The Critical Thinking How To

By | March 2, 2013

There’s no quiet dinners in our house. The boys have yet to master not talking with their mouths full but I am guilty of overlooking the very thing when other pressing matters are at hand.

“Where do the potatoes come from?”
“British Columbia.”
“How about broccoli?”
“Same”
“Meat?”
“Same.”
“Why do we buy them like this?”
“Because it’s good to eat food that grows close to where you live; it’s fresher and you’re helping the people who live close to you. And there’s no big trucks or ships or planes hauling it in from somewhere else, so you help the planet too.”

“Why don’t you like birthday goodie bags, mom?”
“Because I don’t like the thought of one-use trinkets that end up in the garbage soon after. And I think the fun is in celebrating…”

It’s not righteousness and my arguments are definitely not fail-proof. It’s what I can live with and what I hope for my boys to learn: critical thinking. Not accepting something just because someone expects you to. Asking why.

It’s a lesson in double-edged swordsmanship.

Something you don’t agree with today may become the argument for tomorrow’s deed. And that is but the nature of the beast: Learning to keep the mind open at all times and think for yourself. Reject or accept not out of pride or to make an impression, but because it makes sense.

There is no perfect way of carrying oneself through life; it’s what you can live with.

The question is how do I teach my children that? It’s not always a comfortable ride, that much I know. Yet if there is one thing I want them to have in life, this would be it.

Trend following among young ones is not a new topic. Young age is no longer the time to affirm one’s true beliefs. We’ve all been there: Tasting the fear of standing out as we express our true thoughts; the fear of being left in the one-man camp, chewing on those beliefs and wondering if it’s worth it after all.

But there’s an extra twist lately. Media and rabid marketing create tough-to-avoid temptations and one could say that it is not entirely the fear of being left out that makes our young ones follow blindly. It’s that it sounds too good to miss.

Children fall into following trends before knowing what hit them. They are born asking why and ideally they should never lose that. Us adults should never lose that because all that’s left once the ‘why’s are gone is complacency. Hardly an incentive for cultivating critical thinking in our young ones or encouraging them to ask questions.

Any opportunity for discussions with our children should be greeted with open arms. Be it the walk from school – and that might be filled with complaints about the day – or the talks around the dinner table.

I don’t mean poking them until they talk but letting them speak their mind; whatever thoughts they have on a subject because you are the only presence in their lives that accepts them entirely for what they are. No fear of standing out and being ridiculed (hopefully.)

They learn from sharing as much as they learn from listening to us. And from watching us. The choices we make speak volumes. When we stand behind our choices with arguments we came up with ourselves, we teach our children an important lesson: Do it if it makes sense, choose it if it makes sense, but don’t just accept something because it’s there, because someone thought of putting it there.

I have never believed in denying something without an explanation. I don’t have much respect for the “because I said so.” It may be that I don’t think much of sheer obedience. I believe that behind any interdiction there has to be an explanation.

For example, I never cared for junk food or bad food altogether. The boys know that and they know why. We talk about what makes a food worthy of eating and why. They used to grin silly and tell me how junk food is oh, so yummy and one day they’ll buy lots. I never said they shouldn’t. I told them why I don’t.

I rejoiced when the grin was no longer there. I had nothing to do with its disappearance though. Occasionally they ask for junk food, you see, but they want the acceptable version. The compromise between tasty and somewhat healthy.

Then one day they finally asked the question: “How come that junk food is made to taste yummy?” Because people need to be made to buy it.

It applies to many things, not just food. Why are they made to look or taste or feel a certain way? Because it takes convincing people to go after them and overlook asking the very question in the process. Because when people think critically, they make choices and that has the potential to change the world. In a good way.

There’s no sole opinion that’s always right. It’s a fallacy to even think that by thinking we’ll find the ultimate truth, always. But if we teach our children to think and ask questions, they’ll honor who they are and ultimately do better for themselves and the world around.

Originally published as a shorter version as “Critical thinking a skill taught by example” in the Kamloops Daily News on March 2, 2013.

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