The following question comes from Cupcake reader Tony. Thanks, Tony, for contributing this question.
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Could I ask a quick question? How do you encourage critical thinking in your child? I’m trying my best, but it wasn’t something that was encouraged when I was a child – it sort of got ‘switched on’ when I was a teenager. I have 2 young kids (2 & 5) and I can already see religious indoctrination starting to occur from some of my daughters ‘after-school’ clubs – I can’t stop her going to these as all her little friends go.
Thanks for your question. Raising free-thinking children is definitely a challenge. I probably shouldn’t make assumptions, but I assume that you live in a developed, predominantly Christian area. Therefore, your children aren’t in any danger of physical repercussions from not being part of the church-going crowd. Also, at ages 2 and 5, they seem quite young and it is natural for them to be curious about the things their friends are doing.
I don’t believe there is any one right answer to your question, but I can share with you what I’ve learned in my own parenting as well as some resources I’ve found along the way.
1. Ask Questions – I make a conscious effort to not feed my son answers when he asks questions about religion or anything otherwise supernatural or unsupported. Instead, I try to answer his questions with questions. Take, for example, Santa Claus. For a variety of reasons, my husband and I agreed that we wouldn’t play the Santa game with our child. However, he hears about Santa from his friends in preschool and from other family members. Last winter when he was three, he loved talking about Santa. He would make comments like “Mommy, Santa is going to bring me presents” or “Mommy, Santa flies with reindeer.” Instead of correcting him, I played the part of the interested skeptic. I would ask him, “How does Santa make it all around the world to each boy and girl?” or “How are the reindeer able to fly?” My hope is that by modeling critical thinking, he will learn to question things on his own. At his age, the important thing isn’t whether he believes in Santa Claus or flying reindeer or a magic Space Daddy. The important thing is that he learns to ask questions.
2. Allow Religious Exposure: The goal shouldn’t be to keep our children from being exposed to religion. Rather, the goal should be to present religion in a comparative context and let the glaring incompatibilities speak for themselves. My son has a book about Noah and the Ark that we like to read from time to time. As we read it, we talk about the animals and how silly it is for all the animals to be on one boat. He thinks it is just another fun story. As he gets older, it is our intention to teach him about all different religions through books, discussions or maybe even attending a service from time to time. We have Bibles, Korans, books about mysticism and Buddhism, as well as history and mythology books my husband and I amassed throughout our educations. By some day sharing these with our son, we hope he learns to see the God of Abraham as just the latest in a long line of gods that people have made up throughout human history. I will caveat this, however, by saying that at his age we do not allow him to attend church or any other place of worship. In these places, questioning is typically not welcomed and that is not the way our family operates. If he wants to go when he gets older, we’ll of course consider the circumstances at that time.
3. Don’t Label: I try not to think of my son as an atheist child. I also try to remind myself that his friends in preschool are not “Christian children” or “Muslim children.” Regardless of the labels adults apply to their children, young kids simply cannot make those decisions about their own beliefs. They shouldn’t be labeled with the beliefs of their families. I need to remind myself of this every time he asks us why we don’t attend church like his grandparents or his friends. My instinctual response is to tell him we don’t go to church because we are an atheist family. However, that isn’t fair to him. He is only four and didn’t make the choice to be an atheist. Instead, I try to explain that we don’t go to church because in church people learn things that likely aren’t true and people aren’t welcomed to ask questions. Questions are important, especially when we are being told things that don’t make sense.
Furthermore, here are some resources that have been invaluable to me in trying to raise my son in an environment where critical thinking is encouraged.
Lastly, I would just say that one of the best ways to combat supernatural explanations for things is with natural explanations. Encourage your children to explore science. Offer them enriching activities that might cultivate an interest in learning while also teaching them the importance of evidence. Who knows? Maybe some of their little religious friends can come along? Knowledge is a powerful tool.
Good luck to you and let me know how things go!