I think one of the most important life skills for an adult is the ability to think critically, in other words to judge something on its own merits for yourself, considering all relevant factors rationally, rather than simply accepting the opinions or beliefs of others.

However I realise that it's neither possible nor desirable to teach kids this skill until they are emotionally and intellectually prepared for it, and have a "critical mass" of life experience upon which to base their judgements.

So my question is, at what age (or stages of development) is it both possible and desirable to introduce critical thinking skills, and is there a roadmap for that process?

asked 22 Oct '09, 11:14

user-583%20%28google%29's gravatar image

user-583 (google)
accept rate: 0%

edited 22 Oct '09, 22:00


I re-tagged it for you. You can only have a max of 5 tags though so I left off the last one.

(22 Oct '09, 13:16) Dinah

Great question.

(22 Oct '09, 14:06) Chris W. Rea

Don't worry, my next one will be about poop.

(22 Oct '09, 22:07) user-583 (google)

In my experience, it's about providing a good example.

  • Think critically yourself, very visibly. Make sure your child sees and hears you saying "why?" and "how do we know?" and "what else might be a possibility?"

  • Ask those questions of your child. Challenge them and make sure they know it's acceptable to challenge you on your beliefs.

  • When they ask questions, answer truthfully and plainly, go as deep as they're willing to accept. Don't just answer, tell them how we come to know the answers.

  • When you don't know the answer, say so! And don't leave it there -- discuss how you might find out the answer, whether anybody knows (and how), or how one might find out more.


answered 22 Oct '09, 22:14

lgritz's gravatar image

accept rate: 14%

edited 23 Oct '09, 00:49

Tammy's gravatar image

Tammy ♦♦

While many of the previous answers were based on setting an example, this one was the most detailed, so I'm marking it as the accepted answer. But I'm still interested to hear others' thoughts...

(23 Oct '09, 02:53) user-583 (google)

From ParentingScience.com:

The most effective way to foster critical thinking skills is through explicit instruction (Abrami et al 2008).

Studies suggest that students become remarkably better problem-solvers when we teach them to

  • analyze analogies
  • create categories and classify items appropriately
  • identify relevant information
  • construct and recognize valid deductive arguments
  • test hypotheses
  • recognize common reasoning fallacies
  • distinguish between evidence and interpretations of evidence

Do such lessons stifle creativity? Not at all. Critical thinking is about curiosity, flexibility, and keeping an open mind (Quitadamo et al 2008). And, as Robert DeHaan has argued, creative problem solving depends on critical thinking skills (DeHaan 2009).

In fact, research suggests that explicit instruction in critical thinking may make kids smarter, more independent, and more creative.

Following that, there are a whole bunch of examples and tips.

(This question was featured in the Moms4mom Newsletter, issue #6, which also includes more information about this topic.)


answered 22 Mar '10, 00:26

Scott's gravatar image

Scott ♦♦
accept rate: 10%

edited 22 Mar '10, 01:55

OK, this is the new best answer, for quoting sources, alerting me to my 15 minutes of fame in the newsletter, and most of all for pointing me to ParentingScience.com, which seems a very useful site.

(22 Mar '10, 08:18) user-583 (google)

Thanks! And yes, ParentingScience continues to surprise me with great articles.

(22 Mar '10, 09:47) Scott ♦♦

My experience has been that this happens whether you like it or not :) My 2 year old is in the "why" stage, and I try to give him honest, complete answers when I can. I think it's that inquisitiveness that feeds into critical thinking as your child matures.


answered 22 Oct '09, 13:53

Brien's gravatar image

accept rate: 11%


+1 for honest complete answers. When our daughter asks something we don't know the answer too, we just say so!

(22 Oct '09, 14:51) Emi

I think this ability is best learned through observation. If the child sees that you are using this technique, it will automatically imitate that behavior. Described here for example.

