A few thoughts on bringing up children with inquiring minds

As an offshoot from my tweeting about a session at the AAAS meeting, I found myself challenged: “what are some practical things you did with your sons when they were young to nurture critical thinking?”

the-thinker

Given that I wrote some brief answers in response, I thought I might as well write them up here. This is by no means exhaustive, just a few thoughts and memories.

Here’s the first important thing: Fiona and I made it a rule never to answer one of the boys’ questions with “Because I said so”. [note 1] Instead, we were open to being persuaded by our boys if they could make a strong case — for example, to stay up later than usual because some one-off event was happening and there was no school in the morning.

Here’s why this is important: “Because I said so” indicates one of two things. Either it means I’ve not thought hard enough about what the reason is — and kids deserve to know the reason you’re not allowing them something they want. Or it means that actually you’ve given up arguing because you’ve realised they’re right — in which case they should get the thing they’re arguing for. This is a very good thing when it happens: it’s an opportunity to teach kids by experience that constructing a strong argument can achieve good results.

We want kids to learn that they can’t get what they want by throwing a tantrum; but it’s equally important that they learn that they can get what they want by making a coherent case; or, at least, if they don’t get they thing they want, they get the consolation prize of a better understanding of the issue.

nigiri_sushi_platter_sea_choice_sustainable_seafood_melody_gourmet_fury-1270x849

The opposite of “Because I said so” is “Well, what do you think?”, and we often gave that answer to questions the boys asked. “Dad, why do we have to go to school?” / “Well, what do you think?”

And the followup question to “Well, what do you think” is often “And why do you think that?” We were quite merciless with sloppy reasoning. Just as we were happy to let the boys win arguments with us when they were right, so equally we skewered their wrong arguments when they were not.

Often, of course,  the result of “And why do you think that?” is a push through to the next level of thought about an issue. (Come to think of it, this is like a simple form of the Five Whys technique.)

So we would often push the boys into reaching and justifying their own position; and we didn’t hold back from explaining when they were wrong. Either way, they got something out of it.

All of this has worked out really well for us. the boys are now 18, 17 and 14 (the photo of them on the About page is very out of date!) All three of them are really interesting company — so that I would want to be their friend even if I wasn’t their dad. They have their own ideas (not always the same as Fiona’s and mine) and their own rational reasons why they hold them.

I’m sure there’s a lot more I could say that’s not coming to mind at the moment. (I am all brained out after the AAAS meeting.) But I think the two principles above are a great start for raising curious, thoughtful kids:

  1. Don’t answer a question with “Because I said so.”
  2. Do answer a question with “Well, what do you think?”

They’ll get you a long way.


Note 1. I am talking about “the boys” in this post because all our three children are boys. I am sure it doesn’t need saying, but for the avoidance of doubt: all of the above applies equally to girls.

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5 responses to “A few thoughts on bringing up children with inquiring minds

  1. I deliberately (and fairly obviously) give incorrect answers to some questions and hope to be found out. This does not seem to have undermined trust or encouraged lying (I observe plenty of the former and no sign of the latter). This might be regarded as teasing or trolling, but wasn’t meant or apparently felt that way. It helps if the incorrectness is in some way funny when uncovered, and it’s essential that it should not belittle the questioner. The aim is to encourage the asker to think critically about the reply, rather than just accept it. But if they don’t pick up on the error, the strategy fails.

    I’m completely with you on ‘because I say so’ being unacceptable. I got a lot of that as a child, and too much in my current job! Some people don’t like arguments and feel they undermine trust. My experience is the reverse.

  2. It’s not always clear who wins an argument. It is possible to say a lot of words, and I mean a lot of words, I mean speak continuously for many minutes, in an argument. It is also possible to respond to whatever reason is given with a counter argument (sometimes involving many words, and I mean many words) and never run out of counter arguments. In the meantime everyone is late for school, has cold food, misses out on the event, as well as the two parties to the argument. Speaking hypothetically of course.

  3. Right, Paul. Everything depends on the spirit in which the argument happens.

  4. Thanks for sharing Mike. Very useful information.

    We’re trying to apply very similar techniques with our daughter. I’ve consciously avoided saying “because I said so”, I try and get Charlotte to consider the consequences if a certain action was done. Things like “how would you like it?” or “do you think that’s fair?” seem to work well most of the time. She’s still young (turned 6 on Wednesday), so obviously fair amount of learning still ahead for her and us.

    If you could just provide advice on the next 12 years that would be most appreciated. Cheers. :)

  5. Mark, your questions sound excellent! I think the principles stay the same for the next twelve years, it’s just the specific issues that need thinking through that change.

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