How you can nurture your child’s critical thinking skills

Critical thinking is a vital life skill for children which will enable them to evaluate information and make decisions.

By Aruna Raghuram  • 15 min read

How you can nurture your child’s critical thinking skills

This is the first part of a two-part series ‘Raising a critical thinker’. Specific activities for (i) preschoolers, (ii) primary schoolchildren and (iii) pre-teens and teens, will be discussed in Part 2

Does your child believe everything he is told by friends or what he watches on television? Or, does he question things and evaluate information? If your answer is ‘No’ to the first question and ‘Yes’ to the second, your child is on the way to becoming a critical thinker. Critical thinking is an important life skill that every child needs to develop. Not only will it help academically and increase his employability; it will help him solve life’s problems.

The World Economic Forum issued a report in 2016 titled ‘The Future of Jobs’. According to the report, in 2020, cognitive abilities (such as creativity and mathematical reasoning) and process skills (such as active listening and critical thinking) are emerging as the core skill requirements for many industries.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It is understanding the logical connection between ideas and involves the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. It is not just acquiring and memorising information. When you think critically, you have to make sense of the information, analyze, compare and contrast, make inferences, and solve problems.

Critical thinking comprises a number of different skills that help us learn to make decisions. It is the ability to evaluate information to determine whether it is right or wrong.
Dr Marilyn Price-Mitchell, American developmental psychologist

A 2017 study titled ‘Redefining Critical Thinking: Teaching Students to Think like Scientists’ authored by Schmaltz and others published in Frontiers in Psychology, discusses how the definition of critical thinking is increasingly being widened. It observes: “A strong focus should be placed on teaching students how to think like scientists. Scientific thinking is the ability to generate, test, and evaluate claims, data, and theories.”

Today, children have access to vast amounts of information. Scientific thinking helps children distinguish good information from bad. They are able to detect misinformation or a questionable claim by thinking critically.

According to the American Philosophical Association (APA): “A person disposed towards critical thinking has positive critical spirit, a probing inquisitiveness, a keenness of mind, a zealous dedication to reason, and a hunger or eagerness for reliable information.” APA experts go on to observe: “The commitment one makes as a good critical thinker is to always seek the truth with objectivity, integrity, and fair-mindedness.”

Essential life skill
Ellen Galinsky, American child development expert and author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, includes critical thinking on her list of the seven essential life skills that every child should have. In a blog ‘Critical Thinking in the Bathtub’, she writes: “To promote children’s curiosity, be careful not to jump in too quickly to fix things they’re struggling with, since working with the “confounding” situation is where critical thinking is promoted. Instead, where possible, help them figure out how they can resolve it for themselves.”

Galinsky gives the example of a child trying to figure out why his rubber toy floats on the water in the bathtub, even when he pushes it down. You can help him understand the concept of floating by asking him: “Do you think a wet cloth would float? What about an empty shampoo bottle? What would happen if we filled the empty bottle with water?” This way, you are helping your child create and test hypotheses, like a scientist, she explains.

There is evidence that lessons in school can help boost children’s critical thinking skills. However, such skills can be developed earlier at home with help from parents.

15 STRATEGIES FOR PARENTS
Critical thinking skills can be nurtured and honed from an early age. The starting point is being curious, flexible, and open-minded. For instance, even a five-year-old may wonder why while penguins do not fly, they are still classified as birds. According to the APA, while young children may not be ready to understand lessons in formal logic, they can be asked to give reasons to explain why they are thinking a certain way or doing something in a particular way.

Described below are 15 ways parents can help nurture critical thinking skills in their child:

GENERAL GUIDELINES

  • Opt for open-ended questions: Go beyond ‘what’ and ask ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Ask your child: “Why do you think this to be true?”, “How would you solve this problem?” Such questions will encourage your child to think further and more creatively. Ask follow-up questions as this will help them think through things more clearly. Also, let her know it’s okay to be confused and encourage her to ask questions.
  • Wait before you provide the answers: Allow your child to think for herself. Don’t intervene immediately to correct or provide answers. Give her time to attempt a task rather than jump in to do it yourself. So if your child is struggling with a puzzle, resist the urge to solve it for her. Instead, say something like, “See these 2 pieces? They have blue in the upper part, indicating sky. Where do you think these pieces go?”
  • Use appropriate discipline strategies: The way you discipline your child can impact how she develops critical thinking skills. For instance, how does a parent react when a child makes a mistake - does the parent punish the child with consequences or help the child find solutions? The latter promotes critical thinking. Let children learn from their mistakes.
  • Help them plan their time: Time management is an exercise that helps your child prioritise activities and allocate time to the things he wants to do in a day. Critical thinking often happens when children have to make such choices for themselves. For example, if your teen goes out with his friends to the mall, help him back-calculate the time he would need to finish his movie and meal with friends to make it back home before the deadline.
  • Assure them that opinions are welcome: When your child is able to take a position on an issue confidently – whether she agrees or disagrees with you (and if she disagrees, why) – it is a sign that she is exercising her critical thinking skills. But before this, she must be able to distinguish between facts and opinions. Then, she will have to construct compelling arguments to support her opinion. Critical thinking need not be applied to only facts and academics. Encourage your child to ponder over ethical, moral, and social issues as well. For example, what would be your teen’s stance on giving accommodations to students with learning disabilities during exams?
    Alert her to fake news. Your child is bombarded with so much information these days through various media. You could teach her how to detect fake news by researching a matter.

