Critical thinking is the careful and intentional analysis of facts in order to make better decisions. As parents, it is vital we hone this skill in our children.
The reason why most smart people fail is that they fail to make smart choices. Rather than acting emotionally or reflexively, one has to learn to weigh in the pros and cons, the cause and effect and then come to an informed decision.
Thinking before acting is one important habit one needs to inculcate in our kids. We need to teach them how to look with discernment, analyze, compare, make inferences and then choose the best course of action.
However, children are not born with the capacity to think critically. Nor do they develop this ability naturally without inputs modeled to them.
What Does Critical Thinking Involve
Critical thinking involves 3 main aspects:
1) Cognitive flexibility (the ability to consider alternative perspectives and respond to changing circumstances
2) Working memory (the ability to hold and utilize information during problem-solving)
3) Impulse control (ability to restrain impulsive behavior in order to engage in goal-directed actions)
Brain In Critical Thinking
The brain area that facilitates critical thinking is the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC also called our executive center helps us consciously control emotional responses, thoughts, and behavior.
It is this ability to observe, analyze things/situations/people/opportunities, and then choose the best alternative which separates us, humans, from other mammalian species. Human beings have the largest PFC of all mammals, relative to the size of their brains.
Furthermore, a person’s mental capacity is not linked so much to the total number of neurons in the brain, but rather to the number of connections those neurons have with other brain cells. The more such connections exist, the easier it is for a person to seamlessly acquire new information, and draw conclusions, from gathered evidence. This happens only through repeated practice. Remember Hebb’s law, neurons that fire together wire together.
Adolescence – Rapid Neural Development
The PFC is the last part of the brain to mature. The maturation of the prefrontal cortex occurs primarily during adolescence and is fully online around age 25. However, childhood trauma can disrupt this developmental trajectory.
So, it is vital we treat our teens with care and respect. Don’t play policeman/judge with a list of do’s and don’t dos. Rather, give them the space to figure out things on their own, even if it means them goofing up.
According to, American psychologist Jack Brehm’s reactance theory when people are restricted in some way they feel a strong need to resist and fight back to gain their freedom. That’s why teens do the opposite of what they are told.
Don’t berate them for their bad choices, mistakes/failures. Lovingly point out their errors and offer your take on the matter. As caregivers, it is our responsibility to provide our kids with the information, learning opportunities, and support required to develop neural networks necessary for critical thinking.
Like most skills, critical thinking ability becomes better with practice. And the earlier one begins honing this skill the better kids become at making astute decisions.
So how does one cultivate critical thinking in our kids early?
1) Attuned Attachment – Moving Beyond Survival Thinking.
It begins with laying the foundation through attuned attachment. Without that feeling of safety and belongingness, there can be no critical thinking. It is all about survival thinking. What is the best way to get my needs met and not be abandoned?
In a state of survival, one will grasp the first thing that shows up. Our brain does not have the luxury of thinking and weighing in the possibilities. Just grab and hold onto it for dear life.
2) Free Play – Let Them Do Their Thing
Free play helps cultivate critical thinking skills in children. It is through interactions with people that a child develops Theory of Mind (TOM) – the cognitive capability of understanding another’s mind. ToM helps one to analyze, negotiate and influence the world around. It begins with playing serve-return games with our caregivers to more interactive, mutually negotiable games with our peers.
Play is the foundation of intellectual, social, physical, and emotional skills necessary for success in school and in life. Learning to negotiate with one’s environment through play is the cornerstone of learning to deal with later life challenges.
3) Don’t Unnecessarily Interfere or Intervene
Most parents these days don’t give a child the space to explore and make mistakes. They will unnecessarily intervene in the erroneous belief that they are helping their child. Constantly, hovering over a child’s every move diminishes his innate problem-solving skills.
Being overprotective of your child has detrimental consequences. Your child never learns how to think for himself, neither can he make simple decisions. Helicopter parenting increases dependence and leads to diminished decision-making ability and coping skills.
