Cultivate critical thinking

Source: heartfireathome.blogspot.com

Last week, I encouraged you to put the flash cards away and trade rote academic teaching for imaginative play and virtue development. Some of you may have wondered whether parents could do both. Can’t we keep the flash cards out as long as we also work with them on important virtues that will serve them well in school?

This would seem to make sense, right? Sorry, but I still encourage you to put the flash cards away. Here’s why.

Abstracts concepts like flat numbers and letters limit our children’s ability to think critically, especially if they are introduced at a time when the child is not developmentally ready for them.

Critical thinking has become a rare commodity in our country. We can succeed in school as long as we ace the multiple choice tests, fill in the right bubbles on standardized tests, and memorize random facts that the schools deem important.

I don’t know about you, but I would much rather have a child who can read a piece of classical literature, analyze it for meaning, and write a critical essay on the topic. Yes, there is a time and place for absorbing facts, but if they have no meaning, they will quickly be forgotten.

The role of fantasy in critical thinking

I touched on the importance of imaginative play in a recent post. Supporting my thoughts, this article offers a great explanation as to why critical thinking is so important (despite the decline we now see) and how cultivating our children’s imagination or fantasy plays an important role. The author says:

“If fantasy is allowed to ripen side by side with thinking, these two faculties mature into creative thinking, a capacity to visualize not only how things are but also how they might be.”

This plays out in the world as a whole but also in school.

“Without imagination, one cannot picture an event in history, a verbal problem in mathematics, or the characters of a book. To approach academic subjects without imagination is a dull affair at best, and it is not surprising that children who are being educated without benefit of imagination at the elementary level find learning so uninteresting.”

Imagine the stress and burnout that arises from such uninteresting learning. How many teens do you know who truly enjoy going to school? How many adults do you know who enjoy learning for the sake of learning?

“At the elementary school level, one frequently hears about burnout among third- and fourth-grade pupils. After age nine, many children simply do not want to learn any more. In the high school, educators say that many students seem unable to think. Ask them a defined question that requires a true/false answer or a multiple choice, and they do all right. But ask them to think through a problem and explain their solutions, and many are at a loss.”

What does academic success look like?

Maybe this simple exercise will help. When you imagine your child succeeding in school, what do you think of?

Scenario A

  • She leaves preschool able to read all of the “-at” words and doing basic math (1+2).
  • She thrives on earning straight As.
  • She spends her free time doing worksheets.
  • She smiles when the teacher puts a gold star on her paper.

Sounds great, right? Well, think about this scenario.

Scenario B

  • She comes bounding in the door after school excited to get started on her science experiment. You have to stop her to eat a snack.
  • As she works on her homework, she makes a mental connection that you never expected.
  • You hear from the teacher that she told the kids all about Picasso. You then realize it was from the art exhibit you visited 3 months ago.
  • You see her acting out a play with her friends and realize all of the characters are from the classical novel you’ve been reading to her at night.

Which scenario do you think will encourage a life-long love of learning? Which scenario requires fantasy (and thus, critical thought)? Which scenario will prevent boredom? Which scenario sounds more fun?

Can’t we still teach them letters and numbers?

Yes, just not yet. There is a developmentally appropriate time for a child to learn how to read. In my experience, early reading begins around age 5, and if you let it happen naturally, it won’t be long (6 months to a year) before he reads fluently. As with potty training, if you start when they are ready and let it progress naturally, it will happen much more quickly and painlessly.

Some of you may even contend that your toddler wants to learn his letters and numbers. If this is the case, I ask you why you think he wants to learn them. What meaning do they have for him? I’m willing to bet that the joy he gets is seeing your smiles and hearing your praise. If you can give the same smiles and praise over more meaningful learning, he will be just as excited to learn.

Understand that it’s not just a matter of how much time you devote to learning. What you teach your child—and when you teach it—can affect his neurodevelopment.

