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Critical Thinking For Kids – Teaching Them How To Think, Not What To Think

Critical thinking for kids is one of the most essential life skills. It is also an important 21st century skill. Unfortunately, going to school is almost the antithesis of learning to think critically.

In school, children learn to repeat back what the teacher or textbook say. They learn to follow the correct steps in the correct order to get the correct answer. Classrooms are filled with drills, memorization, and homework rather than teaching students to think.

It is up to us, the parents, to supplement our kids’ education with critical thinking examples and teaching in everyday life. Let’s look at why and how we can help our kids become critical thinkers.

girl raises hand playing chess in front of a laptop

What is critical thinking

Critical thinking is a set of skills and habits of mind, including the ability to define a problem, identify assumptions, analyze ideas, and reason critically, and then systematically list different possible causes, create plausible solutions, or evaluate its correctness using logical reasoning. It also includes the ability to make creative connections between ideas from different disciplines.

American philosopher, psychologist and educator, John Dewey (1859–1952) called this “reflective thinking”​1​. Dewey defined critical thinking as active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge. It involves actively subjecting ideas to critical scrutiny, rather than passively accepting them.

Critical thinking for kids is about helping kids develop reasoning skills. A critical thinker will ask the right questions rather than just saying, “yes, this is the right answer”. They will analyze things and look at the reasons for them and all the alternatives.

Why is critical thinking important

Critical thinking is one of the most essential cognitive skills because it teaches us how to use discipline and logical skills to solve problems. It is also important for a child’s brain and cognitive development. These skills are necessary in getting a child ready to understand how things work in the real world, and come up with creative ideas.

Besides gaining problem-solving skills, being able to think independently will allow your child to resist peer pressure, form their own opinions and trust their own thinking when they are asked to do things they don’t want to do.

For vast majority of everyday problems, it may suffice to rely on the rote, lower order learning that our children receive from their schools.

However, prejudice, narrow-mindedness, emotion, or dogma can easily diminish its usefulness. When facing complex problems, people who are not used to critical thinking usually rely on simplistic, but often inaccurate or outdated, representations of the world propagated by mass media.

By using higher order thinking, we can avoid making illogical mistakes that we would normally make if we saw the world through our emotions, prejudices, and irrational thoughts.

Why is critical thinking so hard to teach

If critical reasoning is such an important part of learning, why doesn’t school focus on teaching the vital skills?

The quick answer is, “They try, but they can’t.”

This is because in order to “think critically” on a topic, one needs to have deep knowledge about a subject and apply formal logic.

There is no effective way to teach “general” “deep” knowledge. The basic reasoning skills learned in programs on certain topics don’t transfer easily to other domains​2​.

boy wearing glasses smiling with book open in front

How to teach critical thinking to a child

Despite the difficulty in teaching critical reasoning in specific topics, there are things parents can do to help children form a critical thinking mindset and develop the desire to look for deeper domain knowledge to solve problems in real life. The main idea is to teach kids how to apply higher-order thought processes in any situation that requires decision-making skills in daily lives.

While there are activities or games to promote critical thinking, critical thinking goes deeper than just asking open-ended questions.

Here is what parents can do to teach children critical thinking in everyday life and help them become creative thinkers.

Start early and explain everything

Young children often ask lots of questions and “whys” which wear parents out to the point of saying “that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

But knowing why is the crucial first step in thinking critically. When children are taught from a young age how to ask different types of questions and formulate judgments by objective evidence and logical analysis, they grow up confident in their own ability to question assumptions and to reason with logic rather than emotions​3​.

So, do not blow them off just because they are younger children. As much as possible, explain things to them from an early age. When you can’t answer questions, you can say, “That’s a good question and I want to know the answer, too!”

Do not demand blind obedience

Asking kids to obey and follow orders from adults blindly is a great way to discourage critical thinking development​4​. The Stanley Milgram’s Obedience To Authority Experiments illustrate this point perfectly​5​.

