(Not What to Think)

I have these moments. I used to freeze when they happened. One of my daughters would say something and I would realize they have an opinion … that I don’t. The first time this happened, I was shocked. How did that idea get in there? Nowadays it happens quite often, but I rarely freeze. The truth is that I often find these times enjoyable.

As parents, we want to protect our little ones. We teach them what to eat, what they should not put into electrical sockets, and, yes, what to think. I used to joke that I had a list of about 1,000 things that I wanted my daughters to believe. As they have grown, that list has shrunk to about 10 key principles, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that they have to learn a lot of it without me. The goal of teaching them how to think, more than what to think, becomes increasingly important. If they don’t know how to think, no idea in their mind, however much you affirm it, is safe—because they don’t know why they believe what they believe.

You cannot put too high a premium on how to think.

Here are a few family habits to help teach your children how to think:

Habit 1: Be an Example of Continual Learning and Thinking

I have a picture of my daughters on my phone screen. It is lovely. Recently, someone said, “Wow. Their mom must be beautiful.” (She is.) I think that they were poking fun at me, but there was a point: children will eventually be like their parents … even when they try not to.

You can be an example to them of thinking critically. With your spouse and children, talk about and examine things that happen in your family, community, and culture. Consider age appropriateness, but if you have children in high school, you need to be discussing politics, gender and sexuality, money, and relationships. If you aren’t, know that the culture is. Let them see that you think deeply. Give them permission to challenge your conclusions.

Of course, we want them to be respectful, but even if it is messy, it is better to have them thinking, asking questions, and challenging ideas than to have them be compliant but mentally careless.

This can be tough—particularly if you have younger children, because it can confuse them to see an older brother or sister “talk back” to you. Often, when our kids were younger, we let the younger ones leave the table before we talked about serious matters. This gives older children time to speak their mind. As a bonus, it reinforces the importance of valuing time to eat together. The dinner table should not be an idol, but it should be a priority because that is often where thinking and debate happen most naturally.

Habit 2: Start Conversations, Don’t Shut Them Down

As your child grows into their adolescent and teen years, don’t do this:

Parent (to child): So what do you think about capital punishment?

Child: I think it should be banned.

Parent: No, we believe that people who commit murder should be put to death.

Child: Oh, OK.

Instead, the conversation might look more like this:

Parent (to child): So what do you think about capital punishment?

Child: I think it should be banned.

Parent: Why do you think it should be banned?

Child: I don’t think that the legal system gives enough protection to poor people charged with murder. Until we can be sure that we’re not killing the innocent then I don’t think we’re wise enough to use this punishment.

That conversation is headed in a great direction. Many other questions can and should ensue. Not only can you and your older child consider why you believe what you believe, but it will also give you insight into your child’s mind and heart.

Habit 3: Require and Encourage Breadth in Media

The media, books, movies, and television bombard us with ideas. Our opponents can teach us to think, but only if we will listen to them, take their arguments seriously, and answer them respectfully (because even the most reckless opponent bears the image of God).  If you have adequately helped develop a strong foundation of their faith and beliefs when they are young, then it’s time to trust them to put that faith to work.

Make sure that your child has a media diet that is not monochromatic (again, especially as they get older and move beyond those formative early elementary years). They should have friends that don’t think exactly like them, read books that challenge their thinking, and listen to podcasts and music that stretch their minds and tastes. They should hear people advocating ideas that are hostile to what your family holds dear.

We might like to think of our children as precious china to be carefully wrapped and placed on a high shelf, away from the possibility of being chipped or cracked. God, however, placed them and us in a world of collisions and contention. We cannot keep them safe by wrapping them up and putting them far from conflict. We must teach them to think. In the end, the ability to think—clearly and critically about ideas—is a herald of their future ability to cling to what is true, good, and beautiful with conviction and courage.

Ty Fischer has been the Head of School at Veritas Academy in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, since 1997. He received a BA in history from Grove City College and a master of divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. He serves on the board of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools.  Ty and his wife, Emily, are the parents of four daughters: Maddy, Laynie, Karis, and Elyse and the proud owners of one “periodically obedient” puggle, Roxy.