Raising a critical thinker in a gullible country

by Kelsey McCartney

Raising a child is a harrowing task at times.  Granted, a large part of it the child does himself, and it is gratifying to watch early ideas and understandings coalesce into increasingly more complex and holistic inspirations about the natural, cultural, and social world in which we live from day-to-day.

But each day, I also watch my four-year-old son struggle with trying to understand certain cultural memes, that while well meaning, end up oversimplifying the world and imposing values upon us in a way that doesn’t encourage analysis of those very values.  One of the greatest triumphs I have, as a parent, is when my son asks me a question to clarify these themes, such as he did just this last week:

“Mommy, why doesn’t that tyrannosaurus baby just eat the pteranodons?” He asks this while watching Dinosaur Train, an excellent PBS Kids series he’s been enamored with since it finally became freely available in Great Falls a few months ago.

How do I answer?  On the one hand, I am thrilled that he is recognizing the improbability of the plot of the show, in which a pteranodon couple (monogamous, of course) have four eggs, three of which hatch into baby pteranodons, and one of which, in cuckoo-like form, hatches into a tyrannosaurus but is immediately welcomed into the flying family into which he has hatched.  My son has recognized that a predator has entered the nest, but is confused as to why everyone is so happy and accepting.  Enter here the cultural meme that children’s programming emphasizes at every point (even “science-heavy” shows such as are on PBS Kids): diversity is important and to be respected at all levels.  Even to such an extent that a tyrannosaurus, biologically a predator, can be adopted by pteranodons and will remain part of the family, just so long as his genetic colors don’t show through.

I struggle with a logical response:  “Son, the show is trying to teach you to become more accepting about people that are different from you.  It’s trying to get you to think that we’re all the same, despite different backgrounds, appearances, and tendencies, and if only we give everyone a chance, we’ll find common ground.  This may be true, on a basic level, but natural selection has led to the evolution of the parasitic wasp, and in no way is the wasp grub who hatches inside the butterfly larvae going to grow up to be its friend!”  But does he get it?

How do I validate the general message of these programs (which on so many levels are excellent in teaching evidentiary-based exploration) while getting him to understand that life is far more complex than that and in no circumstances would someone like Buddy (our gentle and precocious T-rex) actually be welcome into or able to survive in a pteranodon family?

I can only do it through honesty and science, and finding other similar cases in nature (that never end happily for the prey), which some fellow parents have told me is stifling my son’s childhood innocence.  And then I start doubting myself and wonder whether being too honest with my child about the realities of the world will actually create a cynical and jaded adult.  And is this bad? Those same parents who claim I’m destroying innocence actually spank their unruly children for not wanting to pray before bed.  For them, by allowing my son to watch lions take down zebras on the BBC, I am destroying the innocence of my child, who should be allowed to believe in predator and prey hugging and singing together in kumbayah circles at the end of Disney movies (or that God exists, or that Sarah Palin or Michele Bachman are examples of “good women,” etc., etc.).  Where do we draw the line as parents of young children?

In the end, I have to trust in my own ability to provide my son, not with necessarily a wealth of information and facts, but instead with the ability to critically evaluate situations and decide for himself whether or not the information he is being told is possibly credible.  I allow him to explore, to make his own choices, and try to be there to bandage him up and explain why those choices were perhaps not right.  I encourage him to question.  I encourage him to see long-reaching consequences of his actions and the actions of others.  And constantly, I try to find examples that will help him to practice these skills.

My hope is not that I raise a scientist, or an atheist, or a Democrat.  My hope is that by allowing him to develop those critical thinking skills he won’t be pulled into the unquestioning culture of gullibility and intolerance in which 50-60% of Americans reject evolution, in which Sarah Palin becomes a cultural hero, and in which children are increasingly rejecting “knowing” about their world because it’s “not necessary.”

For me, being asked why Buddy doesn’t eat his pteranodon “mom” is a triumph.  But other questions and statements also bring doubt, and make me realize increasingly that I am not his only source of information or, for him, the only credible source on ethical behavior.  As he grows, he becomes more aware of the actions and beliefs of other people.  How long before I have to deal with peer or family pressure surrounding religion?  And how do I best deal with it?  I have no immediate ideas, but do believe, that ultimately, the best I can do is to teach him how to think:  How to put ideas together;  how to make valid analogies; how to come up with and test hypotheses; how to question.

And I have decided to do this by exposing him to as many ideas and as much knowledge as possible, as opposed to sheltering him.  Will it ruin his “innocence”?  Is childhood innocence a concept that is based in reality, or is it something we, as parents, define in order to keep our children from seeing what we don’t want them to see?

It’s a difficult way to parent, and the more difficult because I’ve somewhat succeeded!  The questions, of course, aren’t all reserved for TV shows.  Many are thrown at me, and this regularly.  He tests my patience constantly, questioning my commands and requests.  He’s a fantastic debater and negotiator, which is rarely easy for a parent who is just trying to get him to bed.  How easy would parenting be, if there were only one simple truth: God is going to strike you down if you don’t obey your mother!

But there’s not.  And I’ll take every question, every argument, and try to do it with the recognition that by questioning my authority, he is also getting practice questioning the authority of people like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Sean Hannity – and that he may very well not end up part of the uninformed, ignorant, and gullible masses.  I may not like being questioned, but at least through it I can see his brain at work…

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2 Responses to Raising a critical thinker in a gullible country

  1. AmyS says:

    My 4yr-old son asked the same thing about Buddy and family. We talked about pretend and stories and how many of books we read have talking dogs and squirrels that fly airplanes and pigs that run candy shops. And how he pretends to be a cheetah or a superhero or an alien. We can do whatever we want in our imaginations and a T-rex can live with pteranodons in a story but not in real life. He gets the difference between a cartoon and a nature documentary and when the lion eats the gazelle on the open savannah he says “If the lion didn’t eat the gazelle, the lion would starve.” And when the bats fly through our yard in the evening yard, he thanks them for eating the mosquitoes.

    Besides, having stories that illustrate a cultural value but that we don’t take literally are wonderful examples for future conundrums…

  2. Suzanne says:

    My mother used to have a badge that said “Question Authority”. She dropped me off to school one day wearing it and the principle said “Is that really what you want to teach your child?” – her response was “Even if that’s all I teach her and nothing else, I will have done my job.”

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