How Beautiful Questions (and a Little Boredom) Can Help Us Raise Wonder-ful Kids | Deborah Farmer Kris | 4 Min Read

August 10, 2022

Apparently, the average four-year-old asks 73 questions each day.

If you are currently raising a preschooler, that number may feel a little low. 

early childhood

I love kids’ questions. When my children were little, I started a Google file to record some of my favorite inquiries (some of which show up in my new picture book, “You Wonder All the Time?”)

  • Where do colors go at night? 
  • What makes teeth fall out? 
  • Why don’t cats like leashes? 
  • Why don’t whales sink when they sleep?
  • Why are they called “summer-salts” instead of “winter-peppers”? 

At some point, most of us stop asking 73 questions a day. And the questions we do ask are often more procedural than wonder-ful. Where did I put my purse? When is my doctor’s appointment? Who is picking you up from school? What did the dog just eat?

But maybe there’s something to learn from kids’ pressing need to question, question, question. Their wonder is generative.

Warren Berger, the author of A More Beautiful Question, noticed something about the innovators he interviewed. They asked really good questions. They asked beautiful questions, something he describes as “big, ambitious questions—and more specifically, questions that can be acted upon.”

Like the question three-year-old Jennifer Land asked her inventor father, Edwin. He was taking photos of her in 1943, and she wanted to know why she couldn’t see the pictures immediately. “Why do we have to wait?” she wondered. It would have been easy for Land to dismiss the question. Everyone knew that processing film took days, but instead he embraced the questions as a “puzzle she had set for me… I thought, ‘Why not? Why not design a picture that can be developed right away?’”

Five years later, Land invented the Polaroid Instant camera.

So how do we keep our kids, and ourselves, asking beautiful questions—questions that inspire us to grow and create?

1) Let Books and Downtime Fuel Wonder

Berger’s website has a fabulous list of picture books that are filled with or that inspire questions. Or try this: go to the library and challenge your kids to find ten books that spark their curiosity for any reason: books about volcanos, Greek mythology, sports statistics, inventors, dinosaurs, the ocean, puppies, baking, or the cosmos. You don’t need to read them all when you get home. Sometimes just flipping through the pages is enough to inspire more questions and a little more understanding of the world. 

And beware of over programming kids with activities that you think they should do. The benefits of a little boredom are well documented. Downtime is generative. As Fred Rogers said, “Kids need that downtime in order to feel wonder and to develop interests that are authentic to them, rather than those imposed by adults.” Questions lead to more questions. Wonder begets wonder. 

2) Become an Awe-Seeker

Awe is the emotion we feel when we encounter something vast, wondrous, or outside our ordinary frame of reference. It’s the goosebumps we get when we hear a beautiful song, watch a flock of geese fly south, our see images from the new NASA telescope. 

When we actively seek out this feeling, we nurture our curiosity. Kids do this naturally. They stop to stare at the ant hill or poke a stick in the puddle. They ask, “What will happen if I . . . “

But kids also model what they see. The phrase “be a life-long learner” is so over-used it’s almost meaningless. But let’s reframe it: what if we simply paid more attention to what piques our curiosity and lights a spark in our mind? 

And then, what if we named those things out loud to our kids?

  • “Look at that sunset! I wonder why it’s redder on some nights than others?”
  • “Come watch this video of an octopus! How do they camouflage themselves like that?!”
  • “I wonder what will happen if we change up the recipe. Come help me. It may be a disaster but it may be a masterpiece!”
  • “I’m so impressed by the work my friend is doing to raise money and awareness for cancer research. What causes or organizations do we want to support as a family?”

3) Put Their Questions Back on Them

When you are at the beach and your kid asks, “Why does the ocean change colors?” instead of answering immediately or jumping on your phone, send the question back to them.

“Why do you think the ocean keeps shifting colors?” 

I do this all the time with my eight-year-old son (who still asks at least 73 questions a day). Even when he’s way off base about, say, how a black hole is created, it’s fascinating to hear his theories and get a glimpse into how his mind works. He’s doing what scientists do. Okay, so he might be creating his own improbable laws of physics—but later, when we look up the real answer, he’s delighted to see what he got right and what he got wrong. That’s the type of thinking and motivation that fuels deeper learning. 

Reflecting back is a powerful tool for kids’ ethical questions, too. Recently my son has asked me “why wars start” and why we don’t “just give food and homes to all the people who need them.” There are questions behind his questions—about how we treat one another, why people hurt each other, and what we can do to help. These are core questions about how to live. When I ask him that follow-up question—“What do you think?”—before responding with my own thoughts, I’m nurturing not just his curiosity but his character.

As Warren Berger reminds us, “We’re all hungry today for better answers. But first, we must learn to ask the right questions.”

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Deborah Farmer Kris for Intrepid Ed News.

Deborah Farmer Kris

A writer, teacher, parent, and child development expert, Deborah Farmer Kris writes regularly for PBS KIDS for Parents and NPR’s MindShift; her work has been featured several times in The Washington Post; and she is the author of the All the Time picture book series (coming out in 2022) focused on social-emotional growth. A popular speaker, Deborah has a B.A. in English, a B.S. in Education, and an M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology. Mostly, she loves finding and sharing nuggets of practical wisdom that can help kids and families thrive — including her own. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris, contact her at [email protected], or visit her website: Parenthood365 (https://www.parenthood365.com/)

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