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My New Year's Resolution: Turn Our Children Into Better Thinkers

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The cookies have been eaten, the gifts have been opened, the stockings have been emptied, and like many optimistic, well-meaning people, I'm now in the midst of another holiday ritual: making resolutions for the coming year.

In the next few days, like many, I'll resolve to eat better, sleep more, exercise more, swear less, spend less, and keep the garage neat and tidy. I'll probably find these resolutions hard to uphold. There is, however, a promise I make every year, one that I work very hard at keeping. On January first, and on the 364 days that follow: I will resolve to try and help children become better thinkers.

It sounds like common sense, doesn't it? Of course we want to teach children to be better thinkers. These are the people who will someday be making scientific discoveries, creating new policies for social justice, and writing the next great works of literature. Heck, they'll be the ones taking care of us when we're too old to feed or clothe ourselves. It would be foolish and short-sighted not to encourage and support the development of thinking skills.

The problem isn't a lack of good intentions on our part. The problem is that we sometimes overlook some of the finer points of "good thinking" when teaching it to youngsters. We tell them to be curious about themselves, others, and the world around them. We emphasize things like STEM education and many forms of literacy. We provide music lessons, trips to the art gallery and dance classes. It's all good stuff, but doing what I do for a living, I get to see some of the gaps in the thinking we teach kids.

Here are a few of them:

• We sometimes forget to remind kids that "just because" and "because I said so" aren't acceptable answers to questions. What settles disputes quickly isn't what settles them rationally.

• We sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between an opinion and an argument. What's more, we tell kids that they're automatically entitled to promote the former, even when it's uninformed and unsupported.

• We sometimes assume that good thinking is a finite process, like doing a load of dishes or finishing our broccoli. There is no "there, it's done" in good thinking. It's a constant, ongoing process of evaluation and re-evaluation, one that we'll be engaged in with our children long after they grow up and leave home.

• We sometimes assume it's completely covered by school curriculum. Our dedicated, talented educators only have our children for a handful of hours per day. Good thinking has to come home with our kids, and has to be practiced evenings, weekends, and holidays.

• We sometimes leave stones un-turned. We don't always look for new information, new points of view, and we sometimes dismiss other thinkers for superficial reasons. Children need to learn to listen carefully and critically to a variety of sources, and more importantly, to listen for the reasons that aren't given.

• We sometimes forget that there's a difference between feeling and thinking. I'd never propose that we should aim to be Vulcans, but it's still important to take note of the fact that emotion and reason are two different things. Children need to know that being able to identify the reasons underlying their emotions (and vice versa) can be empowering.

• As grown-ups, we don't always practice what we preach. Children who grow up around readers tend to read more. Children who are taken outdoors are more likely to appreciate nature. Children who see the big people in their lives practicing good thinking are more likely to follow suit. If we aim to raise good thinkers, we have to commit to being good thinkers ourselves.

It's a doozy of a resolution, I'll admit. It would be much easier if I vowed to sort my recycling more carefully, or to give up processed food. Even so, like anyone else out there who is committed to good thinking, I maintain that it's worth the effort. There's a great deal more thrown at our kids these days, through all manner of media. It seems, well, reasonable that we should step up our game when it comes to equipping them with the tools necessary to sift through it, make use of it, and thrive on it.

Here's to a year of big questions, open dialogue, and good reasoning, and here's to the parents, teachers, and community members who encourage all of these things in young thinkers.

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