Small Lessons in Critical Thinking

About a year ago, while Trystan was playing in a sandbox I asked him, “Trystan, is it better to be smart or nice?”  He looked at me and with only a slight pause responded, “Um, nice.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because if you’re nice then people will teach you and you will be smart.”

I lead off with this memory because when I think of the word “smart” I usually imagine people having an argument about facts, data and historical record, the whole time trying to prove which one is more correct or “right”. It is very easy to fall into the slippery slope of arguing with your kids.  Spouting out reasons why they should JUST listen to you and stop questioning your demands.

Well, sometimes you don’t have to win an argument to win the moment, and ultimately teach a valuable lesson.  As a parent, I rely very much on the Socratic method of debate with my kids to teach them the difference between right and wrong, and at the same time developing their critical thinking skills.

“Why did you do that?” is probably the most common response to a child throwing a toy down three flights of stairs, or knocking over a teetering toddler who is just learning to walk.  First of all, I can recall several times as an adult when I don’t have a premeditated answer to that question, so why would I expect a little version of myself to do so? Just this morning, I hit the snooze button one more time at the precise moment that I knew I had to be in the car and driving off to be at work on time.  Ten minutes later I’m scrambling to get dressed yelling at myself, “Why did you do that?!”

The Socratic Method is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.

For kids it’s more of an exercise of self control than real intellect.

Easy example: I’m watching Zoey color the leaves on a tree blue.  If I told her to color it green, I would be right and she would be wrong. Right?

…I don’t know.  Let’s find out.

Me: “Zoey. Does that tree have blue leaves?”
Zoey: “Uh-huh.”
Me: “Are there trees with blue leaves outside?”
Zoey: Smiles.
Me: “Did you see a tree with blue leaves?”
Zoey: “Uh-huh.”
Me: “Where?”
Zoey: “Here,” pointing to her drawing.
Me: “I have never seen a tree with blue leaves before.”
Zoey: “Uh-huh. Blue is my favorite color.”

So in this scenario, it was a matter of artistic expression than imitation of reality. I assumed she was trying to make a “real” tree whilst Zoey just wanted to use her favorite color.

More Complex Example: Trystan says it is unfair that Zachary doesn’t have homework.

We get home from school and Zachary runs off and starts playing while Trystan and Zoey buckle down at the dinner table and start doing their homework.  Ten minutes later as Trystan is on his third page of homework he tells me, “Daddy, it is unfair that I have to do homework and Zachary gets to play.”

I could have squelched that argument in one second with “Well, he’s just a baby so it’s okay.”  Which is not incorrect.  But the issue I want him to understand is not to compare himself with his siblings so my line of Socratic questioning goes like this:

Trystan: “Daddy, it is unfair that I have to do homework and Zachary gets to play.”
Me: “Really? Do you think that is unfair?”
Trystan nods.
Me: “Why?”
Trystan: “Because I want to play but I have to finish my homework first, and I have a lot of it. It’s not fair.”
Me: “Do you want to do what Zachary gets to do and not have to do what you have to?”
Trystan: “Yes.”
Me: “Okay. So you don’t have to do your homework, if you wear a diaper all day. Sounds good?”
Trystan smiles, “Not good.”
Me: “Why not.”
Trystan: “I don’t need to wear a diaper.”
Me: “Why not?”
Trystan: “Because I know how to use the toilet.”
Me: “Well, isn’t that unfair to Zachary?”
Trystan: “No, because he’s a baby.”
Me: “Will you teach him how to use the toilet?”
Trystan: “Sure.”
Me: “When he gets to be your age, do you think he’s going to have to do homework?”
Trystan: “Yup.”
Me: “Will you help him with his homework just like you help him use the toilet?”
Trystan: “Sure.”
Me: “Well, for now, you have to show him what it looks like to do homework so when he’s six he’ll know. Sounds good?”
Trystan: “Good.”

So ultimately, Trystan was able to come to the conclusion that he and Zachary don’t have the same rules because Zachary is a “baby”. I also was able to guide him to the conclusion that this “unfairness” gives him an opportunity to be an example for his little brother, challenging his drive for excellence.

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