This post was originally written when my son was six. He is now fourteen, an amazing critical thinker, and I am bloody old.
I was having a chat on Twitter the other day about my little guy hearing ideas when I’m not around that I may not agree with. For example, when my son came home from school explaining that his teacher had taught him that Jesus created the first food bank (of all things, this is where you start?). I was pretty infuriated, I’m not gonna lie. It’s not that I want to shelter him from what others believe, it’s simply that I want to know if he’s being taught these things, so I can counter them and get him to question them. Unfortunately, a lot of parents like me would march down to the school and flip tables, especially since he’s at a private school that we made sure was secular and that we pay good money for, but I don’t think that’s the most effective way to deal with it. Your children are watching you, and the stronger the reaction there is to an idea, the more power they understand that idea to hold.
That’s not to say these people won’t be dealt with. But dealing with them is never going to keep your kid from hearing religious shit. The only way to ensure your child is effectively protected from spiritual manipulation is to vaccinate him.
A-fuckin’ say what, Godless Mom?
During my Twitter conversation on this topic, we were discussing teaching your child critical thinking, and it ended up being described as the only vaccine against indoctrination. Perfect description.
I want to be clear here, I don’t want to teach him that my worldview is the only correct worldview. I want him to question everything, even what I say. I want him to grow up knowing more than I do, understanding more than I do, and having a far more informed worldview than me. This is how progress is made: each generation knows and understands more than the last.
Teaching critical thinking sounds like a difficult undertaking, but it’s really not. Kids are born this way; they are naturally curious. You just have to find a way to feed it. It can, in fact, be a whole load of fun.
Here are several ways I like to promote critical thinking with my little guy:
1. Say outrageous things
I like to tell him things that are so outrageous he’ll be prompted to say “noooo” or “that doesn’t make sense.” For example, I’ll pick him up from school and say,
“You’ll never believe what happened in the backyard today!”
“A large pink tiger parachuted into the garden and asked for a glass of lemonade.”
“Noooo,” he’ll inevitably say incredulously.
“It’s true! I saw it with my own eyes!” I’ll insist.
“That doesn’t make any sense, Mom!”
Score 1 for Godless Mom.
So many parents are anti-electronics, and I don’t get it. I mean, I understand that spending all your time on a device is unhealthy and that it’s important to get outside and play as well, but device time has always been invaluable to my family and me. Thanks to my iPhone and my iPad, my son was learning to read, write, add and subtract before he was in kindergarten. He even picked up Spanish, French, and Chinese words and, to this day, has a better vocabulary than any other 6-year-old I’ve ever met, and it’s no thanks to me.
When I sit down with my son to read, he bounces off the walls. His attention span is shorter than Tiger Woods at the Playboy mansion. I can maybe get through a sentence, even with incentives, before he has lost total and complete interest and is now practicing his dismount from the couch. But if we use the iPad and play a game that teaches reading, I’ve got his full focus.
A lot of parents make the mistake of thinking education must only ever be done in the same way it always has been done, or it’s not really education. This is, of course, bologna. All children learn differently. All children are unique in their capacity to pay attention to different things. If you want to truly educate your child and bring up a thinker, you must appeal to how that individual learns.
There are some truly amazing apps out there for kids, like Agnitus, Mr. Pencil for Leappad, and so much more. Right now, my kid is hooked on the game 2048 – he is 6, and his favourite game is a logic game. Shit could be worse.
Bringing up a thinker absolutely requires that they understand how to use today’s technology. Parents intent on bringing up technologically illiterate children are doing their kids an unfathomable disservice.
3. Answer their questions
Even when you don’t know the answer to something your child is asking, show them how you can find out. Have an Atlas and Encyclopedias in the house, so you don’t always have to refer to Google. The simple act of seeking out answers together will teach kids how to do it themselves.
4. Get them to watch videos and shows that promote inquiry
I don’t know about your kids, but when I suggest they watch something, they immediately say no. So, my trick is to just put it on without saying a word. Eventually, my little guy will get curious and start watching. Our favourites that started out this way are Bill Nye The Science Guy & Cosmos. I guarantee you’ll be floored when you see how much even a 6-year-old can understand.
5. Expose them to new places as much as you possibly can
As a child, I travelled a lot with my family and visited over a dozen countries before I was even in high school. I know, beyond any doubt, that nothing will ever cause your child to question things as much as seeing people live differently. There is a vast difference between knowing that people live in poverty and seeing what living in poverty looks like. Your first question, as a child, is always, “why do they live like that, and I live as comfortably as I do?” It’s not always a nice neat, perfectly worded question, and more of a sense of deep discomfort and guilt. It never leaves you when you see that as a child.
When I visited Bangkok as a teenager, I had the single most life-altering moment in all of my existence when I came across a beggar on an overpass. She was a mom, both eyelids sewn shut with a tiny baby in her lap. I would not be who I am today if that had not happened. I had literally gone from a shallow, boy-crazy, flippant teenager to an answer-seeking thinker in an instant. My thirst for answers has never been quenched. Nothing has ever been able to explain to me why she suffers and I thrive, but this one question has been the primary reason I have an insatiable desire for knowledge.
Sheltering your children from the realities of the world is tantamount to child abuse in my mind. They will see it. There is nothing you can do about that. You have the option to choose whether they see it with you there to answer their questions or without you.
6. Always ask them why
You probably know already from your own kids asking why after everything you say, that explaining yourself can be difficult. Get them used to it by asking them why after the things they say. Making the reasons behind ideas and statements as important as the ideas and statements themselves will make your kids look for the reasons for everything.
On the flip side, when they ask you why, respond with “why do you think?”
7. Use every opportunity to explain what evidence is
When your kids tell ghost stories or talk about aliens or leprechauns or even Jesus and god, always ask them about the evidence for these things. They will inevitably say things like, “Well, Sarah told me,” or “Miss Blah Blah told the class that.” This gives you the perfect opportunity to explain that someone telling you something doesn’t mean it’s the truth. Give an example, “I am 42 feet tall,” and explain that just the fact that you said it doesn’t make it true.
8. Science experiments
There’s not a kid in the world that won’t enjoy a good science experiment. Explain the scientific method to them, “First, we guess what will happen during the experiment, then we use the experiment to test our guess.” I have a Pinterest board full of fun science experiments you can do with your kids: click here.
9. Talk about movies or TV shows, or books after you’ve watched or read them.
Ask them what they thought of it or why this character did that thing they did. Take the opportunity to explain how stories come to be: the writers, the producers, the actors, the animation, and the publishing. You can also ask them if they had been the writer of the story, would they have changed anything, and why. This should come without saying, but make sure your kid knows that when they are watching or reading something fictional, it is not real.
10. Choose your own adventure books!
Choose Your Own Adventure books are fantastic for promoting thought and learning the different consequences of different choices. Read the books with your kids and ask them to explain their choices and see if it turns out how they expect. We take this a step further in our house: I will make up a story and tell him at bedtime and leave it on a cliffhanger. I’ll ask him to dream up the rest and tell me over breakfast. This idea actually came from my own childhood. When my aunt would visit, she would do this with me, and I loved it. The extra bonus here: they are excited to go to sleep.
11. Play devil’s advocate
Be careful not to confuse your kids here and make sure they know you’re just playing, but when they take a stance on something, take the opposite and ask them to explain their side to you. Engage in a simple debate. This helps them learn how to explain and defend their opinions.
What do you do in your home to promote critical thinking in your kids?