Friday, July 15, 2016

How I taught my son critical thinking skills

Mom2MomEd blog: How I taught my son critical thinking skills
Google, Wikipedia, social media.
Computers, tablets, smartphones.
Facts, opinions, lies.

Oh my!

Our children have more and more information at their fingertips every single day. They have so much information at their disposal that it has become harder than ever to determine what is accurate or appropriate. How easy is it to just read something and believe it without a second thought?

It’s hard enough for adults to think critically, so what hope is there for our children?

Without practice in exercising critical thinking, I fear our children will be doomed before they really get very far in life.

You likely have seen memes online saying something to the effect of, “Well, if it’s on the internet, it must be true!” Most of us want to believe that what we see, read, or hear is correct, especially if it’s from a source we have trusted in the past, but how do we sort good information from bad, truth from falsehoods?

With practice.

When my son was quite a bit younger, he wanted to play a wide variety of video games that I felt were inappropriate for his age and maturity level. Just saying, “No, you can’t play that” or “I don’t think that’s appropriate” wasn’t satisfactory to my infinitely curious son or to me. It frequently resulted in whining from my normally well behaved son and frustration from me.

Our video game conundrum ended up being the perfect vehicle for teaching my son critical thinking skills. I needed him to understand why I wasn’t ok with him playing certain games or watching certain movies, and just telling him in my own words, while overall sufficient as I’m the parent, wasn’t really doing anything to help him to think for himself.

I wanted my son to understand my reasoning and to apply some thought to his own motivations for wanting to play a game or watch a movie. 

I wanted him to be able to think critically.

Together, we came up with some criteria for what was and was not appropriate. We talked about game and movie ratings, what I thought was appropriate in terms of sexual or violent material and language, and so on. We also talked about his age and that although he may have been far more mature than his peers in many ways, he was still young and his brain was still developing in ways he wasn’t consciously aware of.

When my son would ask, “Can I have/play/watch...” he was able to apply the criteria we came up with together to searching for information about the games and movies on his list. We then began talking about online sources of information including, but not limited to:

The game or movie websites—what are the games and movies rated and what reasons are given for those ratings? How violent or sexual is the art or action screen shots or previews?

Game and movie review websites—what did professional reviewers have to say about the movies and games? How did they rate the violence or sexual content? What comments did they have about the games and films overall? What audiences did they recommend for these pieces of entertainment? And, were they consistent in their analyses and recommendations over time—if they weren’t consistent over time we found other sites instead.

Common Sense Media—The Common Sense Media website ended up being our gold standard for determining if a game or movie was acceptable. We both like this website because it is a mix of the above, as well as serving up parent and kid reviews and assessments. The site aggregates information about games and movie (and much more) across multiple categories and gives clear recommendations for appropriate ages, tolerance for sexual or violent content, strong language, adult themes, and more.

What I wanted my son to understand, however, wasn’t just that he could go to the internet to find information, but that he should seek out information from multiple sources before coming to any conclusions about pretty much anything. Whether he was gathering information on a video game or a political idea he heard on NPR or gathering background on a statement a friend might put forward as fact, I wanted my son to be able to evaluate the information in front of him and to be able to seek out additional resources to support or discredit whatever issue might be at hand.

He learned to go to multiple sources and determine if they were trustworthy or offered a consistent point of view or were basing their information on factual material.

In the process, he learned that sites like Wikipedia, while a helpful resource, aren’t always reliable. He also learned that two sites might have completely opposite points of view or put forth contradictory information. This would lead him to do further research.

And, all along the way, I would ask repeatedly, “Why?” or “What brought you to that conclusion?” or “Is there more information available?” or “If you can overcome xyz objections by providing me evidence then we can consider the game or movie.”

I pushed my son to think for himself, seek out reliable sources to support his ideas and beliefs, and to develop his own skills in logic, research, and persuasion.

My son now has a keen sense of how to determine facts from opinions and reliable versus unreliable sources of information. He knows how to do research and to think for himself. As he has gotten older, he has applied these skills to understanding and discussing politics, religion, philosophy, and so much more.

Of course, neither of us gets it right all of the time.

We did have one unfortunate incident in which my son kept asking to see the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” I was interested as well, but because it involved Nazi concentration camps, I had concerns about issues that might be a little too scary for him at the time (he was maybe 8 or 9). I was also worried about potentially violent content. 

Together, we began researching the movie to see if there was any reason why it might not be appropriate—we came up with nothing. Every review I found, every article I read, everything available indicated it might be a great movie and that my son would enjoy it. Until ten minutes before the end of the movie, that was indeed the case.

Then it happened...

My son, a keen observer of changes in tone (in voices, in music, in expressions, in lighting) realized something horrible was about to happen. Something so horrible, he couldn’t even comprehend it. We both realized a second too late that this final ten minutes were far too heavy for either of us to handle well. My son turned to me and said, with tears streaming down his face, “Why did you let me watch that? That was horrible! That was the worst thing I have ever watched!”

Until those last ten minutes, we’d loved the movie. Until those last ten minutes, every review and article we’d read was on point. Until those last ten minutes, neither of us had any reason to believe this wasn’t the movie for us.

But, that experience also informed my son’s critical reasoning skills as well. He learned to always leave room for doubt. Always leave room for a change of opinion. Always leave room for new information that turns everything else upside down.

It was in those early exercises at examining video game and movie reviews and ratings against our pre-determined criteria of acceptability that got my son started on developing his own critical thinking skills. Over time, his thought processes and ability to think and reason clearly have developed further, but it would not have happened had I not encouraged him to think for himself and look for information beyond either of our own opinions.

What methods have you used to help your children learn to think critically? How do you help your children get beyond their own or your own opinions to develop well reasons and informed ideas and beliefs? Share in the comments!
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  1. As an elementary school teacher, I really appreciate you taking the time to help your son develop into a resourceful person with critical thinking skills. Your son is very lucky! Keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you so much! I believe this is crucial and we owe it to our children to help them to learn to be independent thinkers with a good foundation for *critical* thinking. I've tutored and taught too many kids who simply have no foundation for coming to their own conclusions and blindly follow the crowd.

      Much appreciated,

  2. Thank you for your nice comment! I'll make sure that Malea sees it as well. She's doing a great job with her son and I'm lucky to have the opportunity to pick her brain when it comes to my own children. I hope you are enjoying your summer! ~McKenzie