Is It Possible to Raise Children Who Think Rationally? June 17, 2012

Is It Possible to Raise Children Who Think Rationally?

Definitely a concern for atheist parents.

Julia Galef, co-host of the Rationally Speaking podcast, talks about what parents can do to raise children who ask questions and think critically:

Got any additional advice to add?

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  • I think children are naturally inquisitive, anyone who has been around a child knows how many questions they ask. Children are naturally logical too, when you hear a child say ‘foots’ instead of ‘feet’, it may sound silly but they are simply using the newer English plural paradigm, for instance plural for ‘hand’ used to be ‘hend’. So we don’t need to be teaching children to be critical thinkers, we have to stop teaching them not be critical thinkers. 

  • Ranson

    What I’ve found so far, the key is to answer questions, and do so truthfully.  Along with that, the answer “I don’t know, but let’s find out” is probably one of the best you can ever give.  Makes those questions like my daughter’s “Why is the sky?” open-ended opportunities to show off some cool science. (Note:  nothing followed that; no color, nothing about weather, etc.  Just “Why?”)

    Kids can be rational.  You have to give them real answers when they ask for them, though.  On things like religion, letting them know that some people think X, but others believe Y, and yet others Z, Q, L, or “None of the above” can help keep them from assuming that the dominant culture is the only culture.

  • My parents are Christians and they actively encouraged me to ask questions and find answers when I was young. If they didn’t know the answer to a question I asked, they encouraged me to try to learn about it. The library was my home away from home as a kid. Both the one at school and the public one.

  • children and i relate. i’m just honest with them. i always tell them the truth, no matter how tough that is. “the sky is blue because /science stuff/” or “your mommy and daddy got a divorce, which means they don’t live together anymore” or “i like to be with other women.” truth always works with kids. tell them the truth, all of it, without hesitating, and they will trust and love you and do the same when they talk to you. kids are easy. i’ve never had any myself, but i find treating them as real people makes babysitting the 6 n&ns really easy. they respect me. i guess i’m not sure why parents are so uptight about so many issues like sex or whatever. violence, sure, kids don’t need that as “entertainment.” but the truth about the world? yes, they want to know and they should. 

  • I do that bit about deliberately lying, or twisting things a bit to make him think.  But the deal I’ve made with him is that I’ll never maintain a dis-honesty with him.  If he pushes me on it, or he doesn’t notice, I’ve promised I’ll come clean, and I do.  And he does the same to me- he’ll make up answers to see if he can catch me off guard, and then tell me he’s joking.

    I also always think of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s advice that he make often, that kids are natural scientists.  Let them take things apart and break things.  Sometimes that’s easier said than done, but we try.

    And I agree on TV.  I didn’t have a TV growing up, and I spent a lot more time reading.  Come to think of it, Ben’s been watching Netflix for a long time today.  I should go see if I can get him interested in something else.

  • Kodie

    I could not honestly say that I was brought up to be inquisitive. I’ve been accused sometimes of not being curious enough, although I think I am very, I am just not curious enough to ask the normal social questions and report back.  “What does he do?” I didn’t even ask. My mom never said “because I’m the mom, that’s why”; she always gave a reason. It could be “it’s a busy road and the sun is in drivers’ eyes this time of day” or “because you’ll embarrass me,” didn’t matter. However, to this day, I’m not confident enough to ride a bicycle in heavy car traffic, and I don’t embarrass that easily. I was bad at homework, I’d get lost looking up entry after entry in the encyclopedia instead. I can’t remember either of my parents answering a question about anything academic/scientific, I might have been 5 or 6 or 7 when I asked what some common but abstract word means, and my mother told me to look it up in the dictionary. She didn’t try at all, but it was, overall, sound advice for resourceful inquisition. Always good to do your own research than swallow information from someone who may not know, right? (I didn’t know yet, ok). I was unfamiliar with the dictionary at that point and found that instruction to be unsatisfactory as the definition I found answered zero questions I had and added more. To some superficial extent, I found some of the books we had (from the ’60s) about the moon or the planets or dinosaurs interesting to flip through. I got a book at a garage sale called… can’t remember, “Big Book of Questions and Answers” or something like that, I read it cover to cover. My grandparents had a “People’s Almanac” from the ’70s, which I still possess and find moderately intriguing. Ripley’s Believe it or Not, a huge atlas, just at home, we had a lot of non-fiction books and my other grandparents would bring volumes of encyclopedias they found discarded near the incinerator in their building. I am not a terrific reader, still, and I could have become some conspiracy nut for all the bizarre reading I did do, but it opened up something to me that my parents could not provide. I perceived that completing college was a vital task but there were no resources in my family or in me that knew why or what I should use it for. There were several times in my late adolescence that I wanted to jump at trade school but that was not for me. They knew I was smart. They knew I was smarter than them. I did get a degree that’s not very… prestigious or profitable. Not on my own terms.

