From my reading of history–the history of ordinary people living ordinary lives–and my own observation and experience, and contrary to what many “experts” claim, I think that teens of at least near-normal intellectual development would be capable of some basic critical thinking if it was introduced to them and expected of them from the beginning of their lives. But the fact is that the vast majority of authority figures–parents and teachers looming large among them–don’t want critical thinking from kids; they want kids to take what the authority figure says as gospel.

Our society has this utterly bizarre concept that kids can suddenly step into adult roles at some arbitrary point–all of them at the same point for the same action, the points for various actions having no relationship to each other, and in many cases without their ever having any preparation. I have encountered parents who make virtually every decision of any significance for their kids, then send them off to college with the expectation that the kids can suddenly make good decisions. I have encountered parents who never allow their kids to say ”no” to them under any circumstances, then expect the kids to be able to say ”no” to peers, older predators, bad influences. We say that kids have the maturity to understand and form intent to commit murder and should be tried as adults, but they don’t have the maturity to understand and consent to sex.

You don’t learn to make good choices, to say ”no” to pressure, to handle money, to control anger, to responsibly judge whether sex is right in this situation–to do any of the things we expect of ”adults”–overnight, as a function of going off to college or turning 18 or 21 or whatever. You learn those things day by day over many years. You don’t learn critical thinking overnight, and you don’t necessarily learn it in four years of college–or else every college-educated person would be good at it, and we know that isn’t so. You learn critical thinking by, well, learning to think critically, and that can be taught, in an appropriate context for the child’s age and development, from babyhood on.

But teaching a child (in a development-appropriate way) critical thinking involves something that many parents and (in my sad experience) most teachers are unwilling to do: tell the child, openly, clearly, sincerely: ”I might be wrong.” We told our kids we might be wrong throughout their growing-up years.  And we also told them that other adults might be wrong, or in some cases, certainly were wrong (which did not endear us to some of their teachers). The benefit we’ve found is that our kids (now well into adulthood), even during their teen years, have been rather more willing to trust our word on things than seems the average. They know that if we say, “I think that…,” ”I’m pretty sure that…,” or ”Everything I’ve experienced tells me that…,” we mean exactly what we say, no more and no less.

(This previously appeared in part in my Live Journal.)