How do I rekindle curiosity in my teenagers? – Ask John #5

Dear Mr. Gatto,

I am the mother of three children, ages 16, 14 and 12. Over the past year, I have awakened to the fact I have done my children a great disservice by blindly trusting the public school system. This ignorance has resulted in my children growing into intellectually stunted young people.

If I could, I would go back with all I have learned these last months, and redo the last 16 years. As this is not possible, I have been searching for ways to re-kindle their curiosity and desire to learn. This search has led me to a variety of information explaining why public school creates these results, but nothing has helped me formulate a plan to reverse course.

I am hoping that your greater experience and wisdom may have some ideas or suggestions that will help me discover a way to at least minimize the damage that has already be done.

Thank you for your time.




Dear Laura,

What a daunting, but utterly vital question! I wish I knew the genders of your kids and the predispositions they have already shown, their interests (no matter how feeble), and how close your relationships with each are, along with details of your family history so far—income, involvement of father, grandparents, housing situation, neighborhood, etc., because each of those details could play a role in addressing the problem you describe, but let me work with the bare outline you provide.

First let me start with a hunch: that you are in comfortable family circumstances, not wealthy, but no worries about food, clothing, eviction, owning the latest devices, have reasonable status with neighbors, that no uncertainty exists about possessing the “comforts”of life, that you have medical attention when you desire it, commercial amusement, gifts for holidays, etc. I state this because throughout modern Euro-American history, loss of curiosity has been an ongoing concern mostly among prosperous, middle-class and upper middle-class families who have security with the concerns that stress out ordinary families.

For hundreds of years it was so common among even very prosperous families, that two common solutions were devised which will sound radical to your ears, but which, reflected upon, will yield timeless principles out of which anybody’s solutions can be fashioned:

Radical Solution #1: Exchange families.

It was for centuries extremely common for families to exchange the care of their own children with the children of another family, forcing each child to adapt to strange people and strange standards, strange settings, strange expectations––all great stresses with no end in sight. Forget that you won’t or can’t do this, think only of the principle involved: the end of familiar routines.

Radical Solution #2: Physical exile from familiar environments.

Setting out on expeditions, quite risky ones, where the ultimate destination would be thousands of miles away, into strange, even dangerous, cultures, not knowing each day where one would sleep that night, or eat the next day, where basic survival depended upon constant improvisations, adaptations, courage, and advances in self-knowledge.

Lack of curiosity occurs in those who feel down deep they already know everything worth knowing, that no improved life satisfactions will follow the struggles needed to learn new things. Schools, for instance, seldom address the essential matter of PURPOSE, of WHY we do what we do, parents often also fall back on the tired old “do it because I say so” explanation, but when the young see evidence that nothing matters, that the ROUTINES don’t change from day to day despite anything they do, we lose our credibility when we say “just trust me, do it”––we forfeit their trust.

Curiosity arises naturally under conditions of UNCERTAINTY, with people whose mysteries are still unknown. Take the model of emulation you provide––are you the same dependable mom every day, or do YOU have powerful, driving interests in the larger world? Do they see you eager to paint, to build something, to care for abandoned pets, to run for mayor, or to do anything for which the outcome of effort IS NOT CERTAIN?

Every year, hundreds of American families send their children on walks alone or on bike rides across the United States and back. These expedition-adventures are scary enough, novel enough, to motivate research to answer hundreds of questions accessible through research––an entire high level academic curriculum could be built easily around crossing the country alone as a young person.

Another expedient undertaken by thousands of Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, etc. children for hundreds of years, which continues today, is to live alone in wilderness for several months, building shelter, feeding and protecting oneself.

Getting lost in work is a dependable alternative––is your kid addicted to computer games?––then send him/her from company to company learning how to produce and sell one! Addicted to style and fashion?––set up a business at a local flea market.

One dependable council you can count on to help you is that childhood is largely an illusion––what works to stimulate your own curiosity will almost certainly work with them. Before every unit I ever taught as a schoolteacher I took pains to be 14 years old again and ask myself, “Why are we doing this?” Unless I could answer that convincingly I gave up the idea. But when I knew, truly knew, I proceeded enthusiastically with confidence and most of the time my own enthusiasm inspired theirs.

Watch the YouTube of my class in action titled, “Classrooms of the Heart” to see some of the things we did under the justification of developing skills in reading, writing, public speaking, organization, etc.

For those who love, or even greatly like their lives, active curiosity is a natural condition, but for those who are dissatisfied with existence, indifference to questioning or initiative is a common indicator. Do your kids seem moody, bemused, or sluggish? If so, the place for you to start is in helping them be happy; exhortations about scholarship miss the origins of the malady.

Ask each sincerely, “What would make you happier? That’s what we shall study.” As partners, expect curiosity to follow shortly. Call your efforts, “The curiosity project,” and in the long run it is vastly more important than algebra for a successful future.

Try to appreciate that your 3 kids need and deserve some input into what you decide to do ultimately; in family conferences try to determine their areas of dissatisfaction and bewilderment they are experiencing at the moment––count on it, they will be there and are the places you should start to work in; always painstakingly explain to the kids what your intentions are behind each decision and respect whatever feedback they give you––and be sure you and their father are on the same page; few things ruin a new plan of action more than arguments among its formulators.

The good news is that the hardest work is all at the beginning––once curiosity is kindled, and I have seen this, it has a way of spreading into every corner of existence.

Instead of walking hundreds of miles across Europe, 150 of my school kids of low curiosity walked at least 100 blocks through the city every single week, investigating some business or institution as our nominal purpose, but at bottom the main aim was the self-confidence and independence that the exertion itself taught.

“Can we go to Yankee Stadium on Friday instead of coming to school?”

“Yes you can, but only if you agree to walk there and take opinion surveys on the way, but I warn you that it’s a 10 mile walk through some dangerous neighborhoods; say YES to that and we will start planning how to be safe and make yourself look good doing it.”

They left full of curiosity and returned full of sights they had seen and people they talked to.

Be resolute, Laura, each one of us at some time or other finds himself or herself facing the problem of rekindling enthusiasm, finding PURPOSE FOR WHAT WE DO.

Read a book that sold 50 million copies called The Purpose Driven Life. Have your librarian get you a copy. It may stimulate your own imagination. Good luck, mom; at least you are worrying about a real problem, not some silly, irrelevant school problem!


Stay in touch, let us know what happens; what you learn will be valuable to many


-John Taylor Gatto

State Teacher of the Year, New York, 1991

*If you have questions for John, please send to:

Due to his energy limitations, every question will not be answered, but all questions are welcome.

John’s Book Release in Summer, 2015:

“The Underground History of American Education”

Foreword by Ron Paul, M.D., Former U.S. Congressman & Candidate for President of the United States of America.

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