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How to raise kids to be critical thinkers

mom, boy, son, books, school, homeschool

Fabio Principe | Shutterstock

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 11/05/22

I make sure to do these three things frequently with my children to raise them to think critically.
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“Can you let me know what curriculum you’re using for elementary history?” a friend texted me recently. 

As a homeschool educator, I’m used to fielding these kinds of questions. Usually I have a quick answer. Trial and error over the years has helped me discover several academic programs that my kids and I all really love.

But not this time. History has been a surprisingly difficult subject to pinpoint, perhaps because of how important it is to our family.

My husband was a history major in college, and we share a slightly obsessive interest in the subject. Because of our passion for history and our meticulous standards for how the subject is taught, we’ve never found a history curriculum that we really love.

So I wrote back candidly to my friend, “I’ve never found a history curriculum that is perfect. They all have their flaws and we pick and choose from various of them, and supplement them with great picture books and living books.”

But I was quick to reassure her that this isn’t actually a bad thing. We use this mixed approach to studying history to teach our kids something even more important: critical thinking.

“We teach our children to think about who is writing the book and why, and what their angle is that would cause them to say things that way,” I explained to my friend. 

The conversation got me thinking about all the other ways I teach my children to be critical thinkers. It’s something that’s incredibly important to me, especially at a time when it seems so common for people to accept problematic messaging uncritically. 

Here are three things I regularly do with my children to raise them to be critical thinkers.

1I ask my kids, “What is the person who made this trying to get us to think or do?”

When we see commercials or advertisements, or read certain books that have an obvious slant, I pause and remind my children that somebody made this content and that they did so for a reason.

“What do they want you to think after watching or reading this?” I ask, and wait for their answers. 

Perhaps the content creator is trying to get you to buy a product or vote for a candidate. Maybe it is a product we own, or a candidate we support, but I still want them to understand where it came from. Even if we agree with and support the message, I want my kids to think critically about it. 

I make an effort to make my kids aware that there is always a person behind the messaging they see. This awareness means they can identify that person’s goal and intention, and choose whether to go along with it or not. 

Honestly, this mindset is the essence of critical thinking.

2Talk them through solving their own problems in a collaborative way

I’ve written before about how I use a “subsidiarity approach” to encourage my kids to solve problems together. 

It turns out that teaching kids to work together to resolve their fights is an amazing way to raise critical thinkers. They learn to see both sides of an issue and then collaborate to find a solution that both sides can accept. 

Need a script? I usually say something like, “There’s only one pink marker, and two kids both want to use it? That’s a really tricky problem! But I know you two are really good at solving problems. What can we do to solve this problem? I’ll hold the marker while we listen to what ideas for solutions you each have.” 

Then I hand over the marker when they’ve successfully found a solution that both kids can happily accept.

3Respond to their questions with Socratic questioning

There’s a lot to be said for the Socratic method, and you can use it with even very young children. 

Kids love to ask “Why?” I very often respond to my kids by asking the question back to them: “Why do you think?” Then I help them figure out the answer through thoughtful questioning. 

Asking them their own questions guides children to share their relevant knowledge so they examine their reasoning and understand the topic more deeply. It’s also a way to develop logic and reasoning skills.

These are a few of my favorite ways to raise critical thinkers, and so far it seems to be working. My kids often point out the subtle messaging they see in books and advertisements, and they’ve turned this thoughtful attitude toward studying history too. They point out who wrote certain books, and why they might have described things the way they did.

I’m still on the hunt for the perfect history curriculum, but for now our “pick and choose” method is working well. And we are really enjoying all the books we are reading and interesting conversations we are having because of it!

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