Being a parent is the hardest job any of us can have, but being a skeptical parent offers it’s own set of challenges. There are several issues that come up when you are trying to raise your children to think critically and skeptically that the average parent probably doesn’t have to deal with, or even think about. How do you handle the ever-present BS that seems to be everywhere in our society? What should you say when your child asks about god? These are just a couple of the things that you will face when raising children skeptically.
Below, I have outlined the most important steps that you, as a parent, can take to help your children become critical thinkers and skeptics. I provide examples of my own approach which should serve to illustrate these concepts in action. Since I can only speak from my own experience, please understand that these are not hard and fast rules, but are things that have worked for me, and as such, they are by default anecdotal.
Before I give you some specific examples from my experiences, let me tell you a bit about my kids and myself. I’m a single parent, and although the kids see their mom, it is only a few hours a week (her choice, not mine). My son is 16 and my daughter is 13. That said, let’s get to the examples.
• Promoting Critical Thinking
Promoting critical thinking is the single most important thing that you can do to help your children to become skeptics and critical thinkers. It took me a while to find the right ways to teach these all-important skills to my children. The key is to take a look at what they are reading, listening to, and watching. Once you have a sense of the ideas that they are being exposed to in the media and socially, you can then start to hone in on the BS that you find there.
About two years ago, I found that my daughter was into ghosts. I tried explaining why I didn’t think ghosts were real. It was difficult to get my point across until we discovered Ghost Hunters. Yes, I know, you are groaning and rolling your eyes, but let me explain how I used this pathetic example of supposed “science” to teach my daughter.
I can sum it up in one word: sarcasm. As we would watch the shows, I would point out the glaring misconceptions that abounded in almost every scene. I’d do this by making fun of them. After a few episodes, she was joining in and soon, watching Ghost Hunters became an hour of sarcasm and inside jokes at the Ghost Hunters’ expense.
One of my favorite things to point out was that the strange scratching or thumping sounds coming from the walls of these, often, old buildings was most likely caused by some kind of wildlife; rats, raccoons, or maybe birds. One of our favorite inside jokes has to do with the spooky music and sounds that the producers have running in the background, full of threatening undertones and highlighted by screeching strings and ominous clanks. We decided that this was caused by the Ghost Rat Orchestra that hid in the walls of every building the TAPS team visited.
The take away from this was that my daughter came to see that everything that was being presented on GH was BS. This translated into other areas, as I would hear her tell friends that whatever strange things that they were talking about; ghosts, demons, vampires, etc, couldn’t possibly be real and why.
There are several other shows that both my kids and I watch that I highly recommend because they either show critical thinking in action, show BS for what it is, or use humor and satire to show the inanity of all kooky ideas.
Mythbusters - For real life examples of the scientific method and critical thinking, this show just can’t be beat.
Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! - No minced words; no subject too taboo. This show is a no-holds-barred skewing of everything BS.
South Park - The episode on Scientology alone is enough to recommend this show. Their take down of everything “sacred” is brutal and beautiful to behold.
Family Guy - Very similar to South Park in many ways, but this show actually has main characters who are out and out atheists.
Futurama - No pseudoscience is safe on this show. After all, it gave use this classic exchange of dialogue:
“Amy Wong: You should try homeopathic medicine, Bender. Try some zinc.
Bender: I am forty percent zinc.
Amy Wong: Then take some echinacea, or St. John’s Wort.
Professor Hubert Farnsworth: Or a big, fat placebo. It’s all the same crap.”
• Calling BS when you see it, and explaining why it is BS.
Any time something comes up that has even a hint of pseudoscience or magical thinking, take the time to point it out and call it what it is; BS. The more often your kids hear you explain why certain pseudoscientific or religious things are wrong, the more they come to see these things on their own.
• Question EVERYTHING!
I always tell my children to question everything. I explain that they should never accept anything anyone tells them at face value without an explanation of why it is true or how it works. This include things that their friends tell them, things that their teachers teach them in school, and, most importantly, things that I, their mom, and step dad tell them. I always explain to them why I believe something to be so, but their mom and step dad don’t always have the same respect for the truth that I do. I don’t disparage their mom and step dad, but I merely ask the kids how they know that what they were told is true. I tell them to go ask for more information and insist on an answer. They have come back several times to report that there was much back peddling and hemming and hawing to be had when questions were raised.
• Answering questions about god and religion honestly.
When my children have come to me and asked about god or other religious issues, I always start by explaining there are many different ideas and beliefs about god and each religion has different ideas about things.
If they have asked a specific question, like, “Did Jesus rise from the dead?”, I will explain the various contradictions in the bible concerning the resurrection story and then I will tell them about the other similar resurrection myths that were prevalent in the Near East at the time Christianity was founded. I don’t tell them that it is right or wrong to believe these stories, or to believe in a god, I just give them the facts as I know them and let them decide.
• Sharing your beliefs without promoting your beliefs.
I never outright told my children that I didn’t believe in god until I was asked. Then, I explained my reasons for not believing, answered any questions they had, and left it at that. I never told them, and never will, that they should believe as I do. I make it clear that the decision as to what to believe is theirs, and theirs alone. I think that I must be doing something right because my son openly identifies as an atheists and my daughter as an agnostic.
The details of how to help your children become critical thinkers and have a skeptical outlook will vary according to your own situation and the personalities of the children involved, but the five points I list about should be a good starting point for conversations and learning.