Viewing entries tagged
summer camp

Inciting Curiosity

Here's a short piece I recently wrote about curiosity, and how it applies to kids' experiences at summer camp:  


You’ve heard about curiosity killing the cat.  And about Pandora, whose curiosity released evil into the world.  But the more I think about it, the more I believe that curiosity is one of the most positive human characteristics—one we should try to develop in our children, and in ourselves.

Think about the powerful role it can play in the classroom, motivating students to learn, to pay attention, and to work hard.  Think about the powerful role it can play in parenting, allowing us to look beyond our child’s actions to what’s actually motivating their behavior, so we can be more effective in the discipline process (which is all about teaching). 

Recently I became curious about curiosity and decided to see what science has to say about the subject.  The Carnegie-Mellon researcher George Loewenstein defines “curiosity” pretty simply:  it’s when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”.[1] In this gap, the want motivates us to seek, to persist, and to learn.  We feel an eagerness and an inquisitiveness mixed together to know more, and we typically keep chasing it down to quell that drive.  Some people have compared it to an itch we need to scratch.   

What I found most interesting is that curiosity activates the learning centers, the memory centers, and the reward centers of the brain.[2]  When these different areas of the brain are active, we can learn more and remember more, then be chemically rewarded for our spirit of inquiry.  Basically, the anticipation we feel between wanting to know and starting to know makes us more receptive to learning and causes us to feel pleasure in the chase. 

I’m curious about how you might feel about your kids and curiosity these days.  When are they most curious?  Does school invoke their curiosity?  Or squash it?  Do they have the time or inclination for a spirit of inquiry? 

I’ll tell you that when I’m observing kids and counselors at camp, I see curiosity continually emerging.  Being in an environment away from their typical lives, away from technology, and immersed in nature that is always changing and even unpredictable, kids have the time, space, and natural inclination to explore and discover.  Further, kids at camp curiously anticipate, on a daily basis, what wildlife they’ll see, what goofy things their counselors have planned, what challenges lie ahead, etc.  

Since we know that curiosity makes us better able to learn, I wonder if this environment, where curiosity runs wild, is part of why kids learn so much more about themselves, and their social and emotional intelligence can take significant leaps in the weeks they’re at camp. 

The research on curiosity supports this speculation.  Studies show that when the “curiosity switch” gets flipped on, a person’s brain becomes more receptive—not only to learning about the subject the person was initially curious about, but to learning in general.  So when kids at camp become curious about how to, for example, bait a hook or sail a boat, their brains become more capable of learning all kinds of other important lessons regarding relationships and resilience and even self-understanding.  (Sneaky, huh?)

Watch for ways right now to incite curiosity in your kids as they think about camp this summer.  Ask them questions about their camp counselors, activities, and friends.  The anticipation of wondering and sitting in that gap between what they know and what they want to know will give them pleasure as they count down the days until it’s time to go to camp.  Then the real learning can begin.  

[1] Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. "Psychological Bulletin," 116(1), 75-98. 

[2] Gruber, M. J., Gelman, B. D., & Ranganath, C. (2014). States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit. Neuron.

Parenting Time Machine: Imagine your children in the future, and how you got them there

Here's a little exercise that can help you think about what you want to prioritize as a parent. 

First, engage in some time travel.  Imagine yourself in the future, when your kids are grown.  (If you want, you can have it turn out that you don't look any older than you do now and that you’re driving a convertible sports car instead of a stinky minivan.)  From that vantage point, look back at the way you raised your children.  How will you feel about the parenting decisions you've made?  The experiences you've given your kids. 

For me personally, I'm constantly learning new things that make me say, "I wish I'd known that earlier."  I expect I'll probably write a book in the future about what the parenting expert wishes she’d done differently, given the perspective of time (and emerging research.) 

But if you were to ask me now to predict what I will one day say are the most important things my husband I did as parents that made the biggest difference in how well our three boys turned out—in my imagined future, it so happens that my kids are fantastic humans who have a very young-looking mother—here’s what I’d say. 

