Friday, May 8, 2009

Teaching the Kids How to Think, Not What to Think

Many families are ruptured when children come to different ideological conclusions than their parents. Dad and Mom are Maoists, and Jr. is a card carrying member of the John Birch Society. The parents are anti-choice, the kids are anti-life*. The kids are out scrubbing oil off of starfishes while mom and dad are having a Styrofoam bonfire in the backyard. These kinds of software discrepancies can lead to loads of in-fighting, and often end up in mutual alienation.

To me, being a parent is the most important job I could (and do) have, and there’s nothing I spend more time thinking about. The happiness and resilience of my children is of the utmost concern to me. This being the case, I want to make sure I’m offering them the best tools to achieve this happiness and resilience that I can. Often times, the discovery of the best tools come at the end of a significant amount of reflection.

I’ve observed and participated in the kinds of ideological differences that can upset families. The fallout from the expression of these differences can often take a long time to clean up. Sometimes the mess is never cleaned up, and all parties involved carry around an open internal wound for the rest of their lives. The solution to this problem--seems to me--is that parents should be more concerned with the hardware that they’re installing in their children, rather than the software. It’s more important that we offer our children lessons in how to think, rather than simply telling them what to think.

Children will pick up our most personal values by watching us interact with the world, not necessarily from our words. While it may be good to remind ourselves and our children of the values we aspire towards just to keep ourselves on track, our actions will do most of the leg work for us in that area.

What seems to be of the utmost importance--in this age when we are constantly bombarded with information and opinion—is skepticism. Skepticism is hardware thinking. It’s a framework within which we can do all of our other reasoning. Most children are taught to believe things upon Authority, or Revelation. When we’re children, there are certain Authorities we are told never to question, and the Truthiness of revelation often seems to hold sway over the actual facts. Richard Dawkins included a moving letter to his ten year old daughter on this subject in his book A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love.Skepticism is simple, yet profound. I introduced the idea to my children through a book by Dan Barker called Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptics,which very simply instructs children to seek evidence. When someone approaches you with a bit of information, requesting that you believe it, the skeptical answer is ‘Maybe yes, Maybe no. Let’s look at the evidence.’ I’m teaching my children that their personal integrity is important, and thus it’s good to be careful about the things we claim to know for certain. There are people out there who claim many things to be true without sufficient evidence. These people should lose their credibility with us if they continually make unsupportable claims about the nature of things. It’s important to keep an open mind to new evidence, but it’s also important not to follow too many rabbits down too many different rabbit holes.

I will try to teach my children to be compassionate, to experience wonder, and to work hard. I will seek to encourage and validate them while I’m here, and will try to teach them to encourage and validate themselves as well, in preparation for the day when I’m here no longer. I’ll share my opinions with them, but won’t insist that they absorb them. After all, I arrived at most of my opinions by investigation. How could I expect my children to accept my beliefs without a thorough investigation of their own? Everyone must go through their own personal Rumspringa, but it doesn’t have to end in alienation. If we’re not married to our beliefs, then no one gets hurt too bad when one of those beliefs is challenged, or even proven false.

I can see why parents don’t want to allow their children to challenge certain institutions. ‘Because God said so’ is an easy response to a ‘why’ question, but it won’t sate a curious intellect for long. There has to be a reason why something is the case, and even a child not raised to think critically will get around to exploring the logic behind even the most banal of commandments. Usually, if the commandments don’t seem applicable anymore, the kids will abandon them. That is evolution. I want my kids to succeed. I don’t want them to be needlessly burdened by superstitions that still linger in my mind, or the logical or dogmatic errors I am bound to make. I want my kids to ask questions, and to be content with knowing that some of their questions are not going to have answers. I want them to understand that ‘I don’t know’ is a perfect answer in lieu of good evidence.

Mostly, I just want the kids to be happy and resilient. With the tool of skepticism in their mental toolboxes, and with their Mom and myself cheerleading for them, I think this is an attainable goal. To be a skeptic is to have an open mind. It’s to ask questions, and to be glad when we discover errors in our own thinking. A skeptical mind need not go down with the ship of unfounded belief. It’s free to inquire, and free to get off and explore at any port it chooses. I like knowing that my kids will have this kind of freedom of intellectual movement, and I like knowing that their explorations are bound to keep me growing too.

Teaching your kids skepticism is a win-win.


*I am using Penn Jillette’s terminology for these positions. It's much more fun, because it doesn't make either side happy.
**”Preach the gospel at all times, and use words when necessary”-Augustine.

5 comments:

Willie Y said...

Your a very good dad.

Spencer Troxell said...

Thanks Willie. I hope so.

GbiZ said...

Good thoughts Spence, and good luck w. those kids. I second Willies comment.

Stevesy said...

Bravo, Mr. Troxell. I think most of us--especially those of us that grew up here in the bible belt--wish our parents would have taken this approach. God bless you, and keep you on task.

Spencer Troxell said...

Thanks Gbiz and Stevesy.