Although this is kind of funny, as it is obviously the exact opposite you want to achieve, it works. Usually children imitate their parents and accept what their parents tell them what is good or bad.


answered 22 Oct '09, 12:45

StampedeXV's gravatar image

accept rate: 0%

edited 25 Oct '09, 15:15

Hi StampededXV, although I agree with you, can you provide a reference or experience that backs up your statement "this ability is best learned through observation". Check out http://moms4mom.com/back-it-up

(24 Oct '09, 02:09) Tammy ♦♦

I can. But I always think that backing up things that are general knowledge are a bit unnecessary.

(25 Oct '09, 15:15) StampedeXV

@StampedeXV: Thanks for adding the ref. We know it's a bit tedious in some cases, but we believe it's leading to a higher quality of information than we have seen on other sites. In fact, this site was created specifically because Tammy was so inundated with sometimes contradictory advice when she was expecting and if nobody says where they got their information from, it's very difficult to make an educated decision. We're hoping to change that for the next generation of parents. We appreciate the effort!

(25 Oct '09, 17:28) Scott ♦♦

I know and I think it is a very good idea in general, although you can provide sources for almost every opinion. There are very few fields (even in science) where no contradictory sources are available.

(26 Oct '09, 07:42) StampedeXV

@StampedeXV: You are absolutely right, but if you provide your sources, then I can make an informed decision based on the quality of your sources.

(27 Oct '09, 00:58) Scott ♦♦

When my children make outrageous assertions, I find that "Why do think that?" or "Does that sound right to you?" useful questions to ask.

I'm currently in the middle of reading Parenting Beyond Belief, which provides useful support for freethinking parents.

I wouldn't say you need to start at a particular age, but rather just make critical thinking part of your normal life, and the kids will pick it up (hopefully -- my eldest is seven so it's hard to tell so far whether it's worked!).


answered 22 Oct '09, 14:28

Paul%20Stephenson's gravatar image

Paul Stephenson
accept rate: 4%

Wow, that book looks great, thanks for pointing me to it!

(22 Oct '09, 22:01) user-583 (google)

I've tried to introduce my children to critical thinking and some skepticism as soon as they could speak in comprehensive sentences.

Having siblings that seeds conversations with outrageous claims makes this way easier than with a single child.


answered 22 Oct '09, 11:40

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accept rate: 22%

edited 22 Oct '09, 16:51

Scott's gravatar image

Scott ♦♦

From what I understand about Early Childhood development, Children do not learn like adults do (through instruction, repetition, self-guided study etc), but socially. This is supported when you see that (generally) second and subsequent children eat, potty train and speak (to name a few) earlier. I think everyone here has the right idea about "teaching" critical thinking through example, but it's also important that they have free play time for them to explore the world, and learn about counterfactuals. I know it may sound strange, but non-optimum play scenarios are best for this. If everything around you works as it is supposed to, and everything is morally and literally sterile, there is no place to critically assess the situation and possibly improve it.

I've read about Counterfactuals in the book "The Philosophical Baby" by Alison Gopnik, And (I'm sorry I don't remember actual chapters, and it was a library book, so I can't skim it for pages) "Buy, Buy Baby" by Susan Gregory Thomas discussed social learning in the context of playing and language development. Two fantastic books for those who wish to expand their knowledge of Babies' Cognitive Development.


answered 23 Oct '09, 22:35

DarwinsMom's gravatar image

accept rate: 5%

edited 27 Oct '09, 23:18

Scott's gravatar image

Scott ♦♦


Hi DarwinsMom, welcome to moms4mom.com. Thank you for your thoughtful response. Although I agree with you, would you be able to provide a reference for the statement "Children learn socially, not through instruction, repetition, self-guided study etc..." Check out http://moms4mom.com/back-it-up

(24 Oct '09, 02:10) Tammy ♦♦

Thanks for the book titles!

(27 Oct '09, 23:18) Scott ♦♦
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Asked: 22 Oct '09, 11:14

Seen: 9,350 times

Last updated: 22 Mar '10, 01:55