Case Study 7
In certain scenarios, children’s developing perspectives on their own beliefs, reasoning, and emotions can combine in the analysis of a challenging source of information. The wealth of media to which children are exposed today can be overwhelming, but these media can also provide opportunities for learning and practicing the skills of critical analysis. Parents can help guide their children in these situations by prompting them with questions and asking children to make their beliefs and reasoning explicit. At this young age, preparation for independent and critical thinking need not interfere with the fantasy life of the child, as the example below shows.
Six-year-old Tom has just written a letter to Santa Claus. Now he is watching television, flipping between channels until a show about Christmas catches his attention.
The TV presenter explains that nowadays children do not believe in Santa Claus the way they used to. Christmas has been totally commercialized. What’s more, red only became the color of Christmas due to the branding of the Coca-Cola company.
First part of the program: “What do those concerned say?” A journalist standing outside a school asks several children their opinion. The children interviewed say that their parents have told them about Santa Claus, but that he does not really exist, at least no more than witches and ghosts do. They say that they know exactly what they are going to get for Christmas and how much it will cost. Their little brothers or sisters may still believe in Santa, but they themselves are not babies anymore. Regardless of whether they’re “naughty or nice,” they know there will always be gifts for them under the tree.
Second part of the program: “Santa Claus: salesman.” Images in the background show check-out lines in toy stores, parents with shopping carts full to the brim, others taking photos of the shelves on their phones. We see Santa Clauses of all shapes and sizes in shopping malls, day care centers, in the street, and even sitting in donkey-drawn carriages. A narrator provides statistics on the average amount spent by families on gifts, as well as the percentage of gifts purchased in-store versus online.
Finally, the presenter comes back on the screen and concludes with, “Christmas has lost its magic!” before going to a commercial break.
Tom’s father came into the room while the show was on air and has seen part of it. He can tell that his son is both confused and unsettled.
“Why do you believe in Santa Claus, Tom? What are your reasons?”
“Because he’s come every year since I was little. And because he comes at nighttime. Who else could come in the middle of the night? Because he always drinks the hot chocolate we leave him under the tree, and he eats the cookies. Because I’ve seen him more than once, near the Christmas tree at school and in stores. Because no one else could make toys for every kid and deliver them all.”
“Yes, those are very good reasons to believe in him, Tom. And what about at school? Do you talk about Santa with the other kids?”
“The big kids say the same thing as the people on the TV: that he doesn’t exist and that their parents made him up. When I told them there was no way presents could just appear under the tree overnight, they said I was a baby. I don’t talk about Santa anymore because of that.”
“I think you’re right to assert yourself and say what you really think. There’s what they say on TV, what your friends say, and then there’s your own opinion. And it’s important for you to say what you think and defend your point of view. It’s important to listen to other people too, of course, because no one is right all the time. But having your own ideas and expressing them is really important all through your life.”
What would you have done if you were Tom’s father?
Would it have been better to admit the truth about Santa Claus to Tom and contradict his beliefs and imagination? If Tom’s dad had done that, what value would his son have placed on his own reasoning? Would he have dared to defend his opinion in the future?
During this conversation, the father chose to give weight to Tom’s arguments by giving credit to them and praising the way he expressed his personal thoughts. He did not state his own opinion on the matter, but instead focused the discussion on dealing with clashing points of view and on arguing. He hopes that Tom will now see the value in his own arguments, even if they go against what was said on the television show. Now, the next time he finds himself in a similar situation, Tom will probably be confident enough to express his own opinion on the information he receives.
The repetition of situations such as this should allow Tom’s critical thinking skills to develop. They will reinforce and strengthen his self-esteem and build his confidence in his ability to develop his own thoughts.
This situation may seem counter-intuitive. We usually associate the development of critical thinking with questioning certain beliefs, in this case the belief in the existence of Santa Claus.
This viewpoint, though, projects our own adult understanding onto Tom. Children of his age should instead be encouraged to express themselves, to be creative in their arguments, and to believe in the value of their own points of view—rather than in the truths that are thrust on them by adults, media, or their friends.