THINKING SKILLS

  • Encourage them to think for themselves: Encourage your child to check if something is true before believing it. Don’t prevent her from questioning established beliefs. Don’t try to push dogma. You have to give a logical explanation to your child to reinforce any belief. Discuss biases which cloud judgement. For example, ask your child why some people avoid eating or drinking during a lunar eclipse. Help them develop logical mindsets.
    Also, encourage thinking in new ways. Ask your child: “What other possible solutions can you think of?” or “Is there another way you can resolve this issue?” Critical thinking will enable your child to evaluate new ideas.
  • Ensure clarity of thought: While you must reassure your child that being confused is normal, help him, with facts and explanations, to achieve clarity. If he thinks clearly, this will improve his comprehension. Moreover, he will be able to express his ideas clearly as well. For example, involve your child in choosing between two optional subjects in grade 8 or deciding on which car to buy as a family.
  • Ask them to explain their thought process: Ask them to explain how they arrived at the solution to a problem. This will strengthen the neural pathways involved in critical thinking. For example, if your teen figures out how to raise ticket money for a concert she really wants to go to (by selling muffins she bakes on weekends), you could discuss with her how she arrived at this solution and why this solution was most appropriate, versus others.
  • Allow them to find solutions on their own: Not all questions have one answer, nor do all issues have one solution. Children have to be taught to be open-minded so that they can find alternative ways of looking at issues and coming up with innovative solutions.
  • Teach them to be good listeners: Listening patiently to what another person is saying before jumping to conclusions, or imposing your own views, is important to the process of critical thinking.
How you can nurture your child’s critical thinking skills

ACTIVITIES

  • Encourage your child to play: Both outdoor and indoor play (especially if it is free play) provide opportunities to learn and think. Unstructured activities help the development of new neural pathways. This is also true of pretend and fantasy play. By understanding cause and effect during play, your child will develop the skills for abstract thinking. For example, if your child is pretending to be a superhero, you could ask him to think how he would solve the problem of water scarcity.
  • Give your child the opportunity to experiment: Encourage your child to explore and experiment to test her beliefs. Help her to make and test hypotheses. Teach her to think about predicting what will happen if a particular action is taken. For instance, if she puts an additional block on top while building a castle, what is likely to happen – will all the blocks tumble or will they achieve a balance?
  • Expose your child to new experiences: For instance, encourage your child to join a debating club. It is a good way to develop critical thinking skills while interacting with peers. Also, provide challenging learning experiences. Word puzzles, math games, and riddles are very useful in getting your child to exercise his critical thinking skills.
  • Get your child to write: Writing will help her get a clear perspective and also to communicate her arguments effectively. For example, you could encourage your child to write a journal or a blog of her hobby ideas and experiences.
  • Let them pursue their passions: Only when they are passionate about something will they be motivated to experiment and analyse the subject. For example, whether they are keen to learn a sport or have a deep interest in animals, let them follow their heart.

How you can nurture your child’s critical thinking skills

The value of critical thinking skills for a child cannot be overestimated. Children who think critically develop flexible minds that can absorb and evaluate new information efficiently. Parents can help develop these skills by following several strategies. If your parenting style encourages children to find solutions, thereby building their self-esteem, they will grow up to be ‘thinking’ children.

In a nutshell

  • Critical thinking is a core skill that will help a child academically as well in solving life’s problems
  • This skill is not just about acquiring information but about making sense of the information – analyzing, comparing and contrasting, making inferences, and solving problems.
  • Parents can help develop critical thinking skills in their children by following certain strategies

What you could do right away

  • Ensure your child has enough time for free play
  • The next time your child argues with you, instead of getting angry or defensive, encourage him to express his views
  • Suggest that your child keeps a journal which will help her think clearly and logically

About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 12 February 2020.
Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a freelancer with ParentCircle.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 12 February 2020.
Dr. Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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