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How to Raise a Skeptical Kid Without Raising a Cynic

The world is slick with snake oil. Teach your kid to be smart out there.

In a world where people are digitally served weaponized misinformation, skepticism is a virtue in an adult. In a child, it’s a more unusual trait — one that seems in contrast with openness and joy — but it may be increasingly important as parents seek to prepare kids for a confusing world. But how to strike the balance, encouraging curiosity about motives without catalyzing distrust or, worse, cynicism? It’s tough and requires a borderline Grecian devotion to llogikos, the sweet embrace of logic.

History suggests that cynics are frequently wrong and research suggests that cynicism can lead to poor health outcomes, increasing heart disease risk and dementia. Interpersonal stress is also a common issue for cynics, as is the tendency to undermine or ignore support from friends, family and colleagues. It’s a bad lifestyle.

That said, skepticism can be calming. Skeptics have tools to interrogate their experiences methodically and unemotionally. This allows for a sort of practical stoic approach to decision-making.

“I look at being a skeptic as part of critical thinking,” says developmental psychologist and a fellow of Fielding Institute for Social Innovation Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell. She notes that key in teaching those skills is getting children to question their assumptions, particularly when they are negative.

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It’s not hard to catch children in those moments. Younger kids often come to deeply cynical conclusions like, “nobody likes me,” or “we’ll never have fun again.” And Price-Mitchell urges parents to challenge those notions. “You get in there and ask different questions,” she says. “You’re asking: ‘What makes you think that way?’ You’re trying to understand why it is that they came to that conclusion. Start as early as you can.”

In asking those questions, parents begin modeling curiosity and a methodical approach to conclusions. That’s important because the cynical responses often arrive before critical thought. They are immediate and convenient. Parents help by asking kids to take a beat.

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“It’s about inviting them to be clear, and urging them to be accurate get the facts right,” explains Price-Mitchell. “Teaching them how to think in a logical way instead of coming to conclusions really quick.”

That process is actually pretty rigorous and requires explicit lessons about the standards of critical thought. Price-Mitchell often directs parents to build those lessons based on the five intellectual standards from the Foundation for Critical Thinking. Thos standards guide parents in helping kids to be clear, accurate, relevant, logical and fair when asking questions about the world and their assumptions.

Consider a kid who comes home upset that they weren’t picked for an activity in class. The cynical conclusion is that the teacher is just mean, or worse, that the kid is somehow bad or unwanted. Parents can hit the pause button and simply ask that their child be clear about what happened. Part of this is helping kids know it’s alright to ask questions of adults when they are confused or don’t understand.

Next parents can help kids be accurate by walking them through the facts. They need to determine what was actually said and what happened. Maybe the child neglected to raise their hand? Maybe the teacher said she was looking for kids who hadn’t been picked yet this week.

Relevance is achieved when parents ask kids to think of other times where the teacher had to choose between kids and what happened during those time. Then logic can help tie all of the threads together as parents ask if the original assumption makes sense in the light of the facts.

Finally, parents should encourage kids to be fair in their assumption. After all, It’s possible that choosing children for tasks is hard for the teacher. That dose of empathy can help kids reach meaningful and positive conclusions.   

Price-Mitchell notes that this isn’t the default process for parents who prefer to tell their kids what to think rather than giving them the agency to think for themselves. And part of that is the fear that children will reach the wrong conclusions even though they’ve engaged in critical thinking. And, of course they will.

“That’s what we consider a mistake,” says Price-Mitchell. “So as a parent, do you reward your kid for the critical thinking process or you or do you discipline them for the mistake? My response is that you reward them for the critical thinking process.”

After all, critical thinking requires practice. And mistakes are an incredible way to fine tune that practice so it eventually turns into a robust skepticism that welcomes any logical conclusion and avoids cynicism.

But skepticism isn’t all that’s needed to fight cynicism, Price-Mitchell warns. It’s part of constellation of traits kids need to have to see and enjoy the world for what it is. Along with skepticism, she notes, parents need to foster creativity and imagination and play. Which is to say that skepticism should not come at the cost of letting kids be kids. “That’s a huge part of how we end up being able to produce our own original ideas and appreciate the nature of beauty,” she says.