I think the best thing my own mother ever taught me was to be curious, to ask questions. She did it by example. Having been a teacher much of her life, she knew the value of asking the right question, and having been married to a farmer’s son turned coal miner turned fruit farmer, she saw how much asking questions meant to being successful.
Mom was the daughter of an immigrant from Wales, a man who worked in coal mines most of his life, but a man who had a thirst for knowing the how and why of everything.
So it was only natural that their children and grandchildren would have grown up asking questions. But mom was the most adamant of all in looking for answers. She always taught us to ask questions,
None of them knew about the following famous quotes along those lines:
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Albert Einstein, and another one, “He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
I found those ideas as I read (sometimes unwillingly) the works by Emerson and a biography of Einstein. But during the course of my 30 plus years of teaching I always tried to stimulate kids’ curiosity.
Far beyond trying to get them to avoid double negatives, split infinitives and misplaced modifiers, I wanted students to be curious. To, as Einstein said, “not to stop questioning.”
That is why I cringe at some of the things I hear today. When I hear someone say, “There is no doubt about it,” or “There is no question in my mind,” I want to grab them and shout that doubts should always exist. I want people to have questions, to ask questions, to explore goodness and “explore if it be goodness.”
Of course asking questions makes life a little more difficult. It is a lot easier to accept a short, fetching phrase, especially one that fits on a bumper sticker. I think my former students will attest to the fact that I asked a lot more questions than I answered. I used to tell them my job was to ask questions, not answer them.
And that came mostly from my mother.
That may be one of the most important things mothers can do. They cannot teach their children to be curious, but they can be curious themselves. Children learn what they see around them, and if they grow up in a home where they see no curiosity, they will not be curious about much of anything. And if children grow up “incurious,” our country, our society our world will be headed in the wrong direction.
There are a lot of qualities a parent, a mother especially, can teach a child. The most important quality, along with truthfulness, honesty, humility and integrity, is curiosity.
Wondering how things work, why they happen, what is over the horizon, who will be the next genius and when the next greatest discovery will be made is the essence of curiosity. Asking questions is the basis of all learning, and knowledge springs from a curious mind.
In a world where not knowing answers is often confused with being unintelligent and people who admit to not knowing everything are sometimes criticized as being either slow or ineffectual, the opposite is often quite the case. Looking at more than one side, asking one more question, wondering if there is more than one answer and not agreeing with the obvious is what really great minds usually do.
What would our nation look like if early pioneers had not wondered what lay over the next hill? If people like Jefferson and Adams and Madison had not wondered if people could not govern themselves? If Franklin had not wondered if there was a better way to heat a room than a fireplace?
Jonas Salk had to wonder if there could be an immunization against polio before he could find it. No great advance in humankind ever was accomplished without a question being asked about that advance.
Curious children come from homes where mothers create an atmosphere of wonder. They create that atmosphere by not taking the quick, easy answer. They create it by not accepting the answer “because.”
Because is a conjunction which means something else needs to follow it. The sun appears to rise because the earth rotates on its axis. Flowers bloom because they get the sunshine and nutrients that make them bloom. People are unhappy because they do not have enough food to eat, clothes to wear or shelter to keep them warm.
Likewise, “because I said so” is not a reason for a change in behavior. My mother may have said that from time to time but probably only because I exasperated her by my own behavior.
No one, after all is perfect, but that does not mean all of us, mother, fathers, sons and daughters cannot strive in that direction. I think I can be fairly sure that most moms want to be good mothers and most of them are. Just as in everything, today is not a day to honor perfection, but rather a day to acknowledge the pursuit of perfection.
That pursuit is what I want us to honor on this Mother’s Day.
Happy Mother’s Day.