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How to help your adolescent or young adult child learn to think critically for themselves.

As parents, we are often in search of the “right” answer, or the “best way” to handle tricky requests involving our adolescent and young adult children. We ask our friends, our parenting coach, our therapist, our social media outlets for the exact recipe on how to handle various situations hoping for a tried and true, one-size-fits-all answer to successfully solve the challenging parenting scenario at hand.

We forget to take into account that a black and white answer is not actually the best way to teach our kids how to think critically for themselves and their future, because black and white answers are not how we solve our own problems successfully, either. 

As adults we think about pros and cons all the time as we are making decisions both big and small; oftentimes we do this unconsciously as part of a well-practiced habit. 

But when our child is asking us for something, we sometimes rush to give a quick, blunt “yes” or “no” answer.

Our decision is usually nuanced by various pros and cons we’ve gone through silently and quickly in our heads. It’s based on us weighing the risks that concern us, the values that guide us, as well as our overall impression of how our child is doing in various life areas as of late. If our answer is “no” and our child starts the predictable negotiation process, all of these pros and cons usually come pouring out.  

While our child benefits from hearing our mature, practiced point of view, what our child loses out on is the opportunity to develop their own critical thinking skillset.

Asking our kids to practice critical thinking, even our resistant or oppositional kids, is key for supporting them in the long run. Critical thinking encourages them to tap into the brain processes that they try to get around, or that are generally more challenging for them to access.

Taking time for critical thinking also delays gratification and buys everyone a bit of time to be more thoughtful in the decision-making.

Here is our Solutions Parenting Support four-part process for helping kids develop critical thinking:

  1. Ask your child to share the pros and cons of thing X (e.g. having access to technology until midnight). 
  2. Ask your child to step into your shoes to share the pros and cons from your perspective
  3. After your child has finished, if there is anything you would like to add, then share those pros and cons with your child. We recommend that you do not REPEAT or reiterate already stated pros and cons, only add.
  4. Buy some time. If the situation is not urgent and important, ask for time to think about it in order to assess the risks, pros, and cons without your child pushing you in the moment. Consider whether or not there is anything that could help you get to a “yes”. Does your child need to show a certain level of responsibility over a certain period of time? This also gives you a chance to consider whether what is being asked fits in with your family values or not.  Commit to have an answer for your child in a reasonable amount of time and follow through on the timeline.

Using the technology until midnight example, this conversation can look like this:

Now, this is a tool not a rule.  This is not something you do all the time; save it for the times when it can really matter to engage your child in a critical thinking process.  

Child: “Mom, I want to be able to keep my phone in my room past 10 pm. I should be able to keep it all night, I mean, I’m almost 17.”

Parent: “Ok, well, I might be willing to consider a later time, though not all night, for some nights, though I want to talk about it. Tell me what you see as the pros and cons of having a device in your room later.”

Child: “That’s stupid, did your parent coach tell you to say that?  Everyone I know can have their phone all night long; why don’t you trust me?”

P: “Ok, well, when you are ready to think this through considering the pros and cons then let me know.  Until then, the answer is a hard no.”

C: “Ugh, fine…” (shares pros and cons)

P: “Those are good thoughts…anything else you can think of?  If not, step into my shoes to see if you can come up with a few more from my perspective.”

Child shares a few more.

P: “That is all pretty right on.  The only thing from my perspective that you missed is___, otherwise, you hit on all of the things I would think of.  So, give me until Saturday to think about it, talk with your mom/dad about it and maybe we can come up with a compromise.”

If your child won’t participate in the process, no problem. Just make it clear that you can make a decision without them involved, but that you are more likely to lean toward yes with their participation.

It is important to accept age appropriate thinking skills from your child. Consider their capabilities and their limitations. What they share as a pros and cons list might not be what a high-functioning 50 year old would come up with and that is ok. If they can consider both sides of the argument, it is a plus. If they cannot, that is ok too; however, it does suggest that they might not be ready for the level of privilege they are pushing for.

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