Raising children who can think for themselves is important. Learn two effective strategies to raise a child who can think critically.
I was shocked—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 his 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 young children solve problems and prevent challenging emotions. 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 see them upset.
But we also undermine their abilities and desire to think for themselves when we step in too often and too soon. 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 them to think for themselves, even at a young age.
And real learning isn’t about answering a question quickly or perfectly. Instead, they should be able to solve problems, through their own thinking.
After all, they need critical thinking skills to succeed. It’s not enough to memorize academic lessons or have their path laid out in front of them. They need to be able to think different ideas on their feet with creativity and curiosity.
So, how can we raise a critical thinker, the kinds of kids with problem-solving skills and make a difference in the world? These two ways can help you do just that:
1. Allow your child to come up with her own solutions
And it’s hard not to step in and assume all decision-making when we know the answer that will fix our kids’ problems. We think we’re doing our job by showing them exactly what to do, and avoid the grumpiness and frustration they feel when they struggle.
But do that often enough and we don’t allow them to come up with their own solutions and hypotheses. After all, that’s what we want—for them 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 this approach when my twins were fighting. One of them 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 and told the other one to leave his brother alone. I might have separated them or found another toy to distract them. I had to fight the urge to resolve their argument, and 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 lot of questions and an open mind.
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2. Ask “how,” “why” and “what” questions
A fantastic way to encourage critical thinking skills at an early age is to keep the conversation going. And we can do that by asking “how,” “why” and “what” questions in everyday life.
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 and viewpoints, maybe even drawing on past inferences he 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 topic and thought processes going as far as it naturally flows. Encourage him to think for himself, no matter how farfetched or incorrect (he’ll learn all those facts in time).
I had wondered if asking questions and not helping would frustrate my kids. I figured their goal was to solve a complex 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. If I wondered whether I should actually step in, they’d let me know, like asking 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, they 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.
Get more tips:
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- How to Raise a Bright Child
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- Why We Need to Encourage Our Children’s Interests
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