A worthy question came across my desk, the kind that gets the creative wheels turning: “How do we instill in children the value of critical thinking?” This query goes beyond the usual how-to-teach-critical-thinking-skills; merely teaching skills without the underlying relevance, the why? of the skill, greatly diminishes the chances that a child’s ability will employ the skill in a meaningful way. But the follow-up question put a stick in the spokes: “How do we show them how to be skeptical?”

And there sinks a good question into needlessly negative, constrictive language. I understand the motivation. In a world of sham, scam, spin and anything-for-a-sale marketing and politics, how do we give our children the skills to avoid becoming victims of deceit? It’s particularly critical for young people with autism, whose social thinking deficits and concrete thinking patterns can make them more likely to accept words at face value, fail to consider what motivates others, acquiesce to requests rather than admit they don’t understand, be unable to view actions and words in a larger context.

But autism or not, it’s all about perspective. The value of critical thinking goes far beyond avoiding victimization. It is how we solve problems, generate ideas, strengthen communities, serve justice, advance knowledge. There’s room for skepticism in the process, but it should occupy a place as a subset of the more expansive mindset—curiosity.

When we teach our kids critical thinking skills, we encourage them to explore the words, thoughts and actions of others and themselves with an eye for accuracy, honesty, relevance, fairness, complexity, clarity. If we base this guidance on “how to be skeptical,” we start from a position of doubt, distrust, suspicion.  But if we anchor critical thinking skills in curiosity, we teach our children to approach life with an inquisitiveness that anticipates positive outcomes as much as negative ones, that open-mindedness can both protect and enlarge our world. Rather than teach our kids to be skeptical, let’s teach them the value and the opportunity embodied in the simplest (and yet most complex) question of all: “Why?”

Skepticism and curiosity are not interchangeable. I mean, who wants to read a children’s book about a monkey named Skeptical George? Or a fascinating novel about a young man with autism titled The Skeptical Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? Check out the famous quotations below, in which I have (irreverently and unforgivably) substituted the word “skepticism” for “curiosity.” Pretty silly stuff.

Skepticism is the very basis of education and if you tell me that skepticism killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly. (Arnold Edinborough)

Skepticism in children is but an appetite for knowledge. (John Locke)

The cure for boredom is skepticism. There is no cure for skepticism. (attributed Dorothy Parker)

Skepticism is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind. (Samuel Johnson)


Have a curious day!

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