Avoiding the discussion by responding to a comment/question without answering the spirit of the question is exactly the opposite of what I’m saying we should do with our kids! So I decided instead to go in the opposite direction and be really thorough in my consideration and response to the above comment from Kloppenmum.

In the first part of the comment, she explains her concern when children are “incessantly asking why” and asserts that the kids she has known who do so are actually “unhappy and out of the Continuum, and are desperately trying to find a way back.” This is actually an important point to consider, but I want to reframe the manner of consideration for our purposes here.

The Continuum Concept was developed by Jen Liedloff, and is considered the basis for most Attachment Parenting techniques. The most basic description I can give of Liedloff’s thesis is that biologically speaking all human infants are designed to have certain (nonconscious) expectations which essentially coalesce around being cared for and responded to in a timely, efficient, and calm manner. There are also expectations of being nurtured, kept physically close, and nursed on demand (even as often as every 20 minutes). When these needs are not fully met, as in most Western (non-attachment based) families, the infants are knocked out of their proper process in the Continuum, and begin to show signs of distress that compound and create dysfunction as the child (mis)develops.

In all families, there are momentary slips in the child’s Continuum that generate a response in the child – from mild grunting and nuzzling, to all out wailing. When the parent responds quickly and somewhat casually, then the child’s Continuum is restored, as well as her happiness and feeling of security. The child is not only comforted in the moment, in these situations, but also brought closer to a state of enduring self-assurance – the kind we want them to carry forward with them into their individuation.

If infantile bonding doesn’t get quite deep enough, or if the infant spends enough time out of the Continuum, then things get steadily more difficult for all parties involved in raising her (including and especially her). In light of this, Kloppenmum’s assertion that “incessant whys” reflect a child’s distance from the Continuum is worthy of note. However, rather than reacting with suspicion or resistance in such cases, I think if we respond “quickly and somewhat casually” to this signaling, we are actually helping to restore the child’s process. And more subtly, even when kids aren’t being excessive in their questioning, I think their curiosity and drive to connect coalesce to offer both parent and child another opportunity to be in the Continuum together.

So whether it is an “emotional why or a truly intellectual why” winds up not mattering to me as much as being responsive, because both are opportunities to enrich the connection. As Liedloff explains, the two most important things that being in the Continuum helps children to grasp is that they are “Worthy and Welcome”. And I think that, among the other things we’re doing to nurture them, answering their questions (of whatever import) is another way to clearly communicate those two things. And if I think of the opposite scenario, wherein the parents refuse to answer, show disdain, disinterest, or mistrust with the question(ing) or with the child for asking a question, then “Worthy and Welcome” are not being communicated, and “stop bothering me” is.

In reality, if we’ve been nurturing that bond all along, and have done our parenting part to keep our children in the Continuum, then we will be able to tell the difference between a natural, curious “why” and a nervous, insecure one, and in this case, the actual number of insecure questions and specifically “emotional whys” our children emit will never reach “incessant” levels. But it may still feel that way to the parents after a long day of entertaining any average child’s daily interests. And that’s why I spent the time to give us all some encouragement to be responsive, and allow the moment to be a connective one, rather than adversarial.

As to Kloppenmum’s second assertion – that “early intellectualization is not useful however appealing it may seem” and the further anecdotal evidence that such early intellectualizing when combined with high-nurturing has produced adults “who completely rejected their parents”: First, I would have to claim, on the one hand, that there are so many other factors involved that it is unwise (and likely incorrect) to reduce the results of whole parent-child relationships to just two factors. There is likely so much more that went into the problems these families experienced that we could spend every post I’ve written thus far on this blog to discuss it, and still not reveal all the involved factors. Secondly, where does one draw the proverbial line between too much intellectualizing, and debilitatingly little; and if it’s a thin line, how do we accommodate the varying intellectual needs of individual children?

