Five Ways to Fuel Teen Curiosity

Curiosity Benefits Both Children and Adults

What are clouds made of? Why is fire hot? How do cars drive? These days it seems as though my five and seven-year-old’s curiosity is limitless. I have to marvel at their enthusiasm for exploring the unknown (even though the endless questions can be exhausting).

Simply put, curiosity is the desire to know more. There is a range of psychological, emotional, social, and health benefits that come with being curious. Highly curious people tend to be happier and have a greater sense of purpose. Early childhood curiosity leads to greater academic success in kindergarten and through adolescence, and inspires a lifelong love of learning. Remaining curious as an adult can lead to improved memory and longer life

Curiosity in Teens

During adolescence, you may notice your tweens and teens once again returning to the ‘why’ phase. Only now, they are often in search of answers to more pressing questions related to fairness, equity, and injustice. Just as you took pride in your toddler’s thirst for knowledge, it is important to cultivate curiosity in your tweens and teens. Why? Because rapid brain growth during adolescence results in even greater potential benefits to memory and learning. Teens are developing the capacity to think critically and reason thoughtfully. The underlying force of many of these developing skills is curiosity. Fostering these skills promotes healthy development in our youth, which leads to stronger families and communities. 

We all want our kids to do well in school and master skills and concepts, but if we focus too much on performance, we’re forgetting the bigger developmental picture — the desire to raise independent, engaged, critical thinkers.

Parents Can Foster Curiosity

The teen years offer an opportunity for parents to nurture teen curiosity. Here are some expert tips for creating the kind of environment that allows curious minds to flourish:

1) Be humble.

My favorite tip from our Q&A with Dr. Eranda Jayawickreme, Associate Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University, is to: “Acknowledge the limits of your knowledge. The more we learn, the less we realize we know.” Dr. Jayawickreme studies intellectual humility, a skill that allows a person to remain open-minded and to recognize one’s limitations. Don’t shy away from discussing unfamiliar topics. Be ok with saying, “I don’t know,” and follow it up with, “Let’s find out!” Listen to new ideas and differing points of view. Search online for answers together with your teen. Talk about whether the information found is credible or not. Show them it’s ok not to have all the answers and how to do the work to fill knowledge gaps. Parents who ask lots of questions and seek answers raise children inclined to do the same. And doing so is critical for successful learning.

2) Look beyond grades.

Many well-intended parents monitor and reward grades as a marker of success. Dr. Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success, reveals why this is problematic: “We all want our kids to do well in school and master skills and concepts, but if we focus too much on performance, we’re forgetting the bigger developmental picture — the desire to raise independent, engaged, critical thinkers.” Ask your teens to share something new or surprising they learned in school, rather than their score on the math exam. Also, ensure they get PDF. That is playtime, downtime, and family time. PDF is behind the Challenge Success motto for healthy teen development. Avoid overscheduling. Unstructured time allows room to pursue hobbies and ignites creativity. Simple family traditions like game nights or eating meals together offer opportunities to connect and learn about one another’s interests. 

3) Ask open-ended questions.

This time-honored tip appears in most expert articles about communicating with teens. That’s because it’s one of the easiest ways to get them to open up. Close-ended questions like “Did you have a good day?” are too easy to answer with a yes, no, or simple shrug. Open up a dialogue with open-ended questions that start with how, why, or what. Adults can spark curiosity by asking questions that don’t necessarily have a right or wrong answer. Allow young people to share their thoughts and ideas about potential solutions to problems. Ask follow-up questions that enable them to solidify their thinking and values.“What do you think about that?”  

4) Embrace mistakes.

What do penicillin, post-its, and chocolate chip cookies have in common? They were all made by mistake. As it turns out, many of the world’s most popular products and important discoveries stem from accidents caused by curious minds. Pediatrician and CPTC’s Founding Director, Dr. Ken Ginsburg, encourages parents to create opportunities for teens to try new things and take chances — even if the results are less than perfect. “It is sometimes our missteps and the reflection following that give us strength and opportunity for self-improvement,” Ginsburg shares. Mistakes create essential growth opportunities. And growth is kind of the whole point of childhood. Adolescents are on a journey of discovering who they are in relation to peers, family, and community. Like any maiden voyage, there will be bumps and course corrections. Create a safe space to talk about mistakes. Help them pursue new experiences that push just beyond the zone of comfort. Let them explore freely within the clear boundaries you set to keep them safe. Creating this kind of environment for your teens at home helps ensure their ability to contribute to the outside world.

5) Allow daydreaming.

“Get your head out of the clouds” is a common trope told to many a daydreamer. But according to new research, daydreaming can help us innovate and problem-solve. It can also spur creativity, enhance productivity, and lead towards the future achievement of goals. During our discussion with psychologist and Founder/CEO of Character Lab, Dr. Angela Duckworth offers a simple strategy to try at home: “One practical idea is for kids of any age to spend at least five minutes every day asking questions and exploring their curiosity, even if it doesn’t lead to their SAT score being higher or some chore being done. Just asking the questions that naturally come to mind.” Unfortunately, curiosity goes down in the middle and high-school years, so your teens may benefit from explicit permission to let their minds wander.  

Whether your teen has their head in the clouds or is en route to the next greatest discovery, be the kind of parent that encourages their curiosity. Doing so creates a brighter future for all of us.

About Elyse Salek

Elyse Salek, M.S.Ed. is an Administrative Director of Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Her degrees are in Psychology and Human Development from Middlebury College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Education. She is the proud mother of two children.

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