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How Parents Can Teach Kids Critical Thinking

A research-based guide to help highlight the importance of critical thinking.

Recent controversy over the role of social media “swarms” in the 2020 election have served as a new reminder — as if we needed one — that public discourse is in bad disrepair. In the last few years have seen countless incidents of people — including many who should know better — weighing in on issues prematurely with little nuance and unhelpful vitriol, being duped by badly biased information or outright fake news, and automatically attributing the worst intentions to their opponents.

Liberal democracies have always relied on flawed sources to inform the public, but not until now have we been confronted with an online medium seemingly designed to play on our biases and emotions; encourage knee-jerk reactions, groupthink, and superficiality; and distract us from deeper thinking.

Better critical thinking skills are needed to help us confront these challenges. Nevertheless, we still don’t have a good handle on what it is and, especially, how best to foster it among children of all ages.

The stakes are now higher than ever.

To address this deficit, Reboot Foundation recently put out a Parents’ Guide to critical thinking. I work for Reboot and helped on the guide that attempts to give parents and other adults the tools and understanding they need to help their kids cope with technological upheaval, acquire the skills they need to navigate an ever more complicated and information-rich world, and overcome the pitfalls of biased and emotional reasoning.

1. Starting Young

As researchers have noted for some time now, critical thinking can’t be cleanly separated from cognitive development more generally. So, although many people still think of critical thinking as something that is appropriate to teach only in college or late high school, parents and educators should actually devote attention to developing critical thinking skills at a young age.

Of course, it’s not necessary or even possible to start teaching 4-year-olds high-level logic. But there’s a lot parents can do to open up their children’s minds to the world around them. The most important thing to foster at this young age is what researchers call metacognition: awareness of one’s own thinking and thought processes.

It’s only with metacognition that children will learn to think more strategically, identify errors in their thinking patterns, and recognize their own limitations and the value of others’ perspectives. Here are some good ways to foster these habits of mind.

  1. Encourage kids’ curiosity by asking them lots of questions about why they think what they think. Parents should also not dismiss children’s speculative questions, but encourage them to think those questions through.
  2. Encourage active reading by discussing and reflecting on books and asking children to analyze different characters’ thoughts and attitudes. Emphasize and embrace ambiguity.
  3. Expose them as much as possible to children from different backgrounds — whether cultural, geographical, or socio-economic. These experiences are invaluable.
  4. Bring children into adult conversations, within appropriate limits of course, and don’t just dismiss their contributions. Even if their contributions are unsophisticated or mistaken, engage with children and help them improve.

2. Putting Emotions in Perspective

Just as children need to learn how to step back from their thought processes, they must also learn how to step back from their emotions. As we’ve seen time and again in our public discourse, emotion is often the enemy of thinking. It can lead us to dismiss legitimate evidence; to shortchange perspectives that would otherwise be valuable; and to say and do things we later regret.

When children are young (ages 5 to 9), fostering emotional management should center around learning to take on new challenges and cope with setbacks. It’s important children be encouraged to try new things and not be protected from failure. These can include both intellectual challenges like learning a new language or musical instrument and physical ones like trying out rock-climbing or running a race.

When children fail — as they will — the adults around them should help them see that failing does not make them failures. Quite the opposite: it’s the only way to become successful.

As they get older, during puberty and adolescence, emotional management skills can help them deal better with confusing physical and social changes and maintain focus on their studies and long-term goals. Critical thinking, in this sense, need not — and should not — be dry or academic. It can have a significant impact on children’s and young adults’ emotional lives and their success beyond the classroom.

3. Learning How to Be Online

Finally, critical thinking development in these challenging times must involve an online component. Good citizenship requires being able to take advantage of the wealth of information the internet offers and knowing how to avoid its many pitfalls.

Parental controls can be useful, especially for younger children, and help them steer clear of inappropriate content. But instilling kids with healthy online habits is ultimately more useful — and durable. Parents should spend time practicing web searches with their kids, teaching them how to evaluate sources and, especially, how to avoid distractions and keep focused on the task at hand.

We’ve all experienced the way the internet can pull us off task and down a rabbit hole of unproductive browsing. These forces can be especially hard for children to resist, and they can have long-term negative effects on their cognitive development.

As they get older, children should learn more robust online research skills, especially in how to identify different types of deceptive information and misinformation. Familiarizing themselves with various fact-checking sites and methods can be especially useful. A recent Reboot study found that schools are still not doing nearly enough to teach media literacy to students.

As kids routinely conduct more and more of their social lives online it’s also vital that they learn to differentiate between the overheated discourse on social media and genuine debate.

The barriers to critical thinking are not insurmountable. But if our public discourse is to come through the current upheaval intact, children, beginning at a young age, must learn the skills to navigate their world thoughtfully and critically.