Children tend to take the world at face value. Advertisements, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and made-for-TV-infomercials are all taken as fact because kids don’t understand “persuasive intent” — and they don’t have the critical-thinking skills needed to understand that someone is trying to sell them something until they are about 10 or 12 years old. So how can parents proactively work to raise kids who know how to question and think critically about the world around them?
Well, first they should be patient. Teaching skepticism is good — it can help kids determine what’s safe or unsafe in the world, and they can become less impulsive — but it doesn’t quite begin to stick until children become big kids, when they hit 8 or 9. And it should be taught carefully: Too much skeptical thinking can lead to cynicism about the intent of others and the broad dismissal of facts, which tends to lead to poor decision-making. So, how can parents help their kids without turning them into pessimists? As with many things, it’s all about modeling the right behaviors, says Dr. Shannon McHugh, a practicing clinical psychologist who focuses on working with children and families.
Here’s what parents who want to model skeptical behavior for their kids do:
- They Ask Lots of Questions When Making Decisions in Front of Their Kids When looking to buy a new television or piece of equipment in front of their kids, parents should make sure they are asking lots of questions and doing lots of research. “In regular situations in life, parents should ask questions before they make a decision,” says McHugh. That’s doubly true if they are in front of their kids. If they’re choosing between two televisions to replace an old, busted one, they can ask questions about the quality of the television, the price point, the payment plans, etc. After they’ve asked those questions and seem satisfied with the information they’ve received, they can make a decision. Doing so in front of their kids helps teach kids to interrogate both the information on offer and their own motivations.
- They Explain the Decisions They Make to Kids Parents should explain, when possible, the decisions they’ve made to their kids. Saying, “We’re getting this TV” is less helpful than explaining why. This is also a way to get kids engaged in decision-making without necessarily asking them to participate in that process, which isn’t always appropriate.
- They Interrogate Kids About Their Own Decisions Parents who want skeptical kids ask them why they do what they do. While kids aren’t often deciding between two flat-screen televisions, they sometimes choose to wear certain shoes or a special T-shirt. Ask them why. Is it because they’re more comfortable? Do they prefer a color? This encourages kids to consider why they might make decisions. This doesn’t teach skepticism per se, but it does teach them about they ways in which they process information and, in making them conscious of their own thought processes, parents are also making kids consider whether those processes are robust.
- They Talk to Them About the Internet As mentioned above, true skepticism doesn’t really develop in children until they hit school age, so appropriate lessons in skepticism for toddlers will look far different than those for kids who are 12 or 13 — and the source material changes, too. Kids with a healthy sense of skepticism at those ages need to be taught about “adult” stuff like the internet. “There really is so much unbridled access to information,” McHugh warns. “No matter how many controls a parent has, there will be a situation where a kid might see something. And if they take everything as, ‘it’s on the internet, it’s true,’ that’s a problem. We know that from adults who don’t understand the internet. This lack of skepticism is impacting our country and our world.”
- They Talk to Them About TV Advertisements When kids watch TV, they are sitting ducks for minutes upon minutes of advertisements for magazines, slime, and kids’ toys. Parents who have skeptical kids watch TV with their kids and when these commercials come on, interrogate their kids about what they think is happening. For example: Just say a dad and kid are watching an infomercial for a magic sponge that cleans all of the hard-to-get stains out of the rug with almost no effort at all. The product, sold only on television, seems like a miracle to your kid. Adults understand that this product is likely not as valuable as it seems. So they grab their computer, Google reviews of the product, and if they are bad, explain to their kid why they did that. “I checked these reviews because I understand that the company is trying to sell me a product that might not work,” they explain.