The idea of the “bullshit detector” as a mindset that separates truth from fiction was coined by George Washington in 1782. Actually, that fact is bullshit, but I bet someone will retweet it.

Bullshit is all around us. Digital communication, perpetual advertising, the 24-hour news cycle, and social media allows BS to flow like never before. (Sorry for that image.)

Grownups (mostly) understand this, but unfortunately children are the most susceptible to BS. The consequences of having a weak BS detector are most serious for teenagers, who are wired to experiment and push boundaries.

I don’t mean to be dire. Most kids eventually learn to detect BS at some level. Education and experience teach kids how to make choices over time. But preemptively guiding your kids to develop a BS detector can do three things:

  1. Keep them from wasting time, money, and mental energy.
  2. Empower them to practice critical thinking early on (a necessary skill in our digital economy).
  3. Protect their sense of openness and wonder, by teaching them to constructively direct their attention.

What Bullshit Is

“Communication or actions viewed as deceiving, misleading, disingenuous, unfair or false.”

In his bestselling essay “On Bullshit,” retired Princeton philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt wrote that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

I found this useful definition of bullshit from Simon Hayes on Quora: “The key ingredient in all flavours of bullshit is the undisclosed agenda.”

Bullshit is intentional misdirection. Unlike pure lying, it often contains elements of truth, which better conceals the bullshitter’s agenda. Bullshitters are only concerned with their own advantage. They usually don’t mean to harm others, though that’s often a consequence of bullshit. And some bullshit is worse than others.

When to Introduce the Concept

Kids start knowing the difference between the truth and lying by age 3. This is also when they begin to become more cognitively aware of the consequences of lying. Many kids at this age have a very strong sense of fairness. (Anyone with young kids has heard the phrase “It’s not fair!” many, many times.)

At that age, kids are also exposed to the concepts of manipulation and trickery in their stories, fairy tales and cartoons. However, they might not connect the lessons in those fables with their own lives.

Therefore, they need a bit of guidance to develop their a baloney detector (in kid speak).

profile of bull

How to Help Your Kids Build a BS Detector

Questions Are The Most Powerful Tool

A requirement for BS detection is a habit of instinctively asking questions. The ability to “think in questions” is also necessary for critical thinking, and a key life skill.

The best way to get kids in the habit of questioning is by asking them open-ended questions:

  • “I wonder how they know that?”
  • “That seems incredible! Does that make sense to you?”
  • “I wonder why they chose to say that?”
  • “What do you think is really going on here?”
  • “What do you think ______ is hoping to get out of this ad, statement, etc?”

Don’t tell them that their answers are right or wrong. Engage in conversation. Keep it light. Over time, they’ll learn to constructively ask questions themselves – even when you’re not around.

Simply being able to ask questions (and at later stages of development, knowing how to formulate good questions) is the best way to discover that a bullshitter has an “undisclosed agenda” as mentioned above.

Use Teachable Moments

Respectfully pointing out BS when it occurs can help provide context for how it works. If your kids are young, point out examples of BS in the media, on product packaging, and in ads, rather than focusing on people who are full of bullshit.

Sometimes I’ll simply point out a TV ad that seems misleading.  I’ll say “What do you think this ad is selling?” Or “What do you think it really means?”

Building on the research element noted below, I might look up the sugar in a cereal featured in an ad on TV and ask “How can a cereal that’s more than half sugar claim it’s healthy, when we know that too much sugar is bad for our health?”

Fairytales, children’s stories, and cartoons also provide accesible teachable moments. The villains in these tales are often great bullshitters.

(BTW, giving a kid an allowance and making them use it also quickly attunes kids to marketing BS.)

Deploy Humor

There are two ways of using humor to build immunity to BS. The first is making fun of blatant, ridiculous examples of BS. The claims of almost any “As Seen on TV” product are a reliable target for this.

Joking around as a family also helps kids develop healthy perspective and skepticism. It also helps them appreciate the nuances of language – language being the chief weapon of bullshit.

Research Together

When some dubious claim comes along, be a positive role model and investigate it. This is practically a family game in my house.

A quick Google search is usually enough (though it’s possible to go down a rabbit hole, double and triple checking the information found on Wikipedia, etc.). The rule of thumb for quick research is to seek information from an unaffiliated source.

In some cases, however, the most fun way to verify a fact is by talking to a real person – a parent, grandparent, a family friend, or teacher. Simply saying, “Let’s ask your mom what she thinks” also sets a positive precedent for getting second opinions.

As They Get Older

As kids get older, you can start talking to them about some of the specific markers of BS in language and communication. Some of these include:

  • Friendliness without friendship – salespeople and politicians are the worst at this. When someone you don’t know fawns all over you, it’s almost certain they want something from you.
  • Vague language – so often the sign of bs.
  • Claims of authority without expertise
  • Claims without facts, or (more insidious) claims with unrelated facts

With older kids, you can also check out these great animations about critical thinking. They’re designed for kids aged 12 and up or so – but younger kids might like them too.

Older kids can also learn how to perform quality research.

Protecting Wonder

The first rule of BS is to expect it. It’s never too early to introduce the cliche that “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

But there’s a fear that in teaching kids to expect BS, they’ll grow up as cynical doubters or disengaged pessimists.

It’s important to guard kid’s openness and natural sense of wonder. I loathe the idea that, in anticipating bullshit (manipulation and insincerity), wonder might wither into unthinking skepticism.

However, my belief is that by having the understanding, practice, and confidence to question and think for themselves, they’ll have richer lives and remain wide-open to wonder.

Indeed, one of the greatest benefits of having a finely tuned bullshit detector is also having a a finely tuned detector for sincerity and gratitude.

Carl Sagan pondered this enigma. He wrote:

“If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.”

Swap the word “science” for “life” in that last sentence.

Our kids will be subjected to bullshit throughout their lives. At first, having a BS detector can help them make smarter choices at school, on the playground, and with their allowance at the store.

As they grow older, having a well-honed BS detector can help them kids make smarter choices with their health, finances, and in their work, community and romantic relationships.

*Warning

Some parents may not want to teach their kids to ask questions, think for themselves, and preemptively detect bullshit. That’s because someday the kids might call their parents on their bullshit. Understandable, perhaps. But this is the place to note that the most insidious source of bullshit comes from oneself.

Also, if you’re really good at this teaching your kids to understand bullshit, they probably won’t believe in Santa for very long.

Further reading: