“Children who mindlessly follow without questioning become adults who mindlessly follow without questioning.”
Being able to think critically about any given problem is a skill most parents want their children to have. Creative problem solving is a coveted skill not only in all lines of work, but life in general. Critical thinking for kids is not only possible to foster, but quite natural to help develop.
That is, if you equip yourself first.
Critical thinking skills start with being able to be curious, flexible, and open-minded. And while many kids learn problem-solving and thinking skills in school, there are ways you can also help them at home.
One important way is to make sure your parenting philosophy includes logical consequences. If your child runs through the house and breaks a lamp, don’t punish them by taking away screen time. There’s no logic there.
The logical consequence is for the child to (age appropriately) handle the broken lamp. They may be able to help repair it or clean up the mess. If it’s beyond repair, they can use their allowance or do chores to earn money to replace the lamp.
How to Help Foster Critical Thinking for Kids
Here are some dos and don’ts that will help you support your child’s education and encourage their development of critical thinking skills:
- Don’t Micromanage: Hovering close by your children at all times, ready to jump in and fix things, or demonstrate the “right” way to do something stifles any opportunity they might have to develop pathways in the brain by thinking problems through for themselves.
- Do Allow: Step back and trust children to find ways through their struggles. Every time they have to think for themselves, a new connection is formed in the brain. The more times they get to experience a problem, try out solutions, and find a successful outcome, the more efficient those pathways become.
- Don’t Solve: The answers to your child’s problems seem obvious. After all, you’ve been alive longer, have more experience, and can easily think of answers to your child’s dilemmas, right? The thing is, your child is just as capable as you are.
- Do Empathize: Instead of responding with a solution when your child voices a complaint, commiserate first. The part of the brain that processes logic and reasoning becomes overshadowed when emotions run strong. When your child is able to unload the emotional component of his problem (anger, confusion, frustration, etc.), his brain is then able to access its “rational” part and work through the logistics of the problem—to find a solution. So listen first, not with the intent of providing an answer, but with the intent of simply trying to understand. He will be able to find his own answers.
- Don’t Lecture: Kids tune out long explanations for why they need to do things, why their methods won’t work, or why your explanation is true. You may indeed be right, but speeches don’t do anything for your child’s brain development.
- Do Ask: Get kids to think through their choices and actions related to the problem by asking them questions about what’s happening.
- What do you think?
- What would happen if…?
- What makes you say that?
- What would you do?
- What are your ideas?
- What makes the most sense to you?
- How would you fix this?
- Would you do anything differently?
- Is there another way that would work?
Why Is Critical Thinking for Kids Important?
The neural pathways involved in thinking critically become stronger when kids talk through a problem and explain how they arrived at a solution.
More Ways to Help Develop Critical Thinking Skills for Kids
Give Kids Opportunities to Take on Responsibilities
It is important for children to step outside of their comfort zone and take on tasks that are typically done for them. The only way for kids to be able to answer the question, “How am I going to solve this problem?” is to be in situations in which they need to solve problems.
So let them make their own lunches or do their own laundry; they will soon experience the dilemma of a low-stocked pantry or empty underwear drawer. Let them get stumped over the responsibilities of life and encourage them to think through the next best course of action.
Allow Kids to Do Things Their Own Way
… Even if it seems inefficient to you. Different doesn’t mean wrong, and it sometimes leads to surprising outcomes (as well as improved thinking skills).
Accept and Even Encourage Mistakes
In order to learn how to be successful, children need to experience failure. As a parent, mistakes can be hard to watch, but they are a necessary precursor to a child getting up and trying again. Mistakes are opportunities for thinking differently and for leaning.
Process Your Child’s Decisions Together
Ask follow-up questions to help her talk through her thought process.
What did you decide to do?
What was the hardest part?
Did anything surprise you?
Would you do it again this way?
Once again, this reinforces the neural connections in the part of the brain that processes problem-solving.
Ensure Plenty of Time for Free Play
Unstructured time at home allows children to play and learn in an environment that is unrestricted by any set outcome. This alone encourages the development of new neural pathways as children navigate their own experimentation and learning. Open-ended play offers countless ways for children to think about the world and make their own decisions.
Try Different Kinds of Puzzle Games
Next time you know you’ll be waiting at a restaurant, try bringing a book of riddles to keep your family occupied. Or an age-appropriate Brain Quest flip-book, Mind Benders, or even Mad Libs for kids. Puzzles like word games, math games, brainteasers, riddles, or IQ-style questions are fun ways to pass the time and give kids wonderful opportunities to exercise their critical thinking muscles.
With a few small changes to your routine, you can find plenty of ways to get kids to think through solutions to problems great and small. You’ll find your child growing into an independent, well-rounded thinker!