I’ve been seeing the saying “Teach your children how to think, not what to think” (I couldn’t find the origins of the quote, if you know please enlighten me) a lot lately and I not only agree with it wholeheartedly but I am very grateful to my own parents for raising me in this manner. And I hope most sincerely I’m able to teach my own children (I say “children” meaning my daughter and hypothetical second child) using this wise saying as a guide.
One of my pet peeves is when I ask someone their opinion and that person says “I was raised to think…” or “raised to believe…” All I can think is “I wanted YOUR opinion, not your parent’s opinion.” I sincerely hope I never hear my daughter say either of these things. Of course we have to instill certain attributes and values on children. For instance kindness, patience, honesty. They need to know to treat people with respect even those who are different from themselves. So honestly I would love to hear my daughter say “I was raised to be hardworking” or “respectful” or “open-minded.” But by the time someone reaches adulthood their thoughts, beliefs and opinions should be their own. Of course parents will always have an effect on their child’s opinions and beliefs whether it’s because their children look up to them and mimic them or because they want to rebel by choosing opposing beliefs.
But if we don’t indoctrinate our children with our exacts opinions and beliefs how can we guarantee they will turn out just like us? We can’t. And even though that was a silly and exaggerated question, it’s scary (by scary I mean totally terrifying). Of course we want our kids to share our beliefs and our likes and dislikes. It’s hard as a parent when you’re super excited to share something you love with your children and they’re just not that interested. The difficult truth is that parents create individual complete people not clones of ourselves (or mini mes if you like). And that’s absolutely necessary to the advancement of society. If everyone thought exactly like their parents there would be no new inventions, no new styles of art and architecture, no innovations at all. If everyone thought just like their parents we would still have slavery in the United States and women wouldn’t be allowed to vote. Each generation faces challenges that the previous generations never imagined. If a child is taught only to parrot their parents beliefs how are they supposed to adjust to these new circumstances? Most likely they will just cling to whatever someone else tells them to believe. Whether it be friend, politician, celebrity or talk show host. I actually had someone tell me they had to agree with everything the president at the time did because he belonged to the same political party as the president. I don’t care what political party you belong to, that’s just a ridiculous line of thought. I certainly don’t agree with everything every politician in my political party does. The point of political parties is to determine your own opinions then join the party you agree with most, not just join a party and agree with everything they tell you (sorry side tangent). Is that really how we want our children to operate? As cattle just waiting to be herded? Also consider that every adolescent will rebel to some extent, otherwise they wouldn’t learn how to be adults, even if it’s just to like a TV show you hate (not even necessarily an inappropriate show just one you don’t care for). If you strongly indoctrinate your children with all your beliefs they’re more likely to choose to rebel by adopting the exact opposite beliefs. While if you teach them to think for themselves they are less likely to oppose your beliefs just for rebellion’s sake. Some children will thankfully learn to think for themselves despite their parents best efforts to sabotage them.
If you’re sure teaching your children to think for themselves will cause them to disagree with you then perhaps you should reexamine your own beliefs and opinions. Did you gain your own opinions through careful analysis of information or do you just hold tightly to your preconceived notions, unwilling to look at any evidence that contradicts them? I am fairly confident that my daughter, with her own careful thought, will come to many of the same conclusions I have. If having your children think too much about what you’re teaching them is a bad thing, then how can what your teaching them be good? Do your opinions have so little to back them up that you can’t give your children other points of view without seeing the fallacy of your own? If you are confident your opinions are sound then there is much less to fear. Being individuals your children will probably grow up to disagree with you to an extent but at least they will have the ability to make their own way in the world.
By now I hope your thinking “By George, she’s right! But how do I teach my children to think for themselves?” This is where I have to confess I’m not an expert on child development but I can tell you how I plan on raising my daughter to be a free-thinker. (I also have to confess I stole some of this from my parents). First off I’m going to let her be an individual and support her in whatever she enjoys. I’m a Star Wars watching, comic book reading nerd and a theatre majoring, art museum patronizing artist (pronounced ar- teest). I haven’t voluntarily watched a sporting event in….I don’t even know how long, never maybe. Despite all that, I will expose my daughter to sports, admittedly probably not as much as the stuff I like but I will let her try them out. Perhaps she will find a particular sport to be her passion in life or just a fun way to get some exercise and meet new friends. Either way if that’s what she wants to do I will go to every game I possibly can and cheer for her till I am hoarse. That’s just one example but you get my point (I hope).
Now for the harder part, when my daughter asks me about a difficult issue I won’t just give her my opinion as fact. First off, I will ask her what she thinks. If she has any thoughts on the subject I will discuss them with her, pointing out the merits and flaws in her thought process. Then I will give her both my own and opposing opinions. I will explain position but also let her know any good arguments the other side has, most positions on issues have good arguments even if I disagree with them. There are some exceptions, most notably prejudice. I can’t very well tell her the good arguments in favor of racism because there aren’t any. But for most questions I will tell her both sides and let her decide. When she is a child she will probably agree with me but as she grows she may discover she doesn’t agree with me on everything. Most importantly it will teach her to look at both sides of an argument and draw the best conclusions she can from the information she has. It is also useful to be able to analyze situations in this way in personal life. It can really help end a personal argument if you really consider the other persons point of view.
Okay, this is where I’m going to lose some (more?) people but if you disagree please keep reading till I’ve made my point. Yes, I believe this applies to religion too. I know religion is not based in facts and reason but in faith. The question is (if you’re religious) do you want your children to develop genuine personal faith or just a pale reflection of your own faith? If you are a religious person take your kids to services, celebrate and teach them about your holidays (or why you don’t celebrate holidays), let them know what you believe and how strong your belief is. At the same time, let them know there are many other belief systems, don’t judge or talk meanly about other belief systems. Let you kid go to church with a friend of another faith. Don’t try to keep your children from learning about other spiritual and religious beliefs and even no belief in a higher power. Let them question, how can they grow their own faith without questioning? If you’re atheist, agnostic or just not very religious, don’t mock religion in front if your children. Explain to them why you don’t believe in or question the existence of a higher power but also let them go to services with a friend, let them explore the possibility. Forcing religious beliefs on children can result in the same opposition rebellion I mentioned earlier. I know it scares a lot of people to think of their children not choosing the same spiritual path they have chosen but it is a deeply personal choice and one each person needs to choose for themselves.
Most importantly make sure your children know you love them no matter what. Whatever choices they make, whatever paths they follow, whatever opinions they form, they need to know they are loved and supported. A child needs to know that nothing could make their parent(s) stop loving them. Be an example, if you want your children to agree with your beliefs and opinions, live by them. Children are always observing and often listen more intently when we’re not talking to them than when we are. Never forget children are little sponges absorbing everything they see, hear, taste, smell and feel. Guide them, teach them, listen to them. Let them learn, let them explore, let them question, let them be their own persons and live their own lives.
*I have since seen the quote I didn’t know the origins of attributed to Margaret Mead.