7 Ways to Kickstart Critical Thinking in Kids

7 Ways to Kickstart Critical Thinking in Kids March 17, 2016

Critical Thinking
Courtesy of Thinking Out Loud

I talk a lot about allowing kids to draw their own conclusions about faith and religion — giving them information about what you believe and what others believe and then taking a step back.

Some tell me this is unfair, if not impossible. Protection and guidance is the job of every parent, they argue. And what if I step back too far and my kid turns into some crazy fundamentalist??

I’ll address that last question more directly in a later post, but for now, let me just say that teaching kids to fear, distrust or dislike religion is not the answer. In fact, it’s completely unnecessary — as long as you’ve taught your kids to 1) be kind, and 2) think critically.

I often say critical thinking is the secular parent’s ace in the hole. When our kids know how to think critically, they become natural question-askers, always digging deeper, inquiring of others: “Is that really true? Is there another way to think about that?”

If you grew up under authoritarian parents, it’s likely you weren’t taught these skills as children. Authoritarian parents don’t generally care to explain themselves to their kids; they’d rather see their views accepted and their rules followed, period.

Which is why religious fundamentalists tend to reject critical thinking when they see it, as well — whether in their chapels or in their schools. (The controversy over Common Core is a perfect example.)

The blind-faith thing has no use for scrutiny.

But progressive parents don’t want blind faith. If our children choose faith, we want them to do so with their eyes wide open. We want our kids to ask questions — lots of questions. We want them to analyze problems from different angles, to think independently, and to value their own points of view. We want them to look for evidence of other people’s claims and consider the source of various information and what those sources stand to gain from the dissemination of that information. We want our kids to understand that one set of facts may be open to a variety of interpretations. We want them to be flexible and open to changing their minds. We want them to be fair and balanced in drawing conclusions.

This is what we want, right?

So how do we get there? What can we do to encourage this in our children?

  1. Define critical thinking.
    Tell your kid what critical thinking is, and why it’s important. You may want to use an example from your life of a situation that turned out better because of critical thinking.
  2. Let children experiment
    With their clothes, with their hair, with their faith — whatever! And whenever you see your kid exercising independence — or reaching a different conclusion than you have — applaud that. It means you’re doing something right.
  3. Don’t solve problems for your kids.
    Whenever possible, let them figure out their issues on their own. At the same time, don’t shield them from your problems. Let them watch you work through things. Include them in your decision-making process. Let them see how you work through challenges. Maybe even let them help you.
  4. Encourage outside-the-box thinking and the pursuit of further information.
    Say things like, “How else could we solve this problem?” or “Hey, we don’t know the answer, but I bet your Uncle Frank does… or we could Google it.” Information is your child’s friend.
  5. Never say “Because I said so.”
    This is the secular version of “Because that’s what God wants.” It immediately shuts down the conversation in the worst possible way. Says Parenting Beyond Belief author Dale McGowan, “My kids heard from a very early age that they always have the right to know the reason for a decision and to question it if they feel it’s wrong or unfair… That does more for their growing autonomy than almost anything else I can do.”
  6. Read to your kids.
    “Don’t just read for content,” says Laurie Gray, who runs a company called Socratic Parenting. “Enjoy the stories and explore the elements. The key is to ask open-ended questions and really listen to what your child says. Some helpful open-ended questions are ‘What did you like about?’ or ‘What did you think about?’ or ‘What else might [the character] have done?”
  7. Let children say “No.”
    It’s important that children be able to say “No” and get their way. Not always, surely, but often enough. Little boys and girls should be taught to say “No” when they don’t like something or don’t agree with a decision. Because if kids aren’t allowed to speak up against their parents, they are far less likely to speak up against their friends and peers… not to mention authority figures. By allowing kids to challenge us and win, we let them know that their voices matter and that they are truly free— encouraged even! — to question what is going on around them.

Is critical thinking the death knell of religion? No! Not at all! But it is the death knell of blind faith. It is the death knell of mindless acceptance. And, if imposed correctly at home, it may even be the death knell of authoritarian parenting.

Good riddance, I say.

But that’s just what I think.

What do you think?

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