What to Tell Our Kids About the State of the World
How to instill perspective, realistic optimism and critical thinking.
Posted Dec 28, 2018
“The world is too much with us,” wrote the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth in the early 1800s. His sonnet expressed concern that the rapid technological changes of the Industrial Revolution and the frenetic focus on “getting and spending” were alienating people from nature, rendering people “out of tune” and “forlorn.”
Two centuries later, the world feels too much with us in new ways. Torrents of information are washing over us, some of it unsolicited and unwelcome. As we approach the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, much of the information we are receiving about the state of the world is negative.
The first generation of children to grow up in the Information Revolution is coming of age.1 iGen have lived their entire lives in the internet era and all of their adolescence in the smartphone era. All of the world’s knowledge is in these kids’ pockets.
I’m a parent of three children of this generation, and I’ve worked as a psychiatrist for over two decades with teens and young adults. I’ve worked very closely with a great many young people all the way from their early teens to their late twenties. In the process, I’ve listened to many anxious concerns and fielded many questions, especially from the smarter kids—concerns about the state of the world in which they’re growing up. Now more than ever, with so much information constantly arriving at their fingertips, the world can seem like a scary and depressing mess.
What can we, as adults, tell these kids to help them maintain perspective, to help them remain motivated and reasonably positive about the world and the future?
It depends of course on the age of the child or teenager. It depends also on their level of maturity for their age, their worldliness, and of course their intellectual capacity. For purpose of this discussion, let’s assume that the kid we’re talking with is in their teens, and that they’re reasonably intelligent. Naturally, the points being made here will need to be tailored differently to kids of different ages and intellectual capacity.
The first thing to do is to find an opportune time to have a focused undistracted conversation, and find a useful segue—perhaps something currently in the news. Listen carefully. Hear their concerns and respond accordingly. Ask questions before you attempt to provide answers. Ask open-ended questions about what they think about the state of the world. What do their friends think? Ask them if they’re worried, and what they’re most worried about. Get a sense of their level of knowledge and awareness. Listen for themes. Listen for important misconceptions and be alert to misinformation. Ask them where they are getting their information from.
The world is getting very much better
Help them to understand that to really assess the state of the world, we need to follow the trend lines, not the headlines. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has rigorously applied this principle in his two highly influential, extensively researched books The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). As Pinker says, if you really want to know the state of the world, what you should do is count. That is, analyze the important indices statistically. He has done so with mountains of data, demonstrating that just about all of the important global trends have been in the direction of higher quality of life and lower levels of violence. And not just a little, but dramatically.2
Explain to your child that media headlines do not accurately convey real trends in the world. They serve a different and necessary purpose. It’s not just that bad news captures our attention and sells more effectively than good news. It’s that journalists serve an important function by alerting us to the bad things happening in the world so that we can collectively take action to improve the situation. It’s also that as the world improves, we become less tolerant of the bad things that are still taking place in the world, and they are more newsworthy. Explain all this to your child.
There is reason to be cautiously optimistic about human history and the future of humanity, though it may be a case of ‘two steps forward, one step backwards’ toward gradually greater cooperativeness, compassion, and rationality. There is obviously no guarantee that violence will continue to decline or that human rights and quality of life will continue to increase, and the twentieth century demonstrated that there can be calamitous reversals of this trend. But the longer trend of history has been toward a more peaceful, caring world. There is a fairly good chance of this trend continuing into the future, though there are bound to be temporary reversals of the overall trend.
We are probably in one such regressive phase presently, in certain respects, with the rise of right-wing populist movements in the United States, Britain (Brexit), and several other democracies in recent years. Pinker describes this phenomenon as “a pushback of elements of human nature—tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, zero-sum thinking”.3 But as he points out: “(Populism) is on a demographic road to nowhere. Headlines notwithstanding, the numbers show that democracy and liberal values are riding a long-term escalator that is unlikely to go into reverse overnight.”4
It is easy to lose sight of the big picture and the long trend. Indeed, many have noted that President Trump won the election by persuading voters that America and the world are worse now than in the past, appealing to intuition over data. He tapped into people’s wishful thinking that he would be the one to make it all better and that he would get the country back to a mythical past when all was well. One could not point to a more compelling contemporary example illustrating the importance of improving critical thinking skills in the general public, teaching people to be skeptical of their intuitions, and disenthralling them from faith in all forms—the wishful thinking Trump tapped into was a form of unrealistically optimistic faith.
Scientific critical thinking
All this highlights the importance of teaching your child to think critically. Critical thinking involves, among other things, the ability to bypass one’s intuitions, emotions, biases and faith, and the ability to rigorously appraise evidence. It involves applying a good deal of scientific skepticism, i.e. applying the scientific method.
Instilling in your child a scientific worldview will help both to inoculate them against irrationality and inspire them about the world. Science won’t be a career for most people, but it should be a worldview for anyone interested in understanding the true nature of reality. Science is a candle in the dark, dispelling irrationality and superstition.5 Science is the opposite of faith. The story science tells about the origin of our world and of ourselves is less comforting but far more compelling than the soothing myths told by the multitude of human faiths.
While science is certainly susceptible to misuse toward destructive technologies, science coupled with secular democracy deserves most of the credit for the dramatic societal progress attested to above. Help your child to understand this.
If you want your child to be consumed with curiosity and fired up with motivation—the kind of curiosity and motivation that makes them stay up past their bedtime because they’re so captivated by their reading, help them to grasp the magic of reality.6
The society of the future looks set to be increasingly grounded in science and critical thinking. Don’t let your child get left behind.7
1. often referred to as iGen, also known as Gen Z.
2. See Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking, 2011 and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York: Viking, 2018. See also Rosling, Hans. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. New York: Flatiron Books, 2018. And for a visual depiction of how the world is getting much better, see Roser, Max. “The short history of global living conditions and why it matters that we know it.” Our World in Data, 2018. https://ourworldindata.org/a-history-of-global-living-conditions-in-5-charts/. Or https://www.vox.com/2014/11/24/7272929/global-poverty-health-crime-literacy-good-news
3. Pinker, Enlightenment Now, p. 333. [CLICK 'MORE' TO VIEW FOOTNOTES 4-7]
4. Pinker, Enlightenment Now, p. 451.
5. Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1995.
6. To instill an appreciation for how the scientific understanding of reality can be 'magically' inspiring, without believing in magic, your child would do very well to start with Richard Dawkins’ superb book for children (suitable for teens and for smart pre-teens) The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True.
7. Parts of this article were adapted from: Ralph Lewis, Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If The Universe Doesn’t (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).