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'90s FAMILY : Why Ask Why? : We're all naturally hard-wired to be curious, especially kids. It helps us learn, which lets us survive. Where would we be if Einstein hadn't been curious? On the other hand, curiosity did kill the cat.

December 07, 1994|MARY ANN HOGAN | FOR THE TIMES

"Why are there rainbows?" My 4-year-old is at it again.

"Because when sun shines through rain, it makes dif ferent colors," I say, hop ing a trace of high school physics can serve the moment.

"Why is there a sun?" he asks.

"The sun is a star. There are many suns in the universe."

He puzzles. "Mom," he says finally, "why is there a universe?"

*

We call it the Why of the Why. In a few seconds, a tiny kid can toddle his own path of inquiry back to the most basic questions of time, space and existence.

Where does the ground end?

Why can't you go to the middle of the middle?

Why is forever the last number?

In a flash of parental hope (or maybe delusion), you think, "Hey, Einstein wondered the same thing."

Of course, you know your children aren't really entertaining the Big Bang theory. Or are they? Treat your kids' questions seriously, and the impulse to know why corn chips curl could lead to a cure for AIDS.

But brush them off because you're too busy faxing or stirring macaroni and their spirit of inquiry could wither. Or run amok.

Why can't you catch lightning?

The kid may figure the only way to find out is to connect an Erector set to the electrical plug. Enter the age-old dichotomy: On the one hand, curiosity has sparked the greatest advancements of human knowledge.

On the other, it killed the cat.

*

Why? The question pricks the heart of the curious nature of curiosity.

Behaviorists say curiosity is hard-wired from infancy to make learning and, thus, survival, possible. It's the "constant tension between the satisfaction of a search ended and the seductive lure of the unknown . . . (that) keeps the explorer exploring," says Dr. Linda C. Mayes of Yale Child Study Center.

Why does growing take time?

Why do some plants grow into trees?

Why do people live longer than flowers?

When it clicks, it's like tasting chocolate for the first time. It's delicious. You want more.

"You see it in a 12-month-old who pulls to stand up, which is the motoric version of curiosity," Mayes says. "You see it in the look on their faces: 'Oh wow! That did it!' The same is true for a 4-year-old who has discovered one tiny bit of an answer about the universe--or an 80-year-old scientist discovering a new star."

But just on the far side of curiosity, the explorer can get lost in space. There are cautionary tales.

Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they asked too many questions. Galileo was branded a heretic for the same reason. Why?

"Asking questions is often seen as rebellious--a violation of the established order of things," says Ruth Formanek, professor of education at Hofstra University in New York.

"There are rules. When can you ask? Of whom can you ask? It's a power issue. Kids pick this up along the way--they become hesitant about asking questions. It lasts them their whole lives. I see it in the graduate students I teach. They don't feel comfortable asking why."

Why should that be, if, as Robert Penn Warren put it, "The end of man is to know"?

Parents of mini-Einsteins often blame the child's schooling. (And it may be a rare teacher, indeed, who seriously entertains the apparent mystery of why ice cream doesn't have bones.) But does that explain everything?

"There's a lot of talk about the 'insatiable curiosity of the human species.' But in truth, humans tend to be curious about an amazingly small set of domains," says Don Symons, professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara.

"Look at all the information about the physical world that's available to us now--an overwhelming amount. It's as if the modern world is providing an experiment to find out what people are curious about. And what are they curious about? They're curious about O.J. and Anita Hill. These are the things that grip them--not geology and plant physiology."

Why? It probably started when nature endowed the higher creatures with curiosity in the first place. The animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz says curiosity is "how an organism asks questions of (its) environment."

What's that strange thing by the tree?

Something I can eat? Mate with? Something that can hurt me?

Those that found out and acted accordingly survived. Says Formanek: "On a simplistic level, it's like listening to the weather report. Why do we do it? So we know whether to wear a raincoat or carry an umbrella. So we can understand the environment and adapt to it."

You see it in chimps, among the most curious creatures, who investigate a new object. They poke it, roll it, maybe try to smash it with a stone, as others watch to see what their braver friends can find out.

"It's their way of categorizing the information in their universe," says Nancy Harvey, an animal behaviorist at San Diego Zoo.

Add the human ability of language, and you might come up with:

Why don't rocks grow?

Where does the sky go when it rains?

Why does time go by?

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