How to Encourage Critical Thinking in Children and Adolescents

In these times of highly emotional political ads and articles with candidates proclaiming that they have a corner on the truth and can guarantee they have the ability to make all kinds of amazing things happen, impressionable children and adolescents may be confused.

What is a child or teen to believe?

Children may possibly be mesmerized—even swept away—by the hyperbole of what they are seeing and hearing.

Candidates speak with great enthusiasm and animation. They use powerful, global absolutes about what they unequivocally will never or always do. They speak to somehow resonate with deep fears of people and offer promises of having the power to make widespread changes without providing specific and practical ways this will be accomplished. Sadly, some children, adolescents and (apparently many) adults seem blindly to accept and follow.

What can parents do?

Parents can capitalize on this time of political promises to teach their children about being critical thinkers, about learning how to discern truth from fiction, and not be swept away because of the charismatic emotionality of one person or a group of people.

I remember being very impressed with the Kennedy family. Apparently, while at the dinner table, they would hold spirited discussions and debates on the latest news stories, encourage the children to share their thoughts and perspectives, and to experience being challenged to defend their opinions.

Teaching our children and adolescents to be critical thinkers, careful consumers and factfinders are important responsibilities for parents to accept. Our liberties as a country depend on having citizens who cannot be swayed by rhetoric. We need to teach our children when they are very young some of the steps they can take to root out truth.

Seeking the wisdom and counsel of others

Once, when I was facing a critical decision about taking a job, I asked my pastor how I would know if I was making the correct choice. He shared with me Billy Graham’s image of the four runway lights the pilot needs to line up in order to safely land:

  1. The confirmation of God’s Word
  2. My inner conviction
  3. Practical circumstances
  4. The counsel of godly, mature Christian friends

I suggest that parents can use these above aspects for “lights” as they are listed to help their children or adolescents be critical thinkers, or use them to generate principles that align appropriately. Without the specific spiritual components, those questions might look like:

  1. Does what I am hearing align with my values?
  2. How am I feeling on the inside? What is my gut telling me? What have I learned in previous situations like this?
  3. What are the practical realities here? What are the facts? How do I separate the facts from the unsubstantiated claims?
  4. Who, among those I respect can I seek out to hear what they believe to be true? It is important to interview people I trust and respect, who have done their homework, to weigh-in in order to get a wide range of perspectives and wise counsel.

These last two: separating the facts from any unsubstantiated claims and seeking out wise counsel from respectable sources can help children and adolescents think more deeply about what they are believing to be true.

Parents can encourage their children and adolescents to check out some of the websites set up to separate fact from fiction. The following website lists six reputable sites:  Included are A Project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and

Parents can discuss with their children the people or organizations they respect, and then to find out what their perspectives and opinions are. Teaching them to seek out several perspectives can help them grow in their abilities to be more critical in their thinking and better able to discern truth from fiction. It can help them avoid blindly following an individual or group just because they are loud, dramatic, charismatic or say things people want to hear without having sufficient evidence they can actually do what they say. Challenging our children to defend their opinions can promote critical thinking and healthy consumerism.

  Invitation to Reflect

  1. In what ways have your children been influenced by the many political ads, talk shows and information present on social media? To what extent are they blindly accepting what people say versus questioning and even demanding deeper explanations that validate what is being said?
  2. In what ways can you challenge your children to be critical thinkers? How can you model this as well as invite them to practice checking out facts versus unsubstantiated claims?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network