    I guess what to tell parents how to create rational or inquisitive children, is not to be stupid. Yes, I said it. My mother has, in my adulthood, told me that I am too intellectual. My father, in the course of his job, saw some young adults doing something he thought I might be good at, this is after I achieved my bachelor degree, I said, Dad, those “kids” are civil engineers.  I can’t just apply, I’d have to go back to school and get remedial help in subjects I foolishly exempted myself from in high school because nobody thought to stop me.

  • TGAP Dad

    I like to think I imparted that mind set on to my three kids (22, 20, and 14) mostly by example. I like to think that raising them without religion played a part as well. But the plain fact is I am not entirely certain if that goal was achieved, and to what extent. I have always demonstrated a willingness to change my mind, admit mistakes, and accept contrary evidence to an argument I was promoting.

    With all of our kids we stressed the importance of education, and emphasized science and math. They are all voracious readers as well, probably because we read to them from their earliest days and continued until they could better on their own.

    Only time will tell if these critical thinking skills were taken to heart or not. We got them this far as well as we could. The rest is up to them – at least for the two older ones.

  • Tainda

    It’s really not difficult and you don’t need a seminar.  Just tell them to question everything around them.  When they are little and in the “why, why, why” stage, encourage it, that’s how they learn.  

    I also let my daughter experience any religion she wanted.  You can’t have opinions without knowing the other side.

    Now, at 19, she is more anti-religion than I am.  Sometimes rude about it, which I do not approve of 😛  lol  Overall though, she’s an adult that tries to sees all sides of the situation and then forms her own opinion.  She never takes anything at face value.

  • At a recent family get-together, I’d been debating two of my siblings about Planet X and ancient aliens and other nonsense. Afterwards I was talking with my mom who seemed so worried that some of her children actually bought into that nonsense and she asked, “Where did I go wrong?” I couldn’t answer her honestly, but what I wanted to say was, “Oh, I dunno. Probably all those times you told us that scientists couldn’t be trusted and that they just made things up. Or when you told us to believe in an invisible deity with no evidence. We were taught our feelings about truth were more important than actual scientific fact. So there you go. That’s where you went wrong.”

  • Wendy2

    Along with modeling a love for science and learning, here’s a part of how we raised critical thinking kids:  We messed with them.  Ask your three-year-old to pick up her shoes and put them in her ear.  Ask your second grader why she got all Z’s on her report card.  Tell your fifth grader to bring in the groceries and put them in the bathtub.  I know it’s silly, but my kids listen and evaluate, because they were taught that it’s fun.

    Incidentally, the Duggers play a similar game.  But the point of their game is to give their children nonsense commands and for their children to obey without question.  Awesome.

  • Kodie

    That’s really good. However, I was struck by this:

    Ask your second grader why she got all Z’s on her report card.

    It just made me think there should be a ‘Z’ grade for kids who fall asleep in class. Made myself laugh.

  • Yup. I’ve got a 4 and 2 year old, and I’ve found that with the 4 year old I like asking him why. Especially when he’s asking why just to ask why 😉 But getting him to think through things and explain things is a great way to get kids to cement ideas, and question their assumptions.

  • Brittany Gardner

    I also think that giving real-time commentary and explaining to our kids *why* we are making the parenting choices we make for them, is helpful for them being able to process their childhood experiences as they grow up. Regardless of whether they are capable of understanding our reasoning at the time, hopefully in the future they will be able to look back on our explanations and make sense of it, in order to decide whether it was useful or not for their development. I think of this as a brand of “meta-parenting,” since the parent and child are opening a separate dialogue that allows the child a chance to dispute or challenge the status-quo.

    I am in favour of introspective parenting, and I think that it is worth vocalizing our own honest challenges, and struggles over how to handle things to our kids so they don’t have to bear the brunt of our decisions or actions without any kind of perspective. 

    Even If I am certain of how I am handling a situation, I often explain to my daughter a common alternative others might choose, and some reasons why. I will then point out why I have chosen not to do it that way.

    I was raised very much in this manner, and so rationality, skepticism, and seeking better approaches has come as second-nature to me.

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