In this famous series of experiments, subjects were asked to administer electric shocks to a stranger when told to do so by an authority figure. In some cases, the shock was actually painful enough to cause serious injury. Under the “authority’s” instructions, most participants administered increasingly high levels of voltage to lethal dosages without question.

This is the danger of obeying the authority blindly without exercising critical thinking to question the authority’s decision.

While parents often demand children to obey for their own good, we need to explain why we want them to do what we ask them to. “Because I said so” will not develop logical reasoning skills in children. A child needs to know the why’s to think independently and make sound judgments.

There is another advantage when we use this parenting style. When we use reasoning and logical thinking to explain what we ask kids to do, we are practicing inductive discipline. Studies show that inductive discipline is the best way to discipline compared to power assertion and punishment. Children have fewer behavior problems, better emotional regulation, higher academic performance and more critical thinking skills.

Encourage questions and foster curiosity in children

Critical analysis is using an objective and critical mindset to analyze an idea as opposed to relying on emotional response or subjective understanding. To think critically is to be willing to have your views challenged by new information and different perspectives.

When safety and health are not at stake, allow children to question and discuss the legitimacy of what we say. Doing so will help our children develop intellectual curiosity​6​ and analytical skills.

Teach open-mindedness

Keeping an open mind and flexible thinking when approaching a new problem is essential in critical thinking​7​. We can teach kids to be open-minded by suggesting different points of views, alternative explanations or different solutions to problems.

Sometimes, there are things that have definite, repeatable answers, such as in math and science. But often, there are different answers depending on one’s point of views. Encourage kids to solve problems in new and different ways, by connecting ideas from other domains, and strengthen their analytical thinking skill.

Explain the different between correlation and causation

One of the biggest impediment of logical reasoning is the confusion of correlation and causation​8​.

When two things tend to happen together, they are correlated, but it doesn’t necessarily mean one causes the other. It may be, or it may not be. We don’t know unless we have more information to prove that one is a direct cause for the other.

For example: whenever a child wears a blue shirt to school, the teacher calls on him to answer a question. Does it mean wearing the blue shirt causes the teacher to do so? Maybe the teacher really likes to call on kids in blue shirts. But it’s not necessarily the case. Maybe it’s coincidence or maybe whenever he wears a blue shirt, he also happens to be more alert and the teacher thinks he must know the answer. We don’t know if that’s the case without asking the teacher to confirm. Therefore, we cannot conclude that the blue shirt causes the teacher to ask him questions without having actual cause-and-effect proof.

Final Thoughts On Critical Thinking For Kids

Critical thinking matters not only for kids but also for adults. It’s an important thing that we need to teach children through not only our words but also our action. However, teaching critical thinking to kids is not enough. We need to model how to use this valuable skill in our daily life parenting. Reflective thinking is also what sets us apart from bad parenting.


  1. 1.
    Fisher A. Critical Thinking: An Introduction. Cambridge university press; 2011.
  2. 2.
    Willingham DT. Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? Arts Education Policy Review. Published online March 2008:21-32. doi:10.3200/aepr.109.4.21-32
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    Quinn V. Critical Thinking in Young Minds. Routledge; 2018. doi:10.4324/9780429445323
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    Hess RD, McDevitt TM. Some Cognitive Consequences of Maternal Intervention Techniques: A Longitudinal Study. Child Development. Published online December 1984:2017. doi:10.2307/1129776
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    Slater M, Antley A, Davison A, et al. A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments. Rustichini A, ed. PLoS ONE. Published online December 20, 2006:e39. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000039
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    Dyche L, Epstein RM. Curiosity and medical education. Medical Education. Published online June 7, 2011:663-668. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.2011.03944.x
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    Rimiene V. Assessing and Developing Students’ Critical Thinking. Psychology Learning & Teaching. Published online March 2002:17-22. doi:10.2304/plat.2002.2.1.17
  8. 8.
    Schwartz S. The fallacy of the ecological fallacy: the potential misuse of a concept and the consequences. Am J Public Health. Published online May 1994:819-824. doi:10.2105/ajph.84.5.819

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