PsychCentral Blog: How to Encourage Critical Thinking in Kids

In an age when most kids are glued to their phones and their primary mode of communication is Snapchat, it’s a concern for many parents as far as to how to help their kids develop critical thinking. In a recent radio interview with WGN’s Vic Vaughn, we explored how to help kids become better able to objectively evaluate situations and form opinions that reflect empathy, compassion and cultural sensitivity. My responses to the following interview questions are based on being on my experiences practicing as a psychotherapist for over 20 years, as well as being the parent of two teenage girls.

How big of an impact can a child’s learning style (e.g., creative, logical, spacial, etc.) have on his/her ability to develop critical thinking? How can parents figure out their child’s style?

• A child’s learning style has a large impact on critical thinking because it affects how they gather and process the information that helps them develop opinions and problem-solve.

• Parents should learn to accept and embrace their child’s unique learning style, rather than try to change it to something “better.” It’s important to learn how to support the gifts and challenges of our children.

• There are many learning style inventories and gifted assessments online that can be used to identify their strengths.

What is the Socratic method and how can selectively using it offer both challenge and support, when our kids are navigating a difficult or complicated concept?

• It’s a way of asking questions to help a child find answers themselves, rather than answering them for them. Sometimes I “play dumb” and ask questions in a naive and non-threatening tone to help coach kids to arrive at the answer themselves, which fosters independence and problem-solving.

Asking questions is a good way to nurture critical thinking, but what if your child’s natural response to nearly every question is, “I don’t know.” How can a parent make strides with a child who seems to have no opinion about most things?

• Try asking open ended questions rather than direct questions. For example, if discussing a topic such as marijuana, ask, “What are your thoughts about legalizing marijuana?” rather than leading questions such as, “Don’t you think using marijuana might cause other problems?” Avoid trying to steer the conversation where you want it to go.

• Provide a safe space by stating safe and non-biased statements on the topic such as, “There are many different opinions and each side has good points.” Give opportunity for your child to respond without judgement or interruption.

• Sometimes having the conversations about others (i.e. friends or characters in a movie) can make a child feel less self-conscious and vulnerable. This often allows them to open up because there is more neutrality and it’s less personal.

Is there a general rule that a parent can follow to help them avoid criticizing a child? For instance, is there a generic alternative to criticism that gets the point across without causing the child to shutdown or think you don’t support them?

• Focus on the behavior, not the child’s character. It’s the difference between, “I need you to pick up your room” and “You are a slob.”

• Use “I” statements, rather than “you” statements. For example, “I feel hurt and disrespected when you don’t answer me” versus “You are disrespectful and rude.”

• Say three affirmations or positive things about your kid for every piece of constructive criticism. You don’t want them to brace themselves out of fear that every time you give them feedback it is going to be negative.

How can a parent get their children to respect other people’s cultures and ethnicities and what role does valuing diversity play, if any, in raising a critical thinker?

• This is so important because valuing diversity means valuing different ways of thinking about things . By considering different perspectives, kids will have less rigidity, more open-mindedness, greater understanding and better capacity for creative and collaborative problem-solving.

• Teach your children to practice empathy, kindness and compassion to others by modeling these behaviors, coaching them to respond in this way, and praising these behaviors.

• You can open your children’s eyes by providing them with exposure to diversity (across race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation and socioeconomic differences) through education, museums, art, film, cultural events, travel. Involve them in organizations and experience that will expose them to people who are different from themselves.

• Increase their awareness of social issues through developmentally appropriate discussion and activities, such as social activism and charity work.

It seems like kids these days have tons of stress sources. How can parents avoid piling on more through unrealistic expectations?

• Parents need to keep their own expectations realistic and allow time for their kids to rest and reboot. Leisure time is an important part of psychosocial development.

• Talk with your kid about consciously not over-scheduling. Help them make choices with regard to extra-curricular activities.

• Talk with your kids about work/life balance and self-care. Set a healthy example. Reassure them you are proud of them and you don’t expect them to be perfect—just to do their best, which also involves taking good care of themselves.

What’re some good ways to teach your child to trust internal instincts?

• Encourage mindfulness practices such as meditation, deep breathing and yoga that help teach awareness of feelings in the body. Apps like Calm and Headspace work well for adolescents. Encourage them to check in with their gut or their heart before responding to something to make sure their response feels authentic and clear.

• Share how you have used your internal instincts in different situations and how that has benefited you.

Instead of just telling our children they’re wrong, how can a parent correct an opinion that may be misguided? In other words, how can parents create an environment of trust in which their children know their opinions are welcome?

• Sometimes kids need to know they have the autonomy to think independently and state a different opinion from yours solely for the sake of differentiation. Listen with non-defensiveness and some healthy detachment. “Zoom out”, take a deep breath, nod and reflect that you are hearing them and understand what they are saying, even if you disagree. When kids don’t feel heard, they up the anti.

• Create an atmosphere where open discussion is allowed and welcome by encouraging them to share and explore their thought process. Ask questions that might help them see another perspective.

• Share your views on the topic in a non-preachy manner, citing relatable examples.

What’re some tools a parent can employ, instead of just saying, “Shhh…don’t talk about it”, when a child notices a person of a different color or sexual orientation or someone who lives with a disability that they don’t yet understand?

• Be a positive role model for them. Demonstrate kindness, compassion, openness and cultural sensitivity in your own language and behaviors.

• Afterwards, have a conversation. “Did you notice that person may have been transgender? Can you imagine what that might be like for them? How brave. She looked beautiful.” Or, “Did you notice that woman was wearing a head scarf? My friend wears a hijab. How much do you know about Islam? I have learned a lot from my friend.”

• Teach empathy: the ability to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes and imagine how they might feel in that situation brings insight, compassion and awareness.

Name three ways a parent can enhance their chances of raising a critical thinker…one who, upon leaving for college, is ready to think outside the box and find new ways to interpret even the most accepted theoretical concepts?

Provide education that everything they read online or see on social media is not fact. Encourage healthy skepticism, questioning, reading, research and further exploration. Have open and honest conversations as part of your family culture.

Resist the urge to be a “helicopter parent” and allow kids to learn by exploring alternative possibilities and outcomes without fear of failure. Reward effort over outcome.

Encourage a range of different types of experiences with diverse groups of people. Facilitate balance between independence and team collaboration in their learning so they develop both self-esteem and respect for others.

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