11 Ways To Make Sure You’re Raising Critical Thinkers

I was having a chat on Twitter the other day about my little guy being taught 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, this was said:

And I thought it was brilliant. 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!”

“What?”

“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.

Kids with an iPad

Learning is incredibly easy with iPads.

2. Devices – 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 the device time has always been invaluable to me and my family. 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 5 year old I’ve ever met, and it’s not because of 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 practising 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 or it’s not really education. This is almost as big a lie as Jesus. 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 5 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 watching 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 Bye The Science Guy & Cosmos. I guarantee you’ll be floored when you see how much even a 5 year old can understand.

5. Expose them to new places as much as you possibly can – As a child, I traveled 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 in absolute poverty. 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. I have written up my most moving experience with that some time ago:

Driving through the streets of Bangkok, a city that seemed never to end, we drove past slums and ghettos and projects and shacks and beggars and bums, children on the street crying, vendors selling cheap knock-offs of Gucci, Versace, Chanel, Nike, Rolex and Reebok, moms panhandling to feed their sons who are missing legs and arms and eyes and in and amongst it all, clean, ironed, starched and shaved white middle class Westerners taking photos of it. It’s a perversion almost worse than the girls no older than I standing on street corners in bras and imitation-leather minis and stilettos waving down cars with pained grins and tiny teenaged fragile shaking hands.

This time it’s the Park Hotel, Sukhumvit 22, dark alley dirt road, no sidewalks just knock-off stalls and stray dogs and American shoppers looking to get the best deals on Nike straight from the sweatshops so they don’t have to pay the mark-ups back home, trying to find them fast enough so they don’t have to witness the horrific reality that is Bangkok too long before they try to wiggle their McDonalds, Carl’s Junior love handled bodies back to the safety of the shiny, golden out-of-place Park Hotel on Sukhumvit 22.

“It’s such a shame” is a phrase I’ll hear out of too many of them, staring, gawking, snapping photos but refusing to drop a couple baht in the cans and hats of visibly starving beggars.

The Park Hotel was luxury beyond what we’d ever seen in our blue-collar town-home lifestyle back home. Made me think of Vegas, out-of-place, in the middle of a dustbowl, glittering beacons for the rich or not-so-rich but willing to spend, a vacuous void in which to throw your dollars and baht without the danger of supporting the destitute, who made up the majority of Bangkok and some of Vegas, too. Shiny brass handrails and lamps and casino carpets, lace and velvet window dressings, and a long, mahogany check-in desk, with Thai girls, just pretty and lucky enough to have gotten a job sucking up to Western tourists, and avoid having to suck ‘em off in the streets.

Of course, I was too young at the time to put any of this together. Existing in my own selfish head, hedonist teenaged ignorance, I ran to the pool with my little brother and swam and marco’d and polo’d, soaked and burned in the orange Thai sun until I was crisp, pruny and exhausted. That night it was a sound slumber, in a spacious queen, in a luxurious room in a city that seemed to go on forever.

The following day, buckled into our neon fanny-packs, we ventured out into the wild, commercial streets of Bangkok, the air thick and brown, 8 lanes of cars on every road, in every direction until the ends of the Earth. Along every street, stores spilled out onto the sidewalks, selling trinkets made by the tiny little hands of this country’s children, leather goods, Buddhist bells, wind chimes, silk pajamas, sneakers, watches and little 24 karat gold nose and ear pickers inlayed with lovely rubies and mother of pearl. We spend and we spend and we spend, my brother and I buying 2 tons of pirated cassette tapes of Seal, Public Enemy, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and 2 Live Crew.

We made our way to the bank of the canal, hopped in a longtail boat, warned not to let the water splash on us for fear of foreign diseases so crippling we’d wish we were dead, we huddled and took photos of little brown boys leaping off their back porches, resting on stilts over the bank into the brown, muddy water, splashing and laughing with delight. Men sat on logs, perfectly balanced, holding fishing lines, relaxed and smiling and waving as they hear us roll by snapping photos like some misled group of paparazzi. Long, slim boats slid past us full to the sky with fruits and vegetables and cages with live chickens in them on their way to make their living selling their fare at the floating markets, a wave-rocked merchant bazaar in the canal, the muddy canal, in the dusty city of Bangkok, the skeleton in Asia’s closet, the fatherland of suffering.