Again assuming the spirit of the question in Kloppenmum’s assertion, let me reframe the current discourse by saying: “Intellectualization” isn’t what I am talking about – at least not in the abstract, solely referring to existential experience by virtue of the intellect kind of way. And yet, I am also not talking about ignoring the child’s expression of the kind of information for which he is ready. So if it comes close to the dictionary definition of “intellectual” or “intellectualizing”, I am not afraid of still giving the child the information he requested (at any age when he shows the developmental capability to absorb it). I am still rather skeptical of our scientific ability to plumb the depths or potential of the human mind, so I tend to take my kids at face value on things like this, but without letting my own drive to pontificate get in the way of their natural development.

The rule of thumb for me has two parts: 1) Listen to the question and respond in kind; and 2) Keep the level and variety of information as present as possible. Even though I am skeptical of what we know about brain development, I am still assuming that our scientists are generally on the right track when they explain that most of our brain functioning before the age of 6 is involved in unconscious mapping of the world as it is. So I don’t have much interest in taxing that development by overcomplicating anything, particularly the kind of information I am offering to that unconscious mapping process.  And yet, as I intimated above, each child is developmentally unique, and will access and interact with information in her own unique way. The rule of thumb above addresses each question the child utters by virtue of the individual and the general development.

For example, if my 3 year-old asked (the unlikely question), “Why is the sky blue?” I would state matter-of-factly, because it reflects the ocean – a true, if incomplete, answer. If the 7 year-old asked the same question, I would respond with a more detailed answer about the black void of space on the other side of it, the particles in the atmosphere and the reflection bit. If the 10 year-old asked, I’d say, “What do you think?” And after she explored her ideas, I might offer her some further details.

However, if the question is “But why do we have to go to the library now? I want to play.” Then they all three get pretty much the same answer – “Because I said so…”. Nooo, just kidding. I’d be likely to explain that, “It’s because you want books to read, and we want to return the books that we’ve already read on time.” If the question is “Why do I have to put on a coat?” then the answer is again likely to be the same for all three, “Because it’s cold out there, and I want you stay warm.”

In none of the above cases, do I think we are at risk of over-intellectualizing, nor are we seeing signs of any of the girls being out of the Continuum. They just want to know. In the first case, they are involved in forming that map of the world, they are being driven to explore by innate human tendencies and natural development. In the latter two cases, they are looking for information that will warrant their compliance in a situation where “intellectually” they aren’t sure they want to comply. And in those cases, we don’t take that as a sign that they are being adversarial, nor that they are not trusting us, but that they simply have their own opinion and naturally want to align theirs with ours (and because this is an unconscious drive, it can manifest as disagreeing in order to illicit agreement).

All of that being said, our 3 year-old, who just so happens to be “developmentally advanced”, does ask questions about the social import of scenes in the movie she saw yesterday, or about the way she saw two people interacting 4 hours ago, or about the meaning of certain words or phrases, and totally abstracted from any perceivable context. So we are somewhat accustomed to answering intellectualized questions from her, but still seek to do so as plainly and contextually as possible in order to honour our general understanding of natural development (as well as her individualized version). For more examples from her (and one other from Xi) look here.

So whether we are just helping them map the world in their subconscious, helping them understand the reasons for what we are asking, or even helping to nudge them back into the Continuum, we remain open to meeting all of their questions with patience, understanding, and appropriate information. And whether it is to assist their natural development, nurture the relationship we share, empower their explorations, or keep them from growing up to be complacent followers, we will continue to allow and encourage them to ask whatever they want from us. And we hope that they will go right on questioning, and knowing that they are “Worthy and Welcome” to do so.

*

Be well.

