How to Teach Kids to be Critical Thinkers

Critical thinking is more important than ever, especially for our kids. False advertising, political misinformation, online predators—there are many potential dangers to our children and their underdeveloped minds. As parents and caregivers, we can help our children learn how to think critically.

This is an essential skill for our children—one that will help them become independent thinkers who know how to analyze facts and responsibly choose what and who to believe.

Here are a few ideas to help:

Point Out Natural Outcomes

Oftentimes, we determine specific consequences for our kids when they break a rule. If they fail to do their homework, we tack on an extra chore. When they fight with their little brother, we send them to time out. These kinds of consequences are important; they help children understand how to respect certain boundaries.

However, if we always create consequences for bad behavior, we may not be teaching our children the “why” enough.

A basic truth essential to our children’s critical thinking (and emotional intelligence) is that every choice has a consequence. Some of these consequences are ones we fabricate—for example, a trip to the principal’s office or being grounded.

The most powerful consequences, however, don’t come from parents or teachers; they come from the natural outcomes of choices.

Invite your children to recognize natural consequences. When they fail a test because they didn’t study, how do they feel? How is their sibling relationship affected when they fight with their brother? What happens when they bully another person? When kids learn to look for and accept the natural consequences of their actions, they begin to think more deeply about how their choices will affect themselves and those around them.

Offer Choices

In order for children to become critical thinkers, they must first feel that they are capable of making their own decisions. Why think if others always make decisions for you? Encouraging independence and being the “parent” is a careful balance. There are some choices your child may note be capable of making yet.

That’s when you need to step in and make boundaries for your children—but note that these are boundaries, not choices.

It’s impossible for you as a parent, to make a choice for your child. You can set boundaries, but your child will always choose whether or not to keep them.

Emphasize choice when boundaries are kept or crossed. “I feel sad that you chose not to obey the rule,” or “Good job for choosing to do your homework before playing with your friends.”

It sounds simple, but the more you use the words choice and choose, the more you send the message that your kids really are capable of and responsible for making decisions.

Encourage Imaginative Play

Data proves that children who participate in imaginative play have higher EQ. When kids use their imagination, they use emotional and cognitive skills to guess and anticipate how another person would behave and feel in a given situation. When your son plays doctor and pretends that the baby cries when given a shot, his little brain is putting together so many things: doctors give shots, shots hurt, and crying is something people do to express their pain when they get hurt.

That’s a lot of information for a little guy to process and act out. How does he do it? Through critical thinking.

Critical thinking and imaginative play go hand in hand. Both require the ability to anticipate and analyze emotions and behavior. Encourage that important skill by letting your little ones play away!

As we’ve suggested before, place as much value on your child’s playtime as on their homework time. Because in terms of their development, it is.

Ask Questions and Have Discussions

Your children see and hear things all day, every day—from advertisements on phones and billboards, to whatever’s on television, to what their peers are talking about at school. There are varying opinions and lots of information—some true, some not true—circulating around your kids.

You can help your kids filter through all the information they are exposed to by having frequent discussions.

What did you learn at school today? What do you think about…? What are people saying about…? What do you know about…? Having these kinds of conversations is a chance for you to model critical thinking. You may find out that your child is misinformed about an important issue or is buying into false advertising, and you can step in to help.

Don’t Intervene Immediately

Problem solving is at the heart of critical thinking. When you find your kids are faced with a problem, refrain from jumping in to solve it.

Let them struggle—it’s usually in the struggle that they will find a solution.

If your child is having a hard time understanding math at school, don’t be so quick to call the teacher and let her know your daughter needs help. Instead, encourage your child to speak up and ask for help and do her part by studying a little more. If your child complains of being excluded at recess, give him the tools to reach out to others who are alone rather than picking up the phone and calling some parents.

Of course there are times when you should intervene as a parent, but for the majority of problems your child faces, some validation and suggestions can go a long way.

Watching our children struggle can be frustrating—especially when we know how easily and quickly we could solve their problems. But stepping back gives them the chance to learn how to use their own critical thinking skills to find solutions.

Avoid Shame and Control Tactics

“It’s not that hard, honey. You’re smarter than that.”

“Why can’t you be like your brother? He always worked so hard at school.”

Shame and control wipe away a child’s motivation and squash their creativity.

Be conscious of what you say and how you say it, and when you mess up, be quick to apologize and change. Sometimes when children are on the receiving end of shame and control tactics, they become motivated by the wrong things. They do things to keep you happy, to stay out of trouble, or to simply be better than others.

Using these tactics will prevent your child from developing critical thinking skills because they will learn to conform rather than be independent.

On the other hand, if you parent with love, patience, and persuasion, you will encourage your child to think freely and deeply.

Teach Perspective Taking

Being able to take another’s perspective is a key aspect of emotional intelligence and critical thinking. Critical thinking requires you to eliminate bias and look at things objectively.

A critical thinker knows how to take another perspective besides their own—even on issues that may seem the most personal to them.

When your child comes to you with a problem, be sure to invite them to take the other side’s perspective. Ask questions like: Why do you think they think that way? What do you think they are feeling? Why would they act like that? A critical thinker must have the ability to empathize, or their bias will get in the way of being able to make a proper judgement.

Teach a Little Skepticism

Skepticism is important in choosing where we get our information and what we choose to believe.

Try teaching your kids a little skepticism by talking about logical fallacies.

It sounds complicated, but trust us—even though these fallacies have fancy names, kids can understand the concepts. The more familiar you become with them, the more frequently you’ll notice them—from your own conversations, to online advertisements, to political dialogue. Remember, the goal is to teach our children to be free thinkers. For this to happen, they have to be able to understand how information is conveyed, not just what the information is.

Encourage the “Why”

Around the two-year mark, most children begin to bombard us with a one-word question. You ask them to pick up their toys. “Why?” You discourage them from hitting their siblings. “Why?” You tell them to eat their broccoli. “But why?” It can get old fast, and in your frustration, you may feel the urge to answer, “Because I said so!”

Be careful not to shut down these “why” questions.

This questioning habit is actually quite valuable—especially in terms of becoming a critical thinker. Critical thinkers always ask, “Why?” They don’t accept information just because someone said so, even if that someone is an important or influential person. Even when your children stop asking “why,” never stop explaining.

Try incorporating these nine suggestions in your parenting and watch your children’s ability to think critically grow!

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