How Uncertainty Encourages Wonder

My youngest child really disliked surprises when he was a preschooler. He wanted everything to go as expected. If he needed to navigate a new situation, he wanted to know exactly what would happen when. He would become upset if things unfolded differently. Uncertainty was an unwelcome experience and created a lot of anxiety.

If we’re honest, many of us dislike not knowing what to expect. Yet journalist Maggie Jackson, who studies social trends, believes uncertainty has gotten a bad rap. She says that not having all the answers is actually essential to developing our capacity to wonder. Without the need to seek out new information, children (and adults) won’t ask questions and explore possible answers.

Neuroscience supports Jackson’s argument. When kids experience uncertainty, their body floods their brain with chemicals that prime it to learn something new. Some of these chemicals are stress hormones, which may produce feelings of discomfort and anxiety. But others signal their neurotransmitters to reorganize ideas and pay attention to gaps in their understanding.

So uncertainty can actually be a form of ‘good’ stress. It can prompt children to be curious, to see not knowing something as an opportunity to explore and grow. The trick is helping kids manage their discomfort well enough that they have emotional space to wonder about this thing they did not expect.

One thing parents and caregivers can do is recalibrate their own attitude toward uncertainty. We might reflect on our own reactions when something unexpected happens. Do we immediately reject the anomaly and try to get things back on a predictable track? Or do we notice that things haven’t gone as usual and wonder about what new opportunities the change might offer? Since children often model their responses to uncertainty on adult examples, how we react sets the tone.

Parents and caregivers can also demonstrate how to move from discomfort to curiosity when faced with uncertainty. We might say something like: Wow! I didn’t expect that to happen and my stomach feels a little upset [or my heart is beating a little faster]. I wonder why things went that way. I’m going to take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and think about how to explore this some more. Or we can help a child frame an unsettling experience by saying: I can see that you were expecting things to go differently. Let’s take a deep breath and explore what happened together to see what we can learn.

Realizing the value of collaborating is actually a benefit of experiencing uncertainty. When adults support children’s explorations, they communicate that wondering together helps us feel better as we learn new things. Kids have the security of knowing that they are not processing an unexpected event alone. They can lean on others to keep their anxiety in check. And if they struggle to make sense of an experience or situation, they can ask for input and ideas from trusted individuals.



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