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Understanding Children's Emotions: The Importance of Curiosity and Interest

Many of us may not, at first, think of interest as an emotion. Psychologists and neuroscientists, however, now regard interest as a fundamental emotion -- an emotion that motivates and guides our engagement in the world.
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Child looking at a colorful fish
Child looking at a colorful fish

In my next few posts, I will discuss recent theory and research on children's emotions. Advances in the psychology and neuroscience of emotions now offer us a new understanding of the nature of emotion -- and of the importance of emotion in the lives of our children. Emotions, we now know, are not just feelings. In childhood and throughout life, our emotions guide our thoughts and our imagination, our behavior and our moral judgments.

In these posts, I will focus on several emotions that are essential, but often neglected, in discussions of parenting and child development. Today, I begin with the emotion of interest.

A Child's Interests

Many of us may not, at first, think of interest as an emotion. Psychologists and neuroscientists, however, now regard interest as a fundamental emotion -- an emotion that motivates and guides our engagement in the world. Curiosity and wonder, so evident in the enthusiasms of young children and so much a part of their charm, are expressions of this basic human emotion.

Interest is vital to emotional health in childhood and it remains vital, throughout life. Without interest, there is no curiosity, no exploration, and no real learning. The psychologist Sylvan Tomkins explained that, "interest is the only emotion that can sustain long-term constructive or creative endeavors."

Interest may be a child's first emotion. Infants show intense interest in their mother's face, especially her eyes. Soon, they become interested in objects that are colorful, moving, rhythmic, or harmonious (or, more generally, beautiful). Young children are also wide-eyed in their curiosity and interest in the lives of their parents.

And they ask questions.

In a 2007 study, developmental psychologist Michelle Chouinard observed that when young children (between 1- and 5-years-old) were actively engaged with an adult, they asked an average of 76 questions an hour. Chouinard concludes that "question-asking is not something that children do every now and then -- asking questions is a central part of what it means to be a child."

Interest is also of critical importance to our relationships with our children. Therapeutic work with children and families teaches, again and again, this basic lesson: Children respond to our animated expressions of interest in their interests with evident pleasure. They enjoy this interaction and want more of it.

As parents, our enthusiastic responsiveness to our children's interests is the surest way to engage them in some form of meaningful dialogue or interaction, and a first principle of strengthening family relationships.

Interest and motivation

Many parents express concern about the limited range of their child's interests and about their child's inability to sustain interest (and effort) toward important goals. As a therapist, I am often told, for example, "He's not interested in reading (or writing, or drawing, or riding a bicycle)." These parents experience frustration and dismay at their unsuccessful efforts -- with any form of cajoling, rewards or punishment -- to broaden their child's interests.

If we look hard enough, however, we will find in every child some interest and a desire to do well. When I talk with "unmotivated" students, I often find that they are interested in many things (although not in their schoolwork). They may watch the History or Discovery channels, but they will not read a history or science book. Some read National Geographic magazine (or the Huffington Post) in my waiting room, but they do not do their homework. Many are interested in sports, theater and fashion, in South Park and Jon Stewart, or in theories about the origin of the universe.

Many of these children, to their parents' great dismay, spend hours searching websites when they should be studying. Even more have become addicted to video and computer games, to World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. We may disapprove, but these are their interests. And where there is interest, there is curiosity and a desire to learn.

I therefore advise parents, first, to engage their child's interests, and then to expand these interests into constructive projects and long-term goals. Make note of moments of interest and effort, and support them. Find out why these activities appeal to him. If he likes playing video games, watch him play. Then play with him. Have him teach you the game. If we want to motivate our children, to build a bridge, we cannot simply meet them halfway.

In his work with autistic children, child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan taught both parents and child therapists this seminal insight: that even the repetitive behavior of a 2-year-old child who is rubbing the carpet is an expression of interest, and this interest can become the beginning of an interaction, then play, and then dialogue. If we dismiss our children's interests as frivolous or unproductive, we will miss an opportunity to engage them in dialogue.

In his important book, The Path to Purpose, psychologist William Damon offers this wise advice: "Listen closely for for the spark, then fan the flames."