by Sylvia Benner, CFI-Portland
…was the confident pronouncement by my then 6 year old son some time around 2002. I opened my mouth to respond – and then shut it. What I had been about to do was to indoctrinate.
You see, theists are not the only ones who have sacred cows, and no matter how good our reasons for holding certain beliefs or values, none of those should ever be immune from challenge. That’s the gold standard of skeptical parenting, right? Even beliefs and values about race, equality, and prejudice, right?
It’s a laudable standard, and I wish I could say that the first concern that leapt into my mind was a concern about the facts: What do you mean by “nice”? How do you operationalize “niceness”? How do you reliably measure the respective niceness of different racial and ethnic groups? If you do find differences, what hypotheses can you develop to explain them? How do you test them? And how in the heck do you have a conversation about all this with a 6 year old?
Unfortunately, my first reaction did not embody the highest ideals of rationality. Rather, I had a brief moment of panic. “Gah! If he ever says this in public, it will be so embarrassing! How did I manage to produce a little racist?” I am proud to say that I wrestled down my reaction that day. (For the record, I make no claim that I always, usually, or even often, succeed at doing so.)
After struggling for a moment, I made contact with my inner Tuvok and found more solid footing. My first objective, I decided, was to teach critical thinking, not to defend my beliefs or instill them in my child. Telling him that he should give more weight to my positions, or to social consensus, than to his own experience struck me as failure to model skepticism.
First, I had to admit that his conclusion was most definitely based on observation. His comment had been triggered by an incident moments earlier: On one of our walks my son had spotted a group of black teenagers on a porch and greeted them brightly. Their response was to glare back at him in silence. It was only the last of many similar experiences he had had with black neighbors in our predominantly black and low-income neighborhood, which had a strong gang presence and was undergoing gentrification at the time.
Not only was there a vast cultural difference between the long established black neighbors and the white, middle-class newcomers, but there was some amount of tension between the groups. While the white neighbors displayed similar behavior as our family, we frequently witnessed black violence, vandalism and threatening behavior, which colored my son’s views. Being accosted by young black males during our walks was commonplace, and to make matters worse, the kid who attempted to bully my son in his first grade class was a black kid.
We also had a black neighbor who was mentally ill, and while usually nice, she had episodes during which she angrily berated anyone within earshot. 6-year olds don’t make fine distinctions between bad behavior and mental illness, I’m afraid.
So my son’s conclusion that blacks were not nice was based on his experience, and experience is not a bad place to start. It’s just a really bad place to end.
I asked him to explain why he thought black people weren’t nice, and he cited numerous instances of bad behavior he had encountered. I declared that, based on this preliminary information, his conclusion seemed to make sense. Maybe black people weren’t nice. But when trying to figure out what’s real, I told him, we need to check if we haven’t made a mistake in thinking. Only if our thinking passes the error check could we be reasonably certain that we were on the right track.
A good first step to checking the quality of your thinking is to argue with ourselves: Could he come up with information that contradicted his conclusion? For example, could he think of instances in which white people had not been nice? He thought a bit, then named some. Could he think of black people who were really nice? Yes, his Kindergarten teacher, his swimming instructor, and the principal of his school, among others.
“How many black and white people have you met? How many do you think there are in the world?” He couldn’t answer that, but we agreed that there were far more people in the world than either he or I knew personally. I wondered out loud how likely it was that he had simply had bad luck and met an unusual number of mean black people and nice white people. He couldn’t think of a reason why that would be so (a broader view of things just begins to emerge around age 6, after all), but he conceded that it was at least possible.
I asked him to assess the quality of his conclusion now that we had played devil’s advocate with ourselves. He was quite a bit less certain and we agreed that he did not have enough information to determine whether his statement was true or not. We decided to revisit the issue when we had more information.
And the battle for critical thinking was won that day.
I can’t say that we actually have revisited the issue deliberately. It has just sort of gone away now that he is 15, has met a lot more people, and gotten a lot more education. But the particular question of racial prejudice was not the core problem I was faced with as a parent wanting to raise a critical thinker. What I cared about was his ability to use good methodology to arrive at conclusions in life, whether about race or any other issue.
What I discovered that day was that the critical point in good thinking is that first moment when, instead of jumping from plausible explanation straight to firm conclusion, we are willing to entertain, and even generate, some doubt. I realized that one of my key jobs as a parent was to teach my son how to create that doubt within himself. To that end, we have often played the Devil’s Advocate game.
A few years ago, my son presented me with a book titled “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”. I think that clever title could be a motto for skeptical parenting. I don’t know any secular parents who do not want to raise critical thinkers. I have come to believe (provisionally, as behooves a skeptic) that if we can manage to impart onto our children the habit of always running an error-check on their conclusions, to always argue with themselves, to be, most of all, skeptical of their own opinions, the biggest hurdle is taken.