Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Be Curious, Not Judgmental


Many years ago, I came across some very large static cling decals featuring a variety of barnyard animals. While goofing around with them, I discovered they stuck nicely to the exterior of my car: a cow, a pig, a goat, a rooster, and so on. So, I did what any self-respecting preschool teacher would do. I covered my car in them. The kids, as I'd hoped, were delighted. But not everyone was. Indeed, I began to notice that many adults, as they passed in front of me in a crosswalk or pulled up beside me at a light, would furrow their brows, even glare at me, as if trying to figure out what kind of monster would do such a thing to their car. When I smiled at them, they would look away, making it clear they had judged me to be a dubious character.

In fairness, not all adults reacted this way, but it was a common enough response that I began to remark on it to my friends. One of them speculated, "Maybe they think you're some kind of radical animal rights activist." Another pointed out that some people are automatically offended by anything that doesn't fit their preconceived notions. Yet another dismissed the glowering strangers as jealous: "They're afraid to do it to their car so they've decided they hate it on your car." Maybe they simply thought the farm animal clings to be ugly and they were wrinkling their noses in disgust. Whatever the case, it was clear that a sizable number of adults I came across were judging me based upon those innocuous animal decals.

My jeans often look like the picture at the top of this post, worn at the knees because I spend so much of my time kneeling.

Children will ask me, "Why do you have holes in your pants, Teacher Tom?" I'll tell them that they've become this way because I spend so much time crawling on the floor, getting on their level, playing with them. I'll say that they are my "church pants" because they are so hole-y, a joke that usually goes over their heads while making their parents moan. The youngest children might not ask the question at all, but I know they're curious because I feel their little fingers exploring them, caressing my kneecaps or fiddling with the dangling threads. Some of the kids have their own "Teacher Tom pants" that they wear to school, which they model for me by way of connection. "We're twins, Teacher Tom!"

Adults are far more likely to ask the same question in the spirit of judgment rather than curiosity. "Why do you have to wear those pants?" they'll ask, but what they mean is something like "Those aren't appropriate for a grown man." Again, in fairness, most adults don't say anything at all, but I've been told that my worn jeans are "disrespectful" or "sending the wrong message." I know that some take a look at my pants and consider me a slob or a hippie or a red neck. My torn jeans have caused at least some adults to make judgments about my values, my character, and my way of life, much in the way that I expect those adults were forming judgments about me because of my farm animal decals.

I've been thinking a lot lately about this fundamental difference between curiosity and judgment. When we are children, curiosity tends to be our default response to the world, but as we age, for many of us, our curiosity is replaced by judgment. It's a pity because judgment closes off while curiosity opens up. Judgment divides while curiosity connects. Judgement paints the world as broken, while curiosity paints it as endlessly fascinating. Judgment leaves us with an ever-narrowing world, one that is increasingly confined to things we already think we "know," while curiosity creates an ever-expanding world, one in which we must constantly rearrange and reconsider everything we thought we knew.

We've all known people who never seem to grow up, even as their hair grays and their skin wrinkles. These, I think, must be the ones who have discovered the secret to eternal youth: remain curious. The urge to judge, on the other hand, ages us more rapidly and thoroughly than even the passage of time. Lately, I've been trying to catch myself as I tell myself judgmental stories about the people around me and instead ask a genuine "Why?" It's not always easy because the habit of judgment is well-ingrained, but when I do it I find myself in a world of wonder, one in which happiness is at least possible.

Be curious, not judgmental. It's a lesson that every child is born to teach, but only when adults are curious enough to listen.

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"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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