Back into the city, we push through the slimy, filthy air and smells of body odor, peanut sauce and incense flowing out the open doors of all the golden peaks of temples and palaces, The Kingdom of Siam, hidden amongst dingy concrete buildings, a booming sex trade and golden nose picker sales. We make our way up one street and down another and they all look the same and people follow us, begging us to buy their goods, going so far as to cry and pull and grab, throngs of desperate female and male faces longing for your “American” money, it gets to be too much and they swim together in the heat and the humidity and going long enough one could swear it was one giant face of some Asian demigod, begging for your purse, tears streaming to the dusty ground, look at my little girls, my little girls they’ve given up their innocence to eat… The once great and beautiful Kingdom, fallen, defeated under the pressure of global economics.

It was exactly at this moment when my heart began to cave in. My family is a very loving family, a very intelligent family, a family with a deep commitment to social good. Suicide Counselor Dad and 6th Grade teacher Mom had huge hearts and made mine huge and gave me respect for all life, all people, all animals, all cultures and ideas. I loved and love still, everyone and I had no idea people suffered like this. I sauntered up the ramp of an overpass and came to a woman with her eyes sewn shut, missing her leg, a child in her lap no bigger than your average pug, begging and pleading in a foreign tongue, and there’s no need to mince words here, it was sick. My heart twisted inside me, my knees softened, I trembled as I took out the money I had exchanged in the airport the previous day from Hong Kong dollars to baht, and dropped it into the little, brown, army cap she had turned upside down by her feet. I felt ill. The child started to cry and the blind woman felt around, found the bills I’d dropped in her hat and bowed, repeating words I’d never heard before, sounded like crying, though if there were tears, they would have collected in the sewn lids of her missing eyes. She tried to smile but there was nothing to smile about. The money was nothing, it meant a couple of meals for her and her little boy, but what then? I couldn’t stand it and wished to go home and I told my parents that and they agreed and we left and hid, like the other Westerners, in the cozy cool of the Park Hotel. My sleeping that night was much less heavy, tossing and turning, seeing the woman with no eyes every time I closed mine.

That was the single most life-altering moment in my existence. I would not be who I am today if that had not happened. I had literally gone from a shallow, blonde 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.

Reversely, 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 in 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.

Digging for Dinosaurs

Science experiments!

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. Take the opportunity to explain how stories come to be: the writers, the producers, the actors, the animation, the publishing. You can also ask them that 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, that it is not real.

10. Choose your own adventure books! These are fantastic for promoting thought and learning the different consequences of different choices. Read them with them and ask them to explain their choices and see if 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 at 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?

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Category: About Godless Mom, Mommyhood | Tags: ,
  • Spin2Boson

    You’re very good at writing.

    • Thank you! You have no idea how much compliments like that mean to me 🙂

  • Eitan

    Excellent article, Godless Mom.
    I’m bookmarking this!

  • Kat Parks

    Excellent article. I had the fortune of being able to stay home as a full time mom for the first three years of my son’s life. We would talk about empathy and other ideals, and I never have spoken with him using simplified language. The first year I worked, the day care workers would come to me and say “Tommy said the funniest thing when his shoelaces kept coming undone.” I inquired as to what it was. “He came up to me & said, ‘I’m experiencing difficulties.’. I have never heard a four-year old say that.”

    At 12, at a restaurant, he noticed an elderly couple slowly making their way to the door. Just as our food arrived, he stood up to go hold the doors open for them. Not many kids, professing their hunger just 10 minutes prior, would leave the table just as their food arrives just to help strangers. That’s how I knew I was doing well as a parent. He is 23 now.

    You are doing great, teaching critical thinking skills is an absolute must, and there are too few people in the workforce who have those skills.

    • You sound like a wonderful mother and the more I hear from people like you, the more hope I have for people! Thank you so much for reading 🙂

    • Another Oz Atheist

      Friends of mine have a daughter who is now 14 or 15, a very decent young lady, much like your son. She was always asking hundreds of questions from a very young age and her parents would patiently answer as much as they could. When she was four, I heard her father asking her one day “Why do you ask so many questions?” and she answered “Because I want to improve my vocabulary!”

      I don’t think I even knew the word “vocabulary” when I was four!

  • Tom

    Love it!

  • Anthony Magnabosco

    Absolutely amazing list of suggestions. Implementing tomorrow.

  • ipsum629

    From the beginning of this article, I knew two things would inevitably sore up. Bill Nye the science guy, and at-home science experiments. I was right. What is it about bill Nye, outer space, and baking soda volcanoes that makes you want to be a scientist? I bet it is the power to do anything possible that attracts little kids. I bet that’s it. Someone should tell science teachers this. Turn biology class into an evil science lab. And chemistry into a weird substance factory and physics into rocket science. Am I on to something?

    • Could be 🙂 biology class as an evil science lab. Children are, after all, drawn to things they know they shouldn’t be doing.

