“I have six honest serving men,
They taught me all I knew.
Their names are What and Where and When
And How and Why and Who.”
-Rudyard Kipling

You had them once, and used them well, or you would not be as knowledgeable as you are. Now you must cope with them! It is not easy. You can tell when your child is six years old as the problem increases a lot then. Before six you hear, “Mom, what’s this?,” or “Dad, what’s that for?” You can answer these in a word or so, but “Why” is harder to evade. It can tie you up for hours. Here are some of the ways to get out of it, but they are purely temporary:

Ask your father.
Because I said so.
Curiosity killed the cat.
So that little girls can ask questions.
Look it up in the encyclopedia.
Wait until you go to school.
It will take me a long time to tell you all about it.
Wait a while, I’m tired now.

You can surely think of others. Curiosity is built in like an internal hard disk, and like such a disk all entries are stored in memory with a key to retrieving them, usually a word, sometimes a tune, often a shape. Curiosity gathers in the entries, a central processor works them over and comes out with “Why.” Small babies can’t talk, but are curious just the same.

The trouble with children is that they do not understand us, so they assume that we think their way, and their way changes every few years. The tiny ones assume that we also are fascinated by simple words, by shapes and colors and feels. As soon as they store some of them away they go on to new ones without thinking much about the former ones. They have no idea that we have goals, duties, schedules to keep, relationships to maintain, dishes to wash. They love to watch us do all these things, curious as to why and how, but they think we do it all for fun as they would if they were allowed. Their goal in life is to be able to do it all and know it all just like Mom and Dad.

Children think that adults are curious, because why not? Isn’t everyone?

Our curiosity is still there but is not such an overpowering urge. We may think of the scientist who retains curiosity, but not like a child! The scientist keeps it within bounds. The astronomer is mightily curious about various planets and galaxies, but doesn’t care very much about why “ate” and “eight” are spelled differently.

We adults tend to prioritize our curiosities. Those which have a bearing on our jobs or our hobbies or our long-term goals take precedence. We speak about what is “more important” than something else, a phrase which is meaningless to a child. For a child, the only long-term goal is to build themselves. They want to know about every little thing, you can never tell, after all, when it will come in handy. It might fit in with some word they have heard before.

This childhood attitude is exasperating. It is comfortable to say that it is “immature.” by immature we mean, of course, that it is less like us – therefore not to be valued as highly, something to be “gotten over.”

We know that the children will end up thinking like us, how could it be otherwise? We know we attained our lofty stature by going through such periods as we see in them, so we know it is something they will “outgrow.” The children see this attitude. Since they are trying desperately to imitate us, they too think this is “immaturity”, something to be outgrown.

Curiosity changes with the other changes. The baby who first learns to crawl is extremely curious as to what is in every drawer, behind every cupboard door that it has been watching for all these months. He crawls into every room to see what is there, touches everything, puts everything possible into the mouth. When we, as adults, go to a friend’s home we are not curious about these things. We do not feel any need to know what is in the next room, or in the kitchen drawers. The child wants to know the name of every little thing, whereas it is quite possible for us to go into a friend’s garden and not know the names of every one of the flowers. It does not make us at all uncomfortable. Sometimes we don’t even remember where every chair in the living room is placed.

The older child wants to know why the moon is in the sky, where is Africa, why do we have electricity, and everything else. We collect an inordinate amount of general knowledge before the age of twelve, after that we lose this sort of interest, but we become curious about social and emotional things, we wonder why someone doesn’t like us, how to dress, how to fit in to the teenage milieu.

As an example, let us look at my friend Dolores, aged 14. She is deeply in love with the boy next door who watches her admiringly. Her mother tells her that this is “puppy love” which she will outgrow to make way for the more mature variety. Dolores, looking at her parents and looking at her admirer, can hardly see maturity as a thing to be hoped for. However, she is not sure that her mother is wrong, so trusts her own feelings less.

They actually think we know everything, these children, that anything we don’t know is not worth knowing. This fits in with our way of thinking rather well. In order to be like us they need to know everything, and how can you do this unless you ask questions? They want to be able to do everything we do, and how can you do that without asking questions?

It doesn’t take long to learn the names of the six honest serving men, a few months will do. They only have to hear their names once and it is as if they had been standing in the wings all their lives.

There are children who do not seem to be curious. These children have been discouraged, but they are not disheartened. It has all gone underground where it doesn’t bother you so much. After all, the children love us so much that they really don’t want to bother us any more than they can help. It is just hard to understand what sets us off.

The more you feed the curiosity the worse it gets.

You might think that schools would help in this sort of thing, but not really. You can’t ask very many questions in school, the teacher tells the class what they are studying and the children are pretty well limited to that. Besides, there are so many other children that there is only so much time for personal questions. The teacher is busy, like most adults, nice and helpful as adults try to be within their funny limits. Teachers need to keep order If the class is studying arithmetic and a small girl is curious about a bird outside the window she can’t do much about it. Teachers absolutely refuse to be serving men. They like to be in charge. Children vaguely see the sense in this, but they put up with it.

“What’s this?”, “What’s that?” you hear over and over from the smaller ones as soon as they can say the words. Before that they assume you know that they are thinking that way. This is a miracle in itself. Why should a baby even care? Isn’t love enough?

Children want to know more things than they can possibly learn. Why should they have such a keen desire? Their emotions are all tied up with this curiosity. They get all upset over some question that they haven’t quite understood. They simply cannot understand why you don’t wonder about things in the same way. They know you don’t, and feel a little sorry for you, and hope that never happens to them.

Actually, curiosity never really leaves us. It only gets down to manageable size.

Northwest Montessori School was founded in 1965 by Marietta Rawson, who began her career in education as a public school teacher. After attending a lecture on the Montessori method of individualized education, Marietta was so inspired that she traveled to Italy to take Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) training. Upon her return, Marietta started the first Montessori school in Seattle.

Today Northwest Montessori remains one of a select few AMI-recognized schools in the Seattle area.