The Power and Challenge of Critical Thinking

There are so many, many things I want to teach my children before they go out on their own in the world and I can’t be with them every day.  When they were infants, I helped them learn to communicate their basic needs. When they became toddlers, I taught them how to stay safe if they weren’t with me. As they continue to grow and mature, I shared how they should to relate to others and how to be their best selves.

In conversations with my eldest about what I desired for him when he entered his teenage years, I found myself focusing him more on developing and embracing critical thinking.  I know this skill will help him navigate the challenges that lie ahead.  This is also a skill I am still working on and honing as an adult both in my professional and personal roles.

I don’t want him to just accept something he hears or reads.  I want him to consider the agendas of the sources, to fully understand the opposite position and then thoughtfully draw his own conclusions, but be willing to evolve them as he gains new information or perspective.  He is often frustrated by my questions, “How do you know that is true?” or “Where is the data?”

These talks took me back to an earlier conversation with him when he was in third grade.  We were listening to NPR on a ride home and the topic was capital punishment for a felon convicted of heinous crimes.  When I stopped the car, I could tell he had been listening intently.  I asked him what he thought.  He quickly said, “He was an evil man. I think it is right that they give him the death penalty.”

I didn’t like how quickly he accepted what he had just heard as truth.  So I asked him, “What if the man was your dad.  And you know he didn’t do it but the jury convicted him anyway.  Would that change your conclusion?”  I could tell he was thinking now.  His brow furrowed and he did not respond for some time.  I felt comfortable I made my point and he would give the opposite response now.  I even had my pat answer ready, “See when your perspective changes, your conclusions often do too.”

However he explained instead, “I am really glad I don’t have to make those kinds of decisions because now I don’t know what is the right answer.”  I was floored by his ability to grasp the inherent complexity.  It was now my turn to give thought to what was an appropriate response.  I told him candidly, “I don’t know the right answer either.  But since most human systems have flaws, I have a hard time supporting the death penalty because we could get it wrong.”  He nodded and went back to lighter topics typical to an eight year old.

We have had deep discussions since on a number of topics.  He likes to challenge me and helps me to continue to develop my ability to think critically.  He will more likely take the opposite position than agree. I find his perspective often broadens mine or gives me a valuable insight.  He still at times presents something he has read or heard as “fact” although less so than in earlier years.  I found a great quote I shared, “Facts are the hypothesis you believe.”  It is a good reminder for both of us.

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