      Seriously though, if more of my teachers had been like Bill, I might have actually bothered listening to what they had to say.

  • Another Oz Atheist

    Wonderful writing about Bangkok, I was crying while reading. Then you get some wealthy tourists who try to negotiate even lower prices for the already cheap food and wares. You have to wonder if they are religious. I’ve seen shocking poverty in the slums of South Africa and only a few km further one would see ostentatious mansions, replete with expensive European cars in a few garages.

    In a wealthy country like Oz, there is still a huge disparity between rich and poor. There are plenty of homeless people in all the cities, not far from the multimillion dollar harbourside mansions. From memory the latest sales topped $60 million for some properties in Sydney. Gina Rinehart is the richest person in Oz and was the fourth richest woman in the world in 2013, worth over $20 billion. She wanted to get cheap overseas labourers on temporary visas for her mining company to work for $2 per hour! How disgusting can you get.

    Excellent suggestions and examples by Godless Mom. If I had children, I would definitely do something similar to what you suggested, although all the electronic gadgets didn’t exist in those days. I’m passionate about science and maths and would’ve done all I can to encourage them into that. Experiments and the lot. The story telling and debating are good additions to my nerdy stuff. I’m still asking “why” for most things if somebody tells me something.

    My father didn’t finish school and had to work from the age of 16 to support his sick parents and younger siblings. He was determined to give his children as good an education as possible. He was also very interested in science, specifically chemistry. I was a curious little brat from the start and asked him lots of questions, mainly of the type “How does this or that work?” And I disassembled and reassembled my mechanical toys.

    He bought me a huge set of Encyclopaedia Britannica at the age of 9. I read up about almost anything, nuclear physics, chemistry, making gunpowder, the lot. Making little rockets was my favourite. By the start of secondary school I knew the entire periodic table by heart. Symbols, names, atomic numbers, atomic weights, valence, freezing/melting/boiling temperatures. Not that I tried to learn it by heart, just remembered because it was so interesting. My father bought a chemistry set and I later started playing with electronic goodies as well, salvaging transistors and other parts from old radios, building amplifiers etc. That is the sort of stuff I would’ve encouraged my children to do. Without any religion.

    If you are interested, there’s an excellent app for the iPad, called by Theodore Gray. It has 3D animations and amusing descriptions of the elements, all very entertaining. It’s the biggest app on my iPad, over 1.6 GB and is AUD18 which is money very well spent. Methinks your son would love it.

    Plain text in case I didn’t make the link correctly:
    https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/elements-visual-exploration/id364147847?mt=8

    • Another Oz Atheist

      Mmm, seems the href/title HTML tags didn’t work as intended, the link is still clickable though.

    • Wow, thank you! I have to check out that app, it looks amazing!

  • Bad Girl Bex

    Can’t even begin to tell you how much I loved this article. Your list reminds me so much of the way in which I was raised by my own parents. Curiosity, critical thinking, learning to look beyond the obvious and search for the truth… all qualities instilled in me from birth by two parents who wanted me to grow up questioning everything and never losing my sense of awe. From what you’ve written about your mother, it’s clear that she was one of those very special, passionate educators who truly nurtured a child’s intellectual curiosity and development – and you’ve obviously inherited a lot of those qualities from her. Your children are very lucky to have such a hands-on, enthusiastic and passionate mom to help guide them towards finding their own path in the search for – and love of – knowledge!

    Also, that passage about your trip to Thailand: that was some exceptional writing right there. Solid yet evocative….I felt transported there by your words. And you also managed to write beautifully about a situation in a society so ugly…that’s not an easy thing to do. Brilliant, eye-opening stuff.

    Much love

    Bex

  • dwb1957

    Nice. I’m not a father, but these are good points all.

  • Ymmud Koobecaf

    Hello Godless Mom,
    Hopefully you’ll see my post.
    What about Santa? This is bullshit right. But I loved the magic of Christmas when I was a kid.
    What do you think?
    Thank you (As always, you’re the best)

    • Hey, I posted a video about how I feel about Santa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DB8mqiOkfTI

      • Corey Dillon

        I dunno,for me I don’t remember the whole Santa thing being a part of the fun of Christmas;I think I never really bought into the whole story,and Santa’s existence was a nonissue.It’s alot like my first steps toward atheism:I’ve heard alot about him,but never seen him,so what does it matter if he really exists?And if it doesn’t matter if he’s real,then why the hell are we talking about him in the first place?But I never bothered asking these question about Santa cause I never really cared enough to.Fuck him,there’s all this fun stuff happening in front of me.