Turning Worry into Wonder: The Power of Activating Curiosity

A conversation between Judy Jablon and Nichole Parks.

The adults in young children’s lives make decisions each day that shape children’s futures: about the learning experiences we provide, and the relationships we build with children and adults. Our daily interactions can be full of wonder, but we can also find ourselves overwhelmed by the stresses of meeting goals, addressing expectations, and supporting children in times of uncertainty. Worry takes over, leaving us unable to see a way forward.

In these moments, we can feel powerless, yet we each possess the power within to decide how we choose to frame these moments. When fear takes hold, we can ask ourselves why we’re feeling this way. We can activate curiosity and look for possibility.

As we think about activating curiosity in the face of uncertainty, Leading for Children’s Executive Director, Judy Jablon, and Director of Programs, Nichole Parks, had a conversation about how worry affects us as the adults who care for and educate young children, and how we can shift our thinking to turn worry into wonder.

Nichole: What I realize is that worry paralyzes me, but I know I can use curiosity to not embrace worry. I don’t want to say to counteract it — I know it’s there — but really leaning on curiosity helps me stay open. I am better able to say, “what if?” or “I wonder if?”

Judy: I would add that worry creates anxiety for me. Worry deflates me. I think of a partner whose go-to response is: “I worry that…” The habit of worrying erases, at least in the moment, all possibilities. As a thought partner, it immediately puts me in hyper-vigilant mode of “I have to fix this.”

NP: I notice how we contaminate each other with worry, and in that place of worry, we try to fix it. Worry is emotionally contagious. Too often in early learning, we make decisions for the adults in the child’s ecosystem out of fear that we’re falling short in supporting children and their development. Whether it’s mandates about whether to ensure X minutes per subject or decisions around achieving standards, it’s from a place of worry. Everyone in this system cares so much for children that it sometimes creates a stressful climate for the adults, and that directly affects children.

JJ: At Leading for Children, we want possibility to be the centerpiece and we believe that curiosity is the vehicle get there. For example, imagine three-year-old Marcus comes into the classroom and as his teacher I have a fixed mindset about what he must achieve by the end of the year. Instead what if I wonder: Here is three-year-old Marcus. I’m curious about who he is and what’s going to happen for him this year. I wonder how he will explore the experiences I offer and make them his.

NP: That makes me think about the many ways children are curious. Children, oftentimes, don’t have a predetermined outcome in mind, while adults often approach new situations knowing what we want to happen. There’s nothing wrong with having a vision, but it can take away from the joy of discovering and learning something new. From a parent perspective and a teacher perspective, some of my fondest memories with children are when I followed their curiosity and got lost in the moment of discovery.

JJ: When I was teaching I recall how seven-year-olds clutched erasers and practically erased through the page. I learned that at this age, children begin to understand that there’s a right and a wrong way. Their spontaneity gets cluttered by their worry about right and wrong. As Optimistic Leaders for children, it’s up to us to reverse this trend by infusing curiosity, possibility, discovery, observation, research into the child’s everyday experiences.

NP: I’m also thinking about how curiosity helps us suspend judgement to build authentically respectful and two-way relationships. When I was a young teacher, and one of the dads had very prehistoric views of race. I became attached to his son, Alex, and sometimes Alex would come to my home and play with my children. One day dad came to pick Alex up. Dad just stood and looked at me. Instead of judging, I stayed curious, trying to figure out why he brings Alex to my home, because I know he cares nothing about me as a person. I realized that part of him knows that I am good for Alex. I said, “I love your son, and I imagine you must really love your son, because you allow him to come and spend time with me outside of the center.”

I don’t know if his views changed, but I can say that we had a two-way relationship that supported Alex’s growth and development as his parents were going through their divorce. What helped me as I built relationships with families was to not be so quick to judge. Curiosity helps us to suspend that judgement and keep the children at the forefront.

JJ: That reminds me of a time when I was a young teacher, and I didn’t so much suspend judgement as acknowledge judgement to learn more about my own reactions. I was a young teacher, teaching middle years, and I thought I was the cat’s pajamas. On the first day of school, I say to the class, “In our classroom, in order to be a community, we’re going to have jobs. Let’s brainstorm what are the jobs we need to do to keep our classroom happy and healthy for all of us.” The first kid to raise his hand is Keon, who says, “I don’t do jobs.” For the next six months, I was such a loser with Keon, and it doesn’t have a fix. I don’t know that I could have suspended judgement, though I could have asked myself, “What’s causing you to have such a visceral response here? What can you do to manage it?”

I tell that story here because that touched everything about me philosophically. It was the middle of the women’s movement, and this boy is saying he doesn’t work. But I think, if someone could have said to me, “Is judging the choice you want to make? Could you be curious?” Curiosity could have give me some breathing room.

NP: It gives you room to step back and know that you’re making that judgement. I wish for us, as adults, to model that for children, and I wonder what would happen if we all came into that space asking what we can learn, together, today about this system that we want for all children, so that all children can thrive. What can we learn about working better together? How proud we’d be of that system and how it serves children.

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Judy Jablon and Nichole Parks

Leading for Children is a national nonprofit that empowers adults across the early childhood ecosystem to be leaders and learners.