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About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
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4 Responses to Curiosity Never Killed a Cat (nor Undercut a Relationship)

  1. Hi it’s me… at last!
    I think this is a great post for clarifying the similarities between our parenting, Nathan. The comment about incessant ‘whys’ was really for those who might stumble upon your blog and not realise that constantly asking ‘why’ can be the way some children try to connect when they haven’t had a highly-nurturing *and* relaxed start to life. I do suggest that a packaged (intellectual/scientific) concept from an adult can (but not always) shut off the child’s exploration of a subject. Personally, I would probably answer either with a…”why do you think it is that way”… or with a very simple…”I think it’s”…(leaving it to them to decide whether or not I’m right) or with a small child (younger than four) perhaps with a myth-type story/sentence. The reasoning I have behind the story type answer is the whole blissful nonconscious dreamlike state that Liedloff describes the Yequana constantly being in. Obviously this is not a state which is realistic or ideal in a modern western adult, but I do believe that small children deserve to stay in their nonconscious bliss as long as possible. To me, early scientific or other intellectual answers are a sure way to remove children from their bliss and not something I would want for our boys. “The bee is singing it’s little bee song” might be an answer I give to a very small child asking why the bee was buzzing. If they want an intellectual answer when they’re older I’ll give it to them, and even if they don’t ask again, I don’t believe they will be 21 and still not realise that there is more to it than that. To me that is not about dishonesty, but about allowing them the complete joy of their fantasy world. (Yes, we do Santa and the Easter Bunny, too. The Hare, at nine, worked it all out and now knows the truth and can appreciate the joy that fantasy world gave him when he was younger.)
    Sometimes, too, asking lots of questions has more to do with a child practising their conversation skills, or about the child holding power (as in I have a connection where there is usually a disconnection and will do anything to keep that connection) over the adult. A highly attuned and personally self-aware parent will know the difference and respond accordingly, I think.
    With regards to the comment about my experience of adults (more than one by the way) who had a highly nurturing and a highly-developed early (pre-seven) intellectual life, I agree that it takes many aspects of parenting to *guarantee* the rejection of the parents in later life. And I also stand by the comment. These are two common and constant symptoms of a style of parenting the children interpret as intrusive. For the adults with whom I have discussed this (as a part of their biography) these are two of the things stood out to me. Some of these adults put a distance between their parents for several years and some for the rest of their parents’ lives. It is an extremely hurtful place for the parents and yet it is the only way these adult-children felt they could stop the sense of intrusion – it’s a self-protection strategy. As I am aware this response, to a home environment which is both highly-nurturing and encourages early ‘correct’ answers, is not uncommon I thought it worth a mention.
    Nathan, I enjoyed this post and especially your summation of the basics involved in The Continuum Concept, and yes, I do believe that there is a time and a place for…”because I said so”…but you know that. 😉 And that will be a continuing discussion between us!

  2. jo johnson says:

    hmm, all very interesting. as the product of an overly-nurturing early environment (which became infantilising as i grew) in which there were definite “correct answers”, i do kind of agree that it can be detrimental torelationships…and as someone who’s also done lots of research into steiner-orientated education, which does its best to keep the child in that bliss state until 7/8 – and concluded my research, so far, with the notion that it’s utter bunkum – i have to say that i also think that that ideal can become patronising in the extreme. (note to steiner-tempted parents – children have actually been told, in response to questions such as “how does that photocopier work?”, that little gnomes live inside them….)

    for me there’s a discrepancy between maintaining that sense of oneness that leidloff talks about and inventing stories about santa etc. i don’t lie to my kids. period. as far as i can recall i’ve never found it necessary to tell an out and out lie. for this reason, while our kids are aware of xmas/easter stories etc, we’ve always told them that they’re just stories…see, i think the world holds enough wonder that we don’t have to invent it. it’s all theory, of course, at this point, my kids still being kids; but i feel that inventing tales about santa etc, no matter how cute we might find their credulousness, contributes to a disconnect between the adult/child world. personally i think waking up to the truth that one has effectively been lied to re santa etc could function as an extremely effective jolt out of that bliss state in itself, as well as fostering both distrust in the adult world and disappointment in the now apparent lack of magic.

