Critical thinking skills are important at any point in life. Studies have shown that children as young as four can understand critical thinking skills. Strong critical thinkers can grow up to become lawyers, politicians, judges, scientists, and mathematicians – essentially any profession where challenging the accepted belief is encouraged. Like any other skill, there are ways that you can start your children off early learning the critical thinking skills that will benefit them later in life. There are five generally accepted base-level steps to promoting these personality traits in children:
Teach them to question the world around them
Intellectual curiosity is the foundation of critical thinking. Here, it is important to understand the distinction between lecturing and questioning your child. When teaching your child about the world around them, stop frequently and ask them questions about why they think something is the way it is or about what someone’s reasoning might have been for doing something. Some experts advocate stopping as frequently as every 30 seconds to ask a questions – understanding that you may not always get an answer. You can also use a wrong answer as a lead-in to try and have them understand the more abstract notion of why something went wrong rather than why it went right.
Encourage them to explain their position on things
Everyone knows that children of a certain age can be very opinionated. An everyday critical thinking exercise is to ask your child to explain their position on an opinion they offer. Don’t push too hard or take it far enough that they become frustrated, but allowing them to collect their thoughts on a subject and verbally express their reasoning can be one of the most important foundations of critical thinking development. An easy way to spark this mode of thinking is to ask your child to start their explanation of an opinion with a statement like, ‘I agree/disagree because...’.
Ask them provocative and abstract questions
Once a foundation has been laid where your child understands how to reason through the steps in answering an open-ended question, you can move on to helping your child hone their reasoning skills. Present them with abstract questions and guide them to think through their opinion. This will allow them to define the terms of a question in their head, draw on evidence that they have learned or observed, and join the two to form an argument. This seems like a simple thing to an adult, but it is an important skill in the development of critical thinking skills in children. You can also layer and un-layer your questions, building upon the reasoning presented in previous questions. A good example of this would be a question along the lines of questioning what bricks are made of and then leading to the next question of why bricks make good building material. You can even take it one step further in the abstract reasoning chain and pose a follow up to that question of under which circumstances, then, might bricks not make a good building material.
Teach them that sometimes, things are not what they seem or what they have been taught
This can be a hard concept for both children and parents to grasp. On the one hand, parents often spend quite a bit of time reinforcing the notion that mommy or daddy is ‘always right’. On the other, we undoubtedly want our children to understand the world around them with an inquisitive nature. A recommended way to ease a child into this type of thinking is by pointing things out (such as geometric shapes) and mentioning that a certain shape may be able to be classified as another type of shape but not others (in the case of a geometric shape, that not all squares are rectangles, but all diamonds are squares, for instance). This will help them to question absolutes and be inherently skeptical when told that things are ‘always’ a certain way.
Encourage Socratic dialogue
The Socratic dialogue involves giving someone a stance to argue on a topic and having someone else play devil’s advocate. You then have the two parties to the discussion switch roles and repeat the exercise. It was developed in the writings of Plato to help contemporaries and students of Plato strengthen their reasoning and oratory skills. How it helps your child is by forcing them to try and understand a stance that they may have never thought about before and may not even agree with. It also helps them listen and find flaws in the reasoning of another person’s opinion based on the reasoning they provide, rather than the child’s opinion. Obviously, this is a somewhat higher-level learning activity and may be best suited for children that are older (typically their early teens) and further along in their reasoning skills. It is also important to let the child understand that they may lack the life experience necessary to form a hole-proof stance on a subject.
It is important to remember that positive reinforcement is helpful in any learning activity involving your child. Remember to think about whether or not some of their answers really are wrong to them and why. Be positive when explaining your correction to them and try and allow them as much time as they need to understand why something is.
Critical thinking can prove to be a useful life-long skill. Reasoning, especially, is something that can be learned and strengthened throughout a person’s life. Starting in early adolescence can give your child a head-start on some of the foundational skills that allow them to grow into inquisitive, intellectual, and logical adults.
Bernard Clark is the Marketing Director for Brusilow & Associates, a court reporting agency located in Philadelphia, PA. Bernie was motivated to do research on critical thinking when he recently became a father after long having been surrounded by attorneys (who can be some of the most critical thinkers you’d meet).