4) Teach Them To Observe Their Surroundings
Observation skills are very important for developing critical thinking. Learning to observe and quickly assess a situation is essential to making quick decisions.
When you have good observational skills, you notice relevant information, incongruencies, patterns, micro-expressions, and instinctively get a reading of a place/person/situation.
All good detectives possess this skill. This is well depicted in the TV series Psych, where the protagonist Shawn, a psychic detective is trained from childhood by his police officer father, Henry to note even the smallest of details from his surroundings. It is these heightened observational skills that help them quickly solve cases.
5) Allow Questions, Ask Opinions, and Offer Alternatives
From a young age, children will question your authority. Be ready for their grilling with regard to your decisions. The most common question they will definitely throw at you is ‘why should I do this?’ It can be extremely infuriating to have to answer these challenges when all one wants to give them smack and tell them, ‘because I said so’. How we talk with our kids either develops or stunts our children’s brains.
Forcing children to do things without a proper explanation or reasoning will eventually lead to them revolting.
Instead of ordering them to do something, frame it as though asking their opinion. ‘Do you think this will help you?’ Or ‘what do you think about mowing the lawn before going out with your pals?
Making them choose from alternatives is the best way to gradually develop their thinking skills.
6) Teach Them About Cause and Effect
Teaching kids cause and effect develops critical thinking skills. Cause-and-effect thinking allows one to make inferences and reason about things that happen around us.
When children understand that there is a direct correlation between their actions/behavior and the outcomes, they will learn to think before taking any action.
Furthermore, this can be easily taught without dire punishments and threats.
I remember this cause-and-effect lesson from my very wise teacher, Dorothy. When I was in around 6 years. I had the habit of dawdling instead of finishing my school works quickly. She simply said, the more time you waste the less time you will have for playing. It was like a light bulb that went off in my head. I learned how to finish my work quickly so that I could have more playtime.
7) Have Frank Discussions – Listen With An Open Mind and Heart
When your child says they don’t like something/someone acknowledges their feelings, don’t invalidate their reality. Get to the bottom of their dislikes. Gently prod to unearth the origins of the biases. Are they based on facts or is it because of some negative experiences or rather a group think?
Listen with an open mind and heart. Put aside your own preconceived notions and pay attention to the nuances of what is being expressed.
Calmly challenge them to see things from a different viewpoint. The key to teaching a child to look at a particular problem from different angles is by asking open-ended questions.
How did you decide that? What made you come to that conclusion? Why do you think they are acting mean?
Listening and asking pertinent questions is a skill that all parents must develop. In order to broaden their thinking, children need to learn to see things holistically.
5) Brain Games- Ask Riddles/Brain Teasers
Brain games help enhance a child’s critical-thinking skills. Besides being fun, games help develop problem-solving and reasoning skills.
Starting with simple games of sorting, stacking, or arranging which help a small child make connections between shapes, sizes, and colors. The next step could be putting together jigsaw puzzles. Later on one could introduce board games like scrabble, chess, or sudoku.
Another way to stimulate their young minds is to engage them in some riddle-solving – send them on a clue-filled treasure hunt.
How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills in Children
When Critical Thinking Becomes Reflexive
Inculcating from an early age, critical thinking skills make it a reflexive habit. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, calls this thinking without thinking. The ability to make snap decisions based on a tiny amount of information (such as a first impression, or an instinctive feeling), Gladwell calls ‘thin-slicing’.
Due to years of practice, our adaptive unconscious becomes adept at sizing up the world, picking up signs of danger, deciding, and initiating action in a quick and efficient manner.
When one is trained from childhood to observe, analyze, and evaluate, one is able to make sound decisions in the blink of an eye. And that makes a huge difference between success or failure and sometimes even life or death.
Image Source: Pixabay
Mind in the Making – Ellen Galinsky