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Critical Thinking for Kids

by Ron Crouch, "Dr. Dad"

We are living through what Yale philosopher Cailin O’Conner has dubbed the “Misinformation Age.” You can see it everywhere. Pseudoscience and conspiracy theories are an inescapable part of modern life, and everyone needs critical thinking skills more than ever. But what about kids? Don’t they need critical thinking skills to stay safe in the misinformation age too?

As a child psychologist, I believe that the answer is not only that they do, but that teaching critical thinking skills to children is more important than ever before. Children are far more vulnerable to magical thinking than adults, and according to surveys, most kids find a way to get unrestricted access to the internet starting at around eight years old.

Teaching children critical thinking skills is also a safety issue—one that should be viewed in the same category as teaching your children to wear helmets and look both ways before crossing the street. Even the kids are tuning in to just how serious the problem is. A 2023 survey of youth in the US found that 74% recognize that they have encountered misinformation and disinformation online (Gregoire 2023).

Children wearing safety gear

To manage this problem, kids need to be taught critical thinking skills earlier than ever before. The strange thing is that there is not a lot of good information on how to teach your child critical thinking skills. What follows is a simple process for teaching children to think critically and some ideas for how to get started at home.

Model, Label, and Praise

The process for teaching critical thinking is what I call Model-Label-Praise.

It starts with modeling critical thinking. It was the psychologist Albert Bandura who first coined the term “modeling” to describe the way in which children copy grownups (Bandura 1977). Since then, psychologists have helped parents leverage the power of modeling to teach children complicated behaviors that they could never learn with a classroom lesson or a set of written instructions.

Girl and grandfather cooking

When your child sees and hears you thinking critically about the things that you encounter in the news, in advertisements, or during conversations, they will copy what you do. When you sprinkle conversations with phrases like “I don’t know,” “I’m skeptical about that,” or “I’m not going to believe it until I learn more,” it does the thing that all writers know works best: it shows instead of tells. This is a powerful way to teach your child what critical thinking looks like without a lecture or tedious lesson.

But it is also important to do at least a little bit of telling. That is where the label part of Model-Label-Praise comes in. When you notice that your child is using the critical thinking skills you’ve been modeling for them, teach your child the names of those skills by clearly naming what they are when you see them.

The main critical thinking skill kids need is staying skeptical, and this requires asking questions and wanting evidence. Whenever your child uses these skills, take a moment to point out what that skill is and why you love it.

This is where the praise part of the process comes in. When your child says, “I’m not sure if I believe that,” make a big deal out of that by saying, “I love how skeptical you are!” When they quiz you about how you know what you know, say “You ask such good questions!” And if you want to get fancy about it, you can say “You are really good at asking Socratic questions!” When they want to see for themselves before they will believe another child’s claim that they saw Bigfoot tracks in the forest, label that behavior as “wanting evidence” and praise it loudly.

Father and excited son

Critical Thinking Activities for Kids Ages 4-7

Young children, roughly around four to seven, absolutely love ghost stories, cryptids, and tall tales of all kinds. Watch any episode of Scooby-Doo and you’ll see what I mean. This fascination with the paranormal is the perfect place to use the Model-Label-Praise approach.

Kids who wonder if ghosts might be real or if something creepy lives in the basement are ready to have their own Scooby-Doo adventure with you. Go ghost hunting in the attic. Look under the bed, in the closet, and check twice. As you do, nudge your child to think critically by modeling critical thinking skills, asking them what evidence would be good enough to believe or not, and praising them whenever they ask good questions or think of ways to test spooky claims. Get them to think about the adventure as a way to test an idea, and introduce them to the concept that being skeptical is a good attitude to have when it comes to claims about the paranormal.

Mother and daughter looking under bed

By teaching the principles of staying skeptical, asking questions, and looking for evidence with fun spooky claims, you help your child learn the fundamentals of critical thinking in a kid-friendly way. As they grow and encounter more serious forms of misinformation and conspiracy theories, they will have the tools they need to stay skeptical and test the claims.

Critical Thinking Activities for Kids Ages 8 and Up

Older children who have longer attention spans and better organization skills can take on bigger and more complicated projects that teach critical thinking and will give you a chance to use the Model-Label-Praise process.

Elementary-aged kids tend to love home-based science experiments like potato-powered clocks and kitchen chemistry. You can make these at-home experiments custom-tailored to focus on critical thinking by making them into simple tests of pseudoscientific claims. I call these “pseudoscience experiments”. For ideas on how to do these, visit my website.

For example, we made something I call “homeopathic hot sauce” at home by mixing a teaspoon of my favorite hot sauce into a mason jar of water and then diluting it. We followed the instructions for making homeopathic medicine, which you can find online, and ended up with a cup of crystal clear water that was, if homeopathic claims were correct, supposed to be even stronger than the original hot sauce even though it likely didn’t have a molecule of hot sauce in it. I dared my son to drink it, which he did, and immediately pretended like he was choking. It was so much fun, and along the way, I got the chance to model asking questions, label his skepticism, and praise his willingness to test ideas.

Woman and boy pouring water

As kids grow and want to go on bigger adventures you can try taking a critical thinking field trip together by visiting a place where there are paranormal claims and debunking them. This is a fantastic opportunity to use the Model-Label-Praise approach. If you search online you will no doubt find a place nearby where people claim that cars roll uphill, psychics can read your mind, and wishes will come true if you just make them in a special spot. There are folk tales and urban legends everywhere. Taking a road trip to one of these places to test the claim is a fun way to get out of your comfort zone and enjoy some quality time together while practicing critical thinking.

If you can’t go on a road trip, you can read books together that encourage skepticism and critical thinking. Since I write these kinds of books for kids, I must admit that I am a bit biased in favor of this activity, but it is undeniable that reading together fosters critical thinking, especially if you talk about the ideas in the book. If the book happens to include skepticism and critical thinking in the content, that is even better and will add a new dimension to modeling, as the character does it for you.

By modeling critical thinking for your child, labeling the critical thinking skills when they are used, and praising them every time your child does them while doing activities together that teach critical thinking, you can teach the basics of critical thinking to your child at home. While parents and kids are all different, I believe that every kid can learn critical thinking skills and that every parent can teach them. The benefits of doing this in our modern misinformation age are priceless. It is my hope that teaching kids critical thinking skills will become as common as addressing any other safety issue and that we raise a generation that is skeptical, asks questions, and always looks for evidence.

References

Bandura, A. 1977. Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Gregoire, C. 2023. New Microsoft research illustrates the online risks and value of safety tools to keep kids safer in the digital environment (blog entry). Microsoft (April 5).

About the Author

Ronald Crouch Ph.D. is a psychologist and author. He has published research in peer-reviewed academic journals and writes therapy workbooks for children that teach them socioemotional skills under the title Pixel's Big Books. He is also the author of the Beyond Belief book series which teaches children critical thinking skills with fun paranormal mysteries. He is the winner of the Truman and Jack Kent Cooke Awards, the Tripler Fellowship for Child Psychology, and although he is licensed to practice psychology in multiple states, he currently works in Europe where he lives with his wife of 25 years and their teenage son. When he isn’t restoring the rehabbed church that he is turning into a home, he writes online under the name “Dr. Dad.” His author website is Raising a Skeptical Kid and he is active on Facebook under the name @skepticalkid.


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