My daughter and her best friend met in 2nd grade. Their first weeks together were spent asking each other questions: What’s your favorite color? Why are you afraid of dogs? Who’s your favorite American Girl doll? What are you going to do this weekend? They raced to learn as much as possible, eager to find and build on their connections.
Research shows that curiosity plays an important role in relationships. When children delight in learning new things about someone, they signal that they really want to get to know that person. Thalia Wheatley, a Dartmouth scientist who studies curiosity and cognition, says that curious people actually connect with others differently. They have other qualities that support their curious mindset.
For one thing, curious kids are more willing to tolerate uncertainty and stress than their less curious counterparts. They know that they don’t know everything about a potential friend and are excited to explore that uncharted territory together. They use curiosity as a way to learn new things for the sake of discovery.
This kind of ‘general interest’ curiosity encourages children to listen closely, ask follow up questions, and show enthusiasm for the answers they receive. Their conversations tend to range across more topics and dig deeper. As a result, their relational connections are stronger because they demonstrate genuine care for the other.
Curiosity can also help children maintain relationships even when they disagree. Wondering what makes someone else tick provides a bridge to learning why they think and act as they do. Instead of rejecting a friend for being different, curious kids ask them to say more about their ideas and actions. They treat friendships as spaces of joint exploration and mutual affirmation.
Wheatley notes that curiosity even has the power to change kids’ brains. Studies show that people who are open-minded and willing to ask others what they think develop more flexible neural systems. Being curious about others’ thoughts and feelings encourages kids to seek common ground.
There is, however, another kind of curiosity that is not as supportive of relational connections. Deprivation curiosity arises not from an interest in joint exploration, but from fear of the unknown. Children exhibiting this kind of curiosity ask questions because they cannot bear uncertainty. They feel as if they must know everything and gather information to avoid feeling stupid.
Since motivation is a big part of what makes curiosity helpful (or not) for relationships, parents and caregivers can encourage children to reflect on why they want to know something. We can ask, “Why are you curious about Ben’s activities over the weekend?” “What will you do with this information?” We can also model positive curiosity about our own friends and talk about how we are intrigued by the ways they are different from us. And we can share our delight in discovering new things about ourselves and others when we ask questions and listen carefully to people’s thoughts and feelings.