Raising children who can think for themselves is important. Learn two effective strategies to raise a child who can think critically.
I learned a big lesson on raising a critical thinker when my son scoffed at me to leave him alone.
He had been playing with a drawing tool—a spirograph set—minding his own business. At one point, I heard heavy sighs and mutterings under the breath. I chimed in with, “What’s up?”
“I can’t put these two pieces together,” he admitted. “I’m trying to make a design but they don’t fit.”
“Oh yeah, that looks tricky. Here—let me show you how to do it,” I offered.
And right away he responded, “No! Thanks but I don’t want you to help.”
How to raise a child who can think critically
We mean well. Often, we assume we’re doing our job as parents when we help our kids solve problems. Why let them remain frustrated, especially when they want to draw with a tool that just won’t work? And let’s not forget how difficult it can be to witness a child upset.
But we also undermine our children’s abilities and desire to think for themselves when we step in too often. The difficulty doesn’t have to be an obstacle we should resolve for them as quickly as possible. Instead, we can see it as a chance for kids to think for themselves.
And real learning isn’t about answering a question fast or even perfect. Instead, kids should be able to solve problems, often on their own.
After all, kids need critical thinking skills to succeed. It’s not enough to memorize or have your path laid out in front of you. They need to be able to think on their feet, in a creative and effective way.
So, how can we raise critical thinkers, the kinds of kids who can problem solve and make a difference? These two ways can help you do just that:
1. Allow your child to come up with her own solutions
If you’re like me, you likely offer solutions to your kids’ problems.
And it’s hard not to when we know the answer that will fix it. We might even think we’re doing our job by showing them exactly what to do. Or we avoid the grumpiness and frustration they feel when they struggle.
But do that often enough and we don’t allow our kids to come up with their own solutions. After all, that’s what we want—for our kids to think for themselves, even without our help. And sure, we can guide them to a solution, but not to the point where we provide all the answers.
I tried it recently when my three-year-old twins were fighting. One of them had approached me complaining about his brother.
Me: “How is he bothering you?”
Son: “He’s following and copying.”
Me: “Why do you think he’s doing that?”
Son: “He wants my toy.”
Me: “What are you going to do about it?”
Son: “Walk away.”
He was able to come up with a solution—”walk away”—on his own.
And trust me, this can be hard. I could’ve stepped right in, told the other brother to leave him alone. I might have separated them or found another toy to distract the other one. I had to fight the urge to resolve their argument, and I had to spend extra time coaxing a solution out of my son.
But it was worth it, when they were able to find a solution with a bit of questions. Speaking of which…
2. Ask “how,” “why” and “what” questions
A fantastic way to encourage critical thinking skills is to keep the conversation going. And we can do that by asking “how,” “why” and “what” questions.
Let’s say your child told you he saw a hummingbird near the flowers. You could say, “Wow—that’s cool!” or even “When did you see that?” But either response, though supportive, doesn’t dig into further thinking.
What if you instead asked, “Wow—why do you think the hummingbird goes to our flowers?” Now he knows to create his own theories, maybe even drawing on past references he’s heard or read in a book.
And you don’t need to correct him if his answer is wrong. He might say, “The hummingbird is making a home.” Instead, keep drawing more theories out of him: “What’s he using to make a home?”
Keep the conversation going as far as it naturally flows. He’ll learn in time the reason hummingbirds fly to flowers. Encourage him to think for himself, no matter how farfetched or incorrect. After all, that’s what philosophers and scientists do all the time.
I had wondered if asking questions and not helping would frustrate my kids. I figured their goal was to solve a problem, regardless of who solved it or how. I also assumed they’d get annoyed with me peppering them with question after question.
But I learned that they actually enjoyed this kind of interaction. They preferred that I didn’t undermine their abilities by solving their problems. And if I wondered if there’s ever a time to actually step in, they’d let me know. They’d ask directly, “Can you help me?”
And I also realized they liked the extra attention I was showing when I’d ask “thinking” questions. The conversations never dragged, either—the back-and-forth would always peter out on its own.
Best of all, my kids seemed to enjoy drawing their own conclusions, and that I had encouraged them to do so.
Now I know better than to take my son’s heavy sighs and mutterings as a sign to step in and solve the problem. All he needed was some time, encouragement, and the ability to think on his own.
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