    i also don’t agree that intellectual answers are necessarily detrimental to kids. yeah, there’s way too much intellectualisation in schools etc; doesn’t mean we have to avoid presenting the world that way entirely to redress the balance. my experience is that kids are able to weave seamlessly between ways of engaging with the world that we might, as adults, consider opposing and jarring – they’re able to hold many different interpretations of why a bee buzzes, for instance. this isn’t meant to promote endless information-giving; just that i think we need to be very, VERY careful about deifying the mysterious state of childhood and trying to keep our kids within that state. i think the drive to understand, particularly to understand ourselves, is a fundamental human need; as parents we ignore that at our peril if we want to deepen our relationships with our kids as they grow (think drugs/sex – a whole other ballgame!)

    for the record, my eldest boy pretty much never asked “why…?” – he seemed to absorb information almost by osmosis. yet he’s highly intelligent, academically speaking. i try to honour his seeming lack of need to “know”, trusting that this is one of (but only one!) his ways of making sense of himself and the world.

    it seems to me it’s all about being able to give the correct type/amount of information for the child’s developmental stage. so that demands that as parents, we are as tuned into how our kids are as possible; and, as a vital part of this, we’re aware of as much of our “stuff” we might be projecting as we can be (as that blinds us, often, to the child as a separate individual). and really i think that means opening the channels between me and my kids as much as possible, too. to conclude my lengthy comment (!), yes, “what do you think?” is a great way to do that; PLAY!
    xx

    • Hey Jo —

      I love your comments, generally, and this one, in particular, is one of my faves. I definitely agree with your bottom line that it’s all about individual balances. We have to respect, not just the general developmental parameters of what kind/amount of information is appropriate, but also, and more importantly, the idiosyncratic parameters of the actual kid(s) in front of us at the time. I combine that with what Karyn (Kloppenmum) points to in terms of the nature of the questioning (is it a real inquiry, or is it an indication of my child needing to connect), when I am responding — though, unlike Karyn (I think), I would probably answer the question even if it was just a sign of some connection-stress or need; I would just give a different kind/amount of answer. This is an old post, so I don’t know if she’ll think to check in on the comments when she sees that I re-blogged it, but maybe Karyn can tell us what she’d suggest in that case, instead of entertaining the question(s). I would tend to go ahead and answer (if shorter, or somehow otherwise altered to fit the situation) because I actually want to respond with the kind of connection my girls are seeking, even if it is a sign that they are feeling “stressed” or “disconnected”. I’ll also use other connectors at the same time, like a gentle touch, or a hug, or something of that nature, but I generally don’t want to avoid answering just because the question is a sign of something emotive rather than strictly inquisitive. If it were a habitual thing, I would indeed be looking at lots of other ways to re-establish and maintain the bond.

      My middle daughter does this kind of indirect (though less indirect) reconnection when she has a moment of connection-stress by saying, “I love you, Papa/Mama/Nallie”. Sometimes it’s obvious to me that this is not just a proclamation but an insecure question, and I have a moment of not wanting to respond because I feel as though I am being manipulated. I know she has some security issues (for various reasons I won’t get into at present), and I want to reassure her, but I struggle with how she’s asking to be reassured — especially because she’s not conscious of what she is doing and I am. Nevertheless, the appropriate thing to do, it seems to me, is to respond to how she is asking to reconnect, and then to continue with deeper reassurance in between these moments.

      With actual inquiries, though, I do feel that often a quick, precise, but real world answer is less of a jar to the magical mind of children than asking them to come out of their experience to entertain our reciprocal question(s) or to figure out if we are telling the truth. I won’t go into a lengthy discourse on the complete inner workings of flower anatomy and insect pollen distribution when a 3 year-old asks me “Whazat bee doin’?”, but I wouldn’t shy away from a real world answer like, “Drinking flower juices” or “Helping make new flowers”, etc.. There doesn’t seem any reason to me to reserve the story of what is actually taking place for a later time, or ask another question in response, or ignore the fact that the child actually wants some information. I’m interested in letting them fill in their own valuations for their experiences — that is part of their own personal relationship to the world as they neurologically map it — but I also think it’s my job to help them fill in the map (in order to relate with it on their own terms). So although I want to give them room to have all of their own opinions, I also want them to have as much of the agreed-upon “truth” as they can comfortably hold at any particular time. All of that being said, when appropriate, I will ask my girls what they think about a particular question they’ve lobbed at me — I tend to do this most, though, with the middle girl (now 9) who will ask me before she’s considered the question herself.

