Reader Question: Encouraging Critical Thinking

17 Mar

The following question comes from Cupcake reader Tony.  Thanks, Tony, for contributing this question.

If you have a question you would like answered on The Cupcake Atheist, please feel free to email me at

Note:  I’ve received a few questions over the past week and will be addressing them in upcoming blog posts.  I’m not ignoring you, I promise.

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.

– Tony

Hi Tony,

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.

Raising Freethinkers, A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief, edited by Dale McGowan.

Parenting Beyond Belief, On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion edited by Dale McGowan with foreword by Michael Shermer.

Maybe Yes, Maybe No; A Guide for Young Skeptics by Dan Barker

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!



7 Responses to “Reader Question: Encouraging Critical Thinking”

  1. Melissa March 18, 2011 at 1:26 am #

    I will agree with everything Amy said. I spend time on this subject at my own blog (with a library slant). I would also suggest making learning enjoyable. I’ve recently read some articles that promote games and critical thinking. Board games to video games are a great way to encourage critical thinking (given the right kind of games). There are several adventure/puzzle games available online for various age groups that I think work.

    I’d also suggest not getting rigid with what you try. What works for one kid may not work for another. Learning styles vary from person to person and as a person develops. If an activity doesn’t work for your child, try a different approach. I learned that lesson early on as an instructor. It can be difficult but pays off.

  2. Tony March 18, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    Thank you for answering my question. It sounds as if I’m trying to do similar stuff to you – but it’s hard to gauge how much success I’m having when they are so young! I’m in the UK where I believe that religion is pretty different than in the US. It’s something that is around, but not ‘in-yer-face’ everywhere. Many people claim to be christian yet very few actually attend a church. My wife would say that she believes in god, but she is definitely not religious (only goes into a church for weddings/funerals etc). In my social circle, it’s just something that isn’t talked about. Nobody assumes that everyone else is religious, it’s just something that is an irrelevancy for normal life.

  3. Alan March 18, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    I’m the only atheist in my family and we have an agreement that they can teach her about God as long as they don’t teach about the punishment of Hell. She’s almost 6 and so far so good.

    But my daughter loves science. She always asks if we can “do science” together. Which usually means mixing stuff together and seeing if it fizzes. I got her a science experiment kit that we’ve been doing together too. I try to explain what is happening the best I can, but at her age, the explanation itself isn’t as important as there simply being an explanation.

    I also like to let her watch scary movies (at least for a 6 year old) and tell her “You know there’s no such thing as ghosts/aliens, people make these movies because sometimes it’s fun to be scared.”

    But anytime she does try to talk about religion with me, I’ll try to tell her what other religions believe on the same subject. If she brings up Heaven, I’ll tell her that some people don’t believe in Heaven but they believe in reincarnation.

    At the very least, I’ll try to make it funny. I remember having a conversation about God’s kitchen. We laughed about whether or not he cooks, if he needs to eat in heaven. If he’s making a cheeseburger, where does the beef come from (she knows it’s a cow), if his apron gets dirty. Does God brush his teeth after every meal?

    I’m happy as long as she knows that what she’s told from grandparents or church isn’t the final story, that others believe other things and that it can be funny, and it can be questioned.

    I’ve come to atheism against the odds through rational thinking. I’m sure my daughter will do the same much earlier than I did.

  4. krissthesexyatheist March 18, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    So awesome. I didn’t come to the critical thinking game until my 30’s. B4 that i did what I was told and believed what I was told. So awesome, ya know, training the next generation of Team Atheist, Team Skeptic. Did i say awesome yet.


  5. mymarriagetogod March 29, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    I think this is good advice. I’m not sure you can really teach critical thinking, but leaving ideas open for question and always having room for ‘what do you think?’ is incredibly important. Encouraging personal reflection couldn’t hurt either.

  6. Marc Alan Di Martino April 22, 2011 at 1:00 pm #

    Cupcake, this is another wonderful post! We have an 8 month old girl and live in Italy. My wife and I are atheist (me)/agnostic(her)in an environment in which the Catholic Church has a serious advantage in educating children and where critical thinking is severely handicapped. It’s uphill all the way. So we need all the support we can get!

  7. dantresomi May 12, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

    I think the best way is to teach them about science. Man, the discussions we have. When my oldest daughter was curious about church, I let her go. She attends irregularly (she is not a morning person) but goes as much as she can. I don’t discourage her but when she brings something up for discussion, we don’t shout her down.

    In my son’s class, alot of the children were upset that my son told them that Jesus never existed. I actually came into class one morning and was asked a kazillion questions. My son seemed to have handled it well.

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