  1. We disciplined by using reflective dialogues and collaborative problem-solving, rather than punitive consequences.
    Actually, I wish we did more of this, but I truly believe that traditional punishment as a discipline technique is not only less kind and caring, but much less effective as well when it comes to changing behaviors and building character.  (Watch for my upcoming book, No-Drama Discipline, written with Dan Siegel and published by Random House, for a book-length discussion of this idea.) Nearly any discipline situation can be better handled by talking to our kids and at times even asking for their opinions on how to address a situation.  Firm boundaries and high expectations can be maintained while also using discipline moments to build insight, empathy, and problem-solving.
  2. We built secure relationships with them.
    Instead of simply "managing" our boys and getting them to their activities, we got to know them, and let them know us.  We all talked and laughed and argued together, deepening the connections between us all.  We consistently (not perfectly) responded quickly and predictably to their needs, and they had repeated experiences that wired their brains to know that they can trust in relationships.  And, we were tuned in to their emotional world—we focused on understanding and talking about the internal experience:  thoughts, feelings, wishes, regrets, motivations, etc.  Sensitive, emotionally attuned, predictable care leads to secure attachment.  Secure attachment is the single best predictor for children to thrive.  We weren't perfect parents, but we did build strong relationships with our kids.
  3. We sent them to sleepaway summer camp.
    Our boys happen to have gone to a magical place called Camp Chippewa in Northern Minnesota.  But summer camp in general is great for kids, in that it allows them to overcome difficult situations like homesickness.  Being away from parents and living in a cabin with other kids and mentors of all ages is transformative for many children.  The activities at camp are great; they have a blast learning to canoe and shoot a bow and pitch a tent, but it’s the skills, the mastery, and the frustration management that make it so good for their development.  The friendships they make, the traditions and rituals they learn, being in nature, and the independence they gain are fun, and they build resilience.  They learn a lot about themselves through this experience.
  4. We made our home a place their friends wanted to be.
    One of the best ways we got to know our kids was by watching them interact with their friends.  We also liked getting to influence the environment our boys and their peers grew up in. 
  5. We gave them other adults who cared about them.
    Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other close friends all became important people in the lives of our children.  They never wondered whether they were worth loving or being paid attention to, because there was always a crowd of people in their lives who were loving them and paying attention to them.
  6. We were present with them without rescuing all the time.
    Sure, there were plenty of times when we gave the distracted "uh-huh" while we heard about the latest Lego creation.  But we did our best to really be there with our boys.  To listen to them, to talk to them, to pay attention to what bothered them and what mattered to them.  We wanted them to know that we delighted in them as people, and that we were there for them.  Always.  Even when they were badly behaved, or they were having meltdowns.  We saw our job as walking with them through struggles and letting them know we were there with them—without rescuing them from every negative emotion or situation. 
  7. We gave them a chance to find and do what they loved.
    Whether it was sports or piano or art or joke-telling, we did all we could to let our kids chase and enjoy their passions.
  8. We protected playtime.
    I'm not saying that there weren't periodic seasons when our boys ended up being over-scheduled, but for the most part we worked hard to make sure they had time to just hang out and play.  We were big fans of enriching activities, but not at the expense of having time for unstructured play that let them imagine and dream and even deal with boredom.

So that's an example of my list.  What would be on yours?

Notice that this exercise asks you to think about what you're doing well.  You could make a similar list about what you wish you'd done differently.  (Watch for a future article in which I outline some of the regrets I imagine I'll be living with in the future.  There will be plenty of those, I'm sure—although I always remind parents, as I do in this article, that even our parenting mistakes can be beneficial for our kids.)

The point in all of this is simply to remain aware and intentional about what we're doing as parents.  We might see changes we want to make, but we'll also realize that there's plenty we're doing that we'll look back on some day and smile, and even be proud of.