• Courtney Heard

11 Ways To Make Sure You’re Raising Critical Thinkers

I was having a chat on Twitter the other day about my little guy hearing 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, we were discussing teaching your child critical thinking and it ended up 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!”


“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

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 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 Nye 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 travelled 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 differently. 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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