Communicating Skepticism with Your Kids

For this entry, I went to a favorite resource, Mr. Dale McGowan, co-author and editor of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers. In addition to the advice that he gives below, I’d recommend focusing on science and critical thinking (what we do believe) and less on the non-existence of Bigfoot, extra-terrestrials, and psychics (what we don’t believe).

1.  Build self-confidence. The best way to instill confidence is to encourage autonomy. We often intervene too much to spare our kids a moment’s frustration, uncertainty, or failure. An infant crawls under the legs of the dining room chair and becomes momentarily uncertain how to get out. She cries, and Mom leaps to her feet, ushering the baby into the open. A first grader struggles with his seat belt—Dad clicks it into place. A middle schooler gives up on a math problem after thirty seconds, asks for help, and gets it. These rescues add up, and eventually the child sees a moment’s frustration as a brick wall and looks to someone else for help. Who can blame him if he never had the opportunity to struggle and sweat and muscle through those walls on his own?

Skeptical inquiry is the act of a confident, autonomous mind.  It’s the act of someone who believes she can break through the walls between ignorance and knowledge.  If you want inquiring kids, work on confidence—and confidence starts with autonomy.

2. Instill a ravenous curiosity. No one asks questions if he isn’t curious about the answers. Indifference overtakes us soon enough.  Nurture curiosity while it’s natural and wild. The best way to do that is by showing your own ravenous curiosity with “I wonder how” statements — even if you know the answer.
3. Help create not a knower, but a questioner. It seems obvious that the best thing to do when asked a question is to answer it.  But when it comes to encouraging inquiry, it’s actually one of the least helpful things a parent can do: “Mom, how far away is the sun?” “Ninety-three million miles.” Clunk!  The inquiry is closed!  Elvis has left the building!
Many skeptical parents I’ve talked to seem to want to fill their kids’ heads with as many right answers as quickly as possible, as if that will keep incoming nonsense from squeezing into the elevator:  “Sorry, all full of true stuff. Take the next child.” But the idea is not to pack them with answers, but to make questioning itself a pleasurable habit. By focusing on making the process itself positive, you will virtually guarantee the next question. And the next.

4.  Use the language of “aspiring rationalism.” Don’t pretend that perfect rational skepticism is ever achievable. We all inherited a brain that is a layered mess of separately-evolved structures, as well as a high degree of ego-centric and socio-centric biases that make skepticism an uphill battle. It’s delusional to think we can entirely walk away from this mess that’s balancing atop our necks. Giving our kids the impression that we can sets them up for failure. Better to see ourselves as aspiring rationalists, doing our best to  think clearly and well despite the odds. It also gives some much-needed empathy for those who fall prey to their own biases.

5.  Encourage an unconditional love of reality.  The conditional love of reality is at play whenever a healthy, well-fed, well-educated person looks me in the eye and says, “Without God, life would be hopeless, pointless, devoid of meaning and beauty,” or “I am only happy because,” or “Life is only bearable if…”

I want my kids to see the universe as an astonishing, thrilling place to be no matter what, whether God exists or does not exist, whether we are permanent or temporary.  I want them to feel unconditional love and joy at being alive, conscious and wondering. Like the passionate love of anything, an unconditional love of reality breeds a voracious hunger to experience it directly, to embrace it, whatever form it may take.

Children with that exciting combination of love and hunger will not stand for anything that gets in the way of that clarity. Their minds become thirsty for genuine understanding, and the best we can do is stand back. If religious ideas seem to illuminate reality, kids with that combination will embrace those ideas. If instead such ideas seem to obscure reality, kids with that love and hunger will bat the damn things aside.

Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers

6 Responses to Communicating Skepticism with Your Kids

  1. Really great list. I have a hell of a time with #3. Sure, create a questioner, but I want him to be correct, darn it!

  2. Chris says:

    And if you don’t know the answer reply with “That’s a good question! I don’t know. Let’s see if we can find the answer.”

  3. Julia says:

    I actually love #3. I think the meaning is not that you let the child guess the wrong answer but to show the child how to search out the answer (even if you already know it yourself).

    I have to jump in to and say that for me part of being a skeptic includes also not “not believing in” stuff that can’t be proven like UFO’s, psychics, life in other dimensions or galaxies. I have never seen any evidence of it despite lots of attempted hoaxes, but I also leave room for the possibility of existence despite lack of observation. Much like Schroedinger’s Cat – all knowledge so far points to one outcome, but until we open the box we do not know for sure and must claim assumption as fact without observation.

  4. @Chris: And if you don’t know the answer reply with “That’s a good question! I don’t know. Let’s see if we can find the answer.”

    Exactly! We do that all the time. Reference books, other people, even Wikipedia are huge around here. I’m totally OK with saying “I don’t know.” Even better, I have a kid who asks so many intriguing questions that I often don’t know. I guess maybe that means I’m doing #3, even if it’s a struggle.

  5. Lou Doench says:

    on #3, I’m good with saying IDK, lets check the ipad. But I think there’s a balancing act there. If I do know the answer to a question, and Hellion #1 is a big questioner, I will answer it, but I do my best to be socratic about it, and then I do my best to answer enthusiasticly. I want my kids to pick up on how neat I find the real world, and how cool it it to know stuff about it.

  6. Chris says:

    I was told by my parents that they bought the encyclopedia because I was always asking questions. Their standard reply to my questions then became “look it up!”

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