Raising a Critical Thinker

8 tips to ensure your child is more than 'surface' smart.

Your preschooler sits on his bedroom floor with a pile of blocks. As he studies the different shapes and sizes, he asks, “Can you please build me a garage for my cars?” He pushes the blocks in your direction and looks to you to make the structure.

Your fourth grader comes home from school in a sour mood. When asked, she explains that her friends are trying to create a skit, and everyone is arguing about who will do what. She asks you what she should do.

These scenarios offer parents an opportunity to enhance their child’s critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking promotes decision-making, self-awareness, interpersonal skills and problem solving. Critical thinkers are curious about their world and seek understanding via connecting knowledge and employing logical reasoning. They make informed observations, consider multiple perspectives and evaluate relevance to one’s argument.

These individuals develop a strong sense of self, beginning with mindful awareness. Mindfulness encourages one to be consciously perceptive of the current moment – not distracted by the past or future. Entertaining this deliberate state of mind allows one to carefully consider the circumstances. Reflection is also essential; applying prior experience to new events leads to synthesizing concepts. Interpersonal skills allow one to engage in meaningful conversation that demonstrates sensitivity, empathy and compassion. By attending to these qualities, one can develop different solutions to complex situations that reflect ingenuity, introspection and impartiality.

It’s never too late to foster these abilities in our children. One important way parents can support their children is through thoughtful discussion. Asking “how” or “why” questions urge the child to think beyond the one-word answer. Respond to their ideas, opinions, and feelings by validating them and demonstrating their value. Respect the roles and relationships between parent and child, but keep an open mind and encourage independent thinking. Have them apply their knowledge and thinking to real-life applications. Here are eight examples of how you can do this:

  1. Visiting a theme park: Have your child help navigate with a map of the park.
  2. At the zoo: Ask your child to reflect on an animal’s behavior or to infer how the animals are communicating with each other.
  3. At the art museum: Ask your child what she thinks about when she observes a given piece, how she thinks the artist felt, and why.
  4. Reading together: Promote making predictions, inferring information, and drawing sound and logical conclusions by stopping to ask questions about what might happen next, character emotions, etc. Have your child defend his or her inferences.
  5. On a rainy day: Encourage your child to create a board game (complete with rules), develop a secret language, or design and experiment with his or her own invention.
  6. Engage in dialogue about social issues or current events: For example, ask your child’s opinion about how much “screen time” children should have? Why? Do they see an opposing viewpoint or offer a counterargument?
  7. Creative projects: When making something, have kids work together to figure out a plan. Collaboration develops new ideas. When facing difficulty, have them troubleshoot and try again. Can they reflect on what worked and what did not? Refrain from giving them advice on how to make it work.
  8. Play strategy games together: This offers bonding time, hones skills, and allows them to witness that adults also take risks and learn from experience. Chess, Blokus, Monopoly, Risk and Scrabble all offer these experiences while teaching cooperative skills.

Experiential opportunities like these are natural outflows of daily life that do not require engineering. Carol Dweck, psychologist from Stanford University, developed the concept of a “growth mindset.” Her findings are profound: Individuals benefit from stimulating encounters – all of which can be generated by typical, authentic experiences just by being more mindful of these moments.

– Ellen Hoppe is a fourth and fifth grade teacher at The Roeper School.


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