“Don’t believe everything you hear!” 4 easy things you can do every day to teach your kid to be a critical thinker

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Even though our kids may be “digital natives,” there’s a lot more to learning and understanding than just being able to find information on the internet. Particularly in this day and age of “alternative facts,” it’s even more essential for our kids to be able to think critically about where information comes from and what it means to them. 

Parents can play a big role in helping kids learn to evaluate the information that they’re plugging into (quite literally, these days). In fact, kids of all ages benefit from opportunities to practice reflecting on and reacting to the world around them. Critical thinking doesn’t just help kids be more thoughtful lifelong learners and citizens, it’s also a really valuable skill for nearly any job your kiddo will have, no matter what kind of jobs the future brings.

Here are some tips for helping kids of all ages learn to think critically:

1. Ask simple questions to get kids thinking

There are so many ways to help kids gain confidence in their own ability to understand the world, just by asking them questions. Even with young children, parents can use open ended questions (those that don’t have a yes/no answer) to prompt kids to think critically. Here are some examples:

  • When discussing a book or movie you’ve shared, ask things like “Why do you think they did that?” Not only is this a way to spur critical thinking, it’s also a way to let your kiddo practice empathy as they consider another’s motivations.
  • When your child asks you to explain something or provide them with an answer to something, you can respond with “I have some thoughts, but first, what do you think?” 
  • Encourage your kiddo to compare and contrast similar concepts or objects to begin to understand the differences between them. Start by asking, “What do these two things have in common and what is unique about each one?”

2. Remind kids to always consider the source

For kids who are online by themselves or are choosing their own reading material and media, it’s essential to know how to think critically about sources. In a study published in 2016 by the Stanford History Education Group, 80 percent of secondary students couldn’t distinguish between real news and sponsored content.

Educators call the ability to evaluate the quality, accuracy and reliability of information “media literacy.” Media literacy is as important for fact-checking a research paper for school as it is figuring out if a YouTube toy review is honest. Encourage kids to look up a second (or third, or fourth) source if they hear something that doesn’t sound quite right. Here are a few questions your child can ask themselves about the news or other accounts of events they encounter:

  • Is the source a primary source (someone reporting on what’s happening as a first-hand account) or are they making a commentary on something? 
  • Why should I believe this person? 
  • Why would it benefit this person to have this opinion? Could something else be motivating them?
  • Is there another possible perspective on the issue? 

For a deeper dive into developing middle and high schoolers’ critical thinking and media literacy, check out this article from Edutopia.

3. Use disagreements to prompt critical thinking

Even if we’ve never said it out loud, we’ve all probably all countered a child’s request for something with some version of “because I said so!” Instead of attempting to stop negotiations with your child over who is right, use the opportunity to hear where they are coming from. 

Instead of cutting off a disagreement or argument quickly, try saying, “I disagree, but would like to know more about your point of view.” Letting your child put together their “argument” will help them reflect on why they think or feel the way they do, plus it’s a great way to strengthen communication skills.

4. Help kids practice saying it in their own words

For kids of any verbal age, it builds confidence and reasoning skills to reflect and share about what they see and learn. After they learn something new, ask them to share what they learned and what it means to them. Specifically, we can help kids learn to paraphrase. Maybe instructions for a new game were kind of long and technical. Or maybe they just heard a quote from an admired person or leader (even if that’s a YouTube star you’ve never heard of!). Ask them to re-state what they heard, but in their own words. This can help kids make their own meaning of what they read and hear. Plus, sometimes it gives us a refreshing window into our kids’ beliefs by hearing them repeat something in their own words.

Sharpening our critical thinking skills and considering the quality, meaning and relevance of information are important for our kids as they find their place in the world. It’s never too early or too late to help kids become lifelong critical thinkers, so give some of these ideas a shot and enjoy the conversations that they spur!

Andrea is a mindfulness and yoga teacher, as well as an independent education consultant in Washington D.C. with expertise in child development, social-emotional learning and personalized learning. Andrea formerly lead a $500 million program for the U.S. Department of Education but still talks about her first job as a high school dropout prevention counselor.