Our world is facing a lot of challenges, with even more coming. We need citizens and leaders who question things that are presented as “fact,” who ask critical and thoughtful questions of their leaders, and who think carefully about how they make decisions that impact their own and other’s lives. In short, this world is in desperate need of strong critical thinkers.

As a doctoral student, I spent four years studying college student and adult development, with a focus on whether innovative teaching and learning strategies were helping to foster critical thinking skills. I came to passionately believe that critical thinking skills are some of the most important skills we can emphasize in higher education. But as a parent, I became passionate about starting well before college. 

Learning to think critically and to make decisions based on those thinking skills is a lifelong pursuit; even traditional-age 18- 24-year-old college students do not always possess the complex analytical skills that allow them to balance their own needs with the needs of others or to analyze the extent to which an “expert’s” perspectives are well-informed. We can’t expect our young kids to achieve these skills right away either, but we can plant the seeds that will help them to be prepared for complex thinking as they grow older.

In my studies, I found that critical thinking skills are developed when four conditions are in place. 

  1. The individual needs to feel that his/her contribution to knowledge development is welcomed within an environment of trust.
  2. Learning experiences need to offer both challenge and support.
  3. Development often emerges from unexpected or new experiences (in which a person needs supported time to reflect and process).
  4. Educational experiences need to support both intellectual and emotional growth of the individual. 

So how can we translate these conditions to our role as parents? 

Create an environment of trust in which your kids’ feel that their opinions are welcome.

By asking your children to contribute to family decisions, you’re helping them learn how to ask respectful questions of those in authority (like their doctors or teachers), and encouraging them to ask questions even if they worry that their questions are silly. We can listen closely to their questions, stop what we are doing to engage in the conversation, compliment them on their curiosity, and let them know that we appreciate how hard they are thinking. 

Instead of simply telling our children that their conclusions are wrong, we can ask them if they have considered alternative interpretations or we can tell them what we think about when we make conclusions.

Offer challenge and support as your children navigate complicated concepts.

One way to do this is by selectively utilizing the Socratic method. While sometimes our children just want an answer from us, there are other times when they benefit from answering a question with a question. When my six-year old asks, “Why don’t you let me use toy guns?” I could launch into a complicated political discussion about my feelings on gun control or I could ask him to speculate on why he thinks I have that rule. 

His speculation, in turn, helps me understand how complex his thinking is on the topic before I choose my own words. I challenge him to answer his own question, but also support him to figure it out as the conversation continues. Thus I am also helping him learn that he has the right and responsibility to try to answer his own questions and formulate his own opinions. If he later wants to argue a different perspective, I can respectfully enter into that conversation, even though I will sometimes have the last word.

Expose your children to unexpected and new experiences.

Bring your children into the world with you at whatever level is appropriate. I take my child with me to vote and talk to him about why I am choosing certain candidates without getting into confusing (or even scary) conversations about terrorism or healthcare debates. In order to help him learn how to process these experiences, I try to model critical thinking by walking him through some of my own decision-making, without overcomplicating things or talking so long that he gets distracted and stops listening.

We can also expose our children to new experiences by going out of our way to ensure that they are engaged with diverse perspectives in our communities and our daily lives.  Living in a predominantly white community means that my child is not often exposed to children or families of color, thus I spend time thinking about diversity as it is represented in other sources of “input,” like books and media. 

When my child has questions about people who are different from him I do not aspire to the “color blind” perspective. If my child notices that there is a person of color or a person with a disability or a transgender person and is unsure how to talk about it, I try to help him explore his questions and choose respectful language. I don’t say, “Shh…don’t talk about it.”

Support the intellectual and emotional growth of your children in the critical thinking sense.

Realize that engaging in critical thinking and the discussions that go along with it can be emotionally draining. While it’s important to ask our children good questions and to challenge them to come up with their own answers, there are times when they are going to be too tired or overwhelmed to do so. We can observe our children and be sensitive to their emotions and sometimes simply help them to find a resolution that works for the time being. 

Likewise, when a topic arises that is intellectually complex but also emotionally challenging, we can help them to name the emotions that are coming up for them: “Are you feeling confused, honey? It’s okay if you want to take a break from this conversation and come back to it later.”

We can also model observation and acknowledgement of our feelings: “Isn’t it hard to understand this idea? I sometimes can’t make up my mind how I feel about it. That can be frustrating, but I know I don’t have to make this decision right away so that helps me.”   

And lastly, we can help them to develop the ability to understand others’ emotions – a highly important component of critical thinking – by engaging with them in discussions about putting themselves in someone else’s shoes: “ I know it seems like it doesn’t cause much harm to pick an apple from someone else’s tree, but how would you feel if you looked out our window and saw someone picking from our tree?” 

illustration of an apple

As my children grow older I hope to translate these lessons into more complex situations. I want to teach them things like “the danger of a single story” or the ways that politicians or media can twist statistics to serve their own purposes. I want dinner table conversations to equip them with the skills to engage in respectful dialogue with others, even when we disagree.  

When they go to college (if they so choose), I want them to be the students who are already equipped to make the most of their classroom and real-world learning – the ones who ask questions that even the professor can’t answer and who come up with new ways of interpreting even the most accepted theoretical concepts. 

If we can succeed in raising these kinds of children, just think about the potential for innovation and leadership for generations to come.