      I would add that I do believe in the sanctity of the magical period of child development. I think this is a vital period for future development, but I also think of the magical period as in service of that development — not superseding it, just preceding it. So while I am cautious not to create impending trust issues by making up fantasies in order to protect my kids (or their development) from our actual world; I am also very much into allowing them to play, keeping my expectations in line with their developmental stage(s), allowing them to make their own assertions of truth without “truth” interference from me, and having ample opportunity to be casually in league with the largest possible spirit of existence (that is, the completely open experience of the everything’s everything). It’s a period that comes and goes and is (for me at least) just as important to let be as it is to in due course let go.

      So it seems like the common ground at this moment is in the vicinity of considering the person, the developmental stage, and the underlying reason for the questioning, and then responding as is appropriate for all three. It’s easy with discussions of this sort to get, what I consider to be, too concerned with proving a point and/or winning a debate (not that we’ve done so here); I tend to think that this is such a nuanced subject that it’s difficult to reduce it to any absolute assertion other than “consider the person, stage, and the need behind the question(s)”. I agree with you, Jo, that making up stuff isn’t all that helpful, regardless of the stage or person (unless of course the person is asking for fantasy). And I think we all agree that there are plenty of occasions when it is more helpful for the kid to consider the same query before we assist in answering it, though exactly when and where seems to still be a matter of degrees.

      Thanks for taking the time, Jo. Great to hear from you as always.

      Be well.

  3. hakea says:

    Hi Nathan

    This a rambling response.

    Worthy and welcome is so very important. That’s such a lovely way to look at it. The fellas at Circle of Security call it “infinite worth”.

    Liedloff is not the only theorist around the place, and is her work anecdotal or evidence based? Did she have a PhD? Attachment theory started with Freud, was defined by John Bowlby, and was expanded by Mary Salter Ainsworth. These are the folks I look up for questions regarding attachment. Love that lineage – empirical evidence is very important to me.

    A child who asks “why” a lot may be seeking connection with his or her parent. And as you say, the best way to resolve that is with kindness. We don’t need to analyse it, we just acknowledge the need and meet it, because as Brian Cade ( a brief solution focused therapist, now retired) says “meeting the need extinguishes the need”.

    All child development reflects the quality of the child’s relationships with primary caregivers. The child may have learnt that the only way to connect with his/her parent is by asking questions because the parent values knowledge and independence (Circle of Security notes these parents as “esteem sensitive”). This is an insecure attachment but it is still organised, which is not as bad as a disorganised one. It’s not ideal, but is it “good enough” (a term coined by Winnicott, and perhaps reflecting my work with abusive and neglectful parents)?

    “Why” questions happen at a time when the cortex in the brain is starting to fire up – the logic and reasoning part. This part of the brain doesn’t finish developing until the age of 25, so there’s lots of time for questioning, answering, and unfolding.

    From a less scientific stance, Steiner/Waldorf spokespeople like Marsha Johnson and Lisa Boisvert McKenzie have a lovely way of responding to why questions from little ones. They simply say “I wonder” and reflect the nature of the question, allowing lots of space for the child’s thoughts and creative musings. They also say that the parent gets the child s/he needs, in order to learn the lessons s/he needs to learn, and vice versa. This may sound harsh but I think there is some truth in it. My third child has taught me many lessons that I hadn’t learnt from my other two, and has definitely made me a better parent.

    If I were a child and had a choice as to whichever home I could live in, yours would be at the top of my list. It sounds joyful, forgiving, kind, respectful, and reflective. I especially like how you don’t treat your children like a science experiment – what you have studied and learnt is filtered through your heart (and Natalie’s too I suspect) and I appreciate that you put ideas forward for reflection rather claiming to be an authority on the subject. You write with humility and thoughtfulness, a reflection of your parenting style. Shine on!

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