Ages 5 to 9
Preparing Kids to Think Critically

3. Preparing Kids to Think Critically

Here are four ways you can support your child’s early cognitive development and put them on the path to becoming critical thinkers. 

1. Encourage children not to see everything as centered only on them by involving them in discussions on an array of topics, including current affairs. Contrary to popular belief, from the age of five—and sometimes even earlier—children like to be involved in discussions, provided they are not drowned in technical vocabulary or formal logic. They also need to feel that adults are interested in what they are saying and that they are being listened to. Adults need to learn to step away from the role of educator and engage children at their level.

It is highly important for the development of critical faculties that children see their thoughts on the world are accepted. By taking those thoughts seriously, we are taking our children seriously and accepting them.

For example, ask five-year-old children whether Santa Claus exists and how they know. Listen to their arguments: they saw Santa at the mall; they know their Christmas presents must come from somewhere. Contradicting them or breaking down their worldview would be a grave mistake. It would fly in the face of our knowledge about cognitive development, and it would disregard their emotional need for this belief. Paradoxically, by letting children formulate their own ideas and worldviews, namely through dreaming and imagination, they will grow happy and confident enough, in time and at their own pace, to move on to more mature ideas.

2. Value the content of what children say. With encouragement, children will want to express their thoughts increasingly often, quite simply because they find it pleasurable. A certain structure in our brains, the amygdala, memorizes emotions linked to situations we experience. We are predisposed to pursue experiences and situations which induce pleasure, be it sensory or psychological. If a child puts energy into reflection in order to convince us that aliens exist, and we then dismantle their arguments and dreams, we will be inhibiting their desire to participate in this type of discussion again.

For children aged five to nine, the pleasure of thinking something through, of expressing and discussing their thoughts, of feeling language to be a source of joy, are all of far greater importance than argumentative rigor or logical reasoning.

3. Maintain a virtuous circle. Children debate and give their opinions. This stimulates their brain, which creates a whole host of connections, which, in turn, improve their abilities and their cognitive and emotional performance. The pleasure of discussion, of having someone listen to your ideas, releases a “flood” of neurotransmitters that promote cerebral development. An atmosphere of kindness and benevolence in which the child feels heard produces neural connections and develops various kinds of intelligence. As the child learns through debate, putting effort into reflective thought and into verbal and bodily expression, the brain evolves and invests in the future. It is spurred on by cognitive stimulation paired with joie de vivre that comes from being heard by others and receiving their undivided attention.

Parents should not hold back from bringing children into discussions and debates.

Gradually, the ability to argue with pertinence, on both familiar topics of reflection or debate and new ones, will increase. Numerous recent studies show that doing well in school is encouraged much more by pleasure and the development of self-esteem than by heavy exposure to graded exercises, which can create anxiety and belittle children. Children are vulnerable and quickly internalize the labels others place on them.

In short, parents should not hold back from bringing children into discussions and debates, keeping to the principles outlined above. Also, be sure to respond to their desire to start discussions within their frame of reference and be sure to take them seriously.

4. Gradually, with time, pleasure, learning, and cognitive and emotional development, it will be possible to encourage children to argue without pressuring them through open-ended questions.  From the age of eight, children can be introduced to metacognition and the adoption of alternative points of view. They should also be trained at this time to understand the difference between an opinion, an argument, and a piece of evidence.

  • An opinion is the expression of an idea that is not, in and of itself, true or false. Children are empowered to express their opinions early on by all the preliminary work on building up self-esteem. “I think they should close down all the schools, so we can be on holiday all the time” is an opinion. A child of five can easily express such an opinion.

  • An argument is an attempt to convince others by offering information and reasoning. A child of eight might argue: “If we close down all the schools, we can get up later. Then we’ll have more energy to learn things better at home.”

  • Evidence are the facts we use to try to prove a point in an argument. Evidence can be highly powerful but it rarely amounts to conclusive proof. When an unambiguous proof is presented, alternative opinions evaporate, provided that one can cognitively and emotionally assimilate the perspective of the person presenting the proof. Something can be proven in two ways. On the one hand, it can be proven through formal reasoning—attainable from the age of nine upwards in real-life situations and, later on, in l more abstract situations. On the other hand, it can be established through factual demonstration. If a child claims that “you can scare away a mean dog by running after it,” proof can be given through demonstration. This leaves no need for argument.

From ages eight to nine, children can come to differentiate and prioritize opinion, argument, and evidence in what they say and hear, provided that their own flawed arguments at age five to six were met with respect and tolerance. This is vital for developing children’s self-esteem and respect for others. It enables them to take pleasure in argument and increases their desire to express themselves more persuasively.

Case in Point

Hunting—for or against? For a debate like this one, with considerable social implications, focus on these concepts:

1. Teach children to distinguish between:

  • An opinion: I am against hunting…

  • An argument: … because it entails animal suffering and human deaths.

  • Evidence:

    • There are around thousands of hunting accidents each year.

2. Teach children to adopt a counter-argument for practice:

  • An opinion: I am in favor of hunting…

  • An argument: … because it allows us to control the size of animal populations.

  • Evidence: Wild boar populations are high and cause a great deal of damage to farmland.