How To Raise A Kid With Critical Thinking Skills (But Not An Anxious Mess)

Children take the world at face value. Parents need to help them understand what strangers want without frightening them.

Children tend to take the world at face-value. Advertisements, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, made-for-tv-infomercials. They buy in. That lack of skepticism is what makes kids susceptible to believing that drinking Diet Coke is like going to a party on an airplane, which is why America has so laws governing the nature of advertising shown opposite kids’ programming. Because kids don’t understand “persuasive intent” until they are about 10 or 12 years old, parents have to make it through for the first few years of their kids lives and then help slightly older children develop critical-thinking skills that can lead to more thoughtful decision-making down the road.

Teaching skepticism is good. It helps kids understand the world in which they live and the motivations of others. But, if taught in excess, it 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.

Why Skepticism Is Important
“Being skeptical is very important. It helps kids develop the ability to know what’s safe or unsafe in the world. Skeptical kids are the ones that are going to be less impulsive; they’re going to be the ones to think through things,” says McHugh. Kids who are able to engage in critical thinking often think through the consequences of their actions before they do anything drastic. They’re also more willing to consider if things that the things that they encounter might be unsafe or the things that they hear could even be incorrect, leading them to be independent thinkers who want to figure out the truth for themselves.

Skepticism Is Taught Through Modeling And Explicit Examples
Skepticism, as a trait, is a “big kid” thing. But just because it takes a while for kids to get a grasp on their own sense of skepticism doesn’t mean that parents should avoid modeling skepticism when kids are a bit too young to totally catch on. To the contrary… “Kids are little sponges,” she says. “They are absorbing all the time. Early childhood modeling of that stuff is really important.

Even though you may be modeling or teaching your kid skepticism through your own actions and modeling decision making, it may take a while for kids to begin to exhibit that behavior themselves.

“Around the 8 or 9 range is when kids start to develop their own ability to be more thoughtful, curious, and skeptical on their own.”

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How To Make Kids Think Critically 

Modeling skepticism is easy. It doesn’t take a lot to teach a kid to think critically.

  • When Making Decisions In Front Of Kids, Ask Lots of Questions
    “In regular situations in life, parents should ask questions before they make a decision,” says McHugh. 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.
  • Explain Decisions Made To Kids
    Parents should explain, when feasible and 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.
  • Interrogate Kids About Their Own Decisions
    Ask kids 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 say, 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.
  • Talk About the Internet
    As mentioned above, true skepticism doesn’t really develop in children until they hit school-age. That being said, an appropriate lesson in skepticism for toddlers will look far different than one for kids who are twelve or thirteen — and the source material changes, too. Kids with healthy senses 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 that don’t understand the internet. This lack of skepticism is impacting our country and our world.”

An example: Your kid is watching Nickelodeon and, during a commercial break, sees 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, only sold on television, seems like a miracle to your kid. As an adult, you understand persuasive intent and the slim likelihood that this product is actually valuable. So, you grab your computer, Google reviews of the product, and if they are bad, explain to your kid why you did that. “I checked these reviews because I understand that the company is trying to sell me a product that might not work,” you explain.

Explain that sometimes, information in advertisements or online is meant to persuade, not inform. Explain the difference between those two things. Kids, by 10 or 12, will start to internalize this message, and understand that they should think about intent.

What To Do When You Suspect The Skepticism Thing Has Gone Too Far

Of course, parents can take the whole skepticism lesson too far, especially for younger kids. Sometimes, per McHugh, unbridled skepticism can actually be a symptom of anxiety in children.

“Being overly skeptical can be a coping skill for kids, especially if they feel anxious or unsure about their environment. Anxious kids really just want control and skepticism is a great way to  protect yourself and your environment, to not believe things that maybe cause you distress,” says McHugh. “What does skepticism serve? Protection. Why would you need to question something unless you were going to want to be protected from it? If a kid perceives a threat, they’re more likely to either push back on that or try to get away from it, by reasoning or rationale. But any skill like that can become a problem if it’s overused.”

Although kids should ask questions and thoroughly interrogate the world around them, if kids ask the same questions repeatedly or don’t seem satisfied with clear-cut answers, kids may be experiencing uncomfortable levels of anxiety.