“So is every day a sunny day?”
That is the question that stumped my father several decades ago when I took my first airplane flight as a child. Once we ascended through the dark gray clouds, I was stunned that the sunny blue sky reappeared in all its glory. My concrete-over-abstract brain at the time thought a gray sky meant the absence of the sun, not just its obstruction. Hence my question.
“Well,” my father replied, “I guess you could say that.”
Little did I know that by welcoming my question and exploring its meaning through a series of follow-up questions, he fostered my curiosity at an important stage of my development.
In a later example, my father and I were watching a singer on television and I asked him why the performer had so many shadows appearing on the stage and backdrop. He gently informed me that it was because of the multiple spotlights, but that I was “asking the right questions.” Rather than being chastised for asking a dumb question, I’ve never forgotten how valued I felt and how important it is to be curious and open to the world.
A generation later, my oldest daughter asked me in the car why we could see the moon during the day. I admitted I had forgotten the reason but we would look it up later. Also, I commended her for “asking the right questions.”
The next time she stumped me with a question, she excitedly blurted out: “Dad, am I asking the right questions?” I thought of my own dad, smiled, and said, “Absolutely.”
Fostering curiosity needed in today’s high-tech culture
Curiosity is an especially valuable trait in a culture increasingly dominated by technology. A key reason, as scientist and author Cristal Glangchai explains, is that “experts predict that roughly 65 percent of children entering primary schools today will work in jobs that don’t currently exist, with titles like organ designer, virtual reality architect, drone programmer, and genetic administrator.” Thus, the skills of innovation, creativity and adaptability are only going to become more important in the world our children inherit.
Glangchai’s recent book, Venture Girls: Raising Girls to Be Tomorrow’s Leaders, focuses primarily on ways to encourage more girls to prepare for the fields of entrepreneurship and STEM. But most of her tips are also applicable to what she calls “Venture Boys.” In both cases, a key ingredient is a home life that foregrounds the value of curiosity: “Encourage your kids to ask Why? How? What if? . . . . When my kids ask me questions, like why is the sky blue, or what makes thunder, we go and look the answer up online and talk about the science behind it.”
It is especially important for dads to nurture a daughter’s curiosity and ambition as much as a son’s. Glangchai mentions researcher Linda Nielson’s troubling discovery that “girls who have no brothers are overly represented among the world’s political leaders: they tend to receive more encouragement from their fathers to be high achievers.”
So go ahead: Instead of settling for FAQs, model and support IAQs (infrequently asked questions) for your children. Cultivate a “there are no dumb questions” home environment. While “fake it ’til you make it” is sometimes advisable, try “ask it ’til you learn it” more often.
Granted, some questions are more productive than others. When my oldest daughter was very young, she asked: “Dad, if you sleep with fried chicken, will it burn your skin?” We did not pursue the science behind that one, but I did not dismiss the question. (I did, however, make sure she had no experiments in mind.)
To quote a memorable cartoon Ziggy poster I once saw in my college dormitory: “Wonders never cease as long as you never cease to wonder.” I had no idea I’d still embrace that saying so many years later, thanks in part to that suddenly sunny moment in the sky with my father even longer ago. It turns out staying open-minded and continually asking questions does make every day a sunny day— at least metaphorically.