Another article explains this clearly:

“Perhaps most disturbing is the potential for the early exposure to academics to physiologically damage developing brains. Although the brain continues to change throughout life in response to learning, young children undergo a number of sensitive periods critical to healthy development; learning to speak a language and responding to social cues are two such domains. Appropriate experiences can hone neural pathways that will help the child during life; by the same token, stressful experiences can change the brain’s architecture to make children significantly more susceptible to problems later in life, including depression, anxiety disorders—even cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist at the Rockefeller University, notes that asking children to handle material that their brain is not yet equipped for can cause frustration. Perceiving a lack of control is a major trigger of toxic stress, which can damage the hippocampus, a brain area crucial to learning and memory.”

I don’t intend for this to be a scare tactic. But given that teaching abstract letters and numbers has the potential to negatively affect your young child’s brain and his ability to process information—and that we prefer scenario B listed above anyway—why would you want to push early academic learning? Why wouldn’t you want to put those flash cards away?

I’ll leave at that for now. In my next post, I’ll give you some ideas on what you can start doing today to cultivate critical thinking and encourage life-long learning that has meaning for your child.

Achieving first-time obedience

In my last post, I described what first-time obedience looks like. Now we’ll get into the details of how you can help your child obey the first time. It’s not easy but so worth it!

Lay the groundwork. It’s all about your tone.
Before you start requiring first-time obedience, you need to ensure your own attitude is in the right place. For those of you unsure of your ability to command authority, reach down within yourself and find your courage. Do not fear your child. Do not let him make the choices for the family. If you have read one or two of the Ezzo books, you are no stranger to the idea that the marriage takes priority in the family. Your child is a welcome member of the family but is not the center of it. Let that attitude carry you through your daily interactions with your child.

Some of you may have a strong handle on your authority but might take it too far. Don’t expect that he will disobey or he will. Don’t think that having authority over your child means that he’ll comply with unreasonable expectations when he’s tired and hungry. Don’t equate authority with anger and power. We want wise parenting, not power parenting.

If you have found the right attitude, you are likely at a place where you want to set your child up to succeed but will maintain a matter-of-fact tone if he doesn’t. When your child disobeys, you don’t accept it or get angry. You say to him, “Oops, I see you’ve made the wrong choice. Too bad. Here is what your consequence will be.”

Be consistent!

One of the most important things you need to require of yourself is consistency. If you want first-time obedience from your child, you must be 100% consistent. If you slip, he will too. But if you require it, he will meet your expectation. Your child will only rise to the expectation you set for him. Set the bar high but keep in mind you need to do the work to help him get there.

Get your “yes, mommy” and eye contact
I cannot stress enough how important it is to have your child respond to the call of his name with a “yes, mommy” and eye contact. Before you give any task, especially one that he won’t want to do, you need to get his attention and know that he is listening. Maintaining eye contact while you give the instruction is key. Refer back to these posts for more.

Don’t repeat yourself
One sure-fire way to not get first-time obedience is to repeat yourself. How can he achieve first-time obedience if you’ve already given your instruction 5 times? Give him your instruction clearly and while maintaining eye contact and you have no excuse to repeat yourself. You know he has heard you loud and clear.

So what do you do if your child doesn’t respond after you’ve given your one instruction? Wait. Don’t wait 20 minutes, but do give him a chance to comply. If he still doesn’t respond, don’t say another word. Simply take him by the hand and physically help him complete the task. If you’ve asked him to put his Legos away and he ignores you, take his hand and bring him over to the Legos. Then take his hands in your own and start picking them up together. Be sure to do this with a very calm demeanor or he will strongly resist you.

After you have completed the task together, explain to him that you had to help him this time and that next time, you want him to obey you the first time you ask him to do something. After you have given it a few days of helping him obey you, move on to expecting him to obey you on his own. If he chooses not to, then you move on to your consequence.

Decide ahead of time what your consequences will be
Spend some time with your spouse thinking through your child’s most troublesome behaviors. Then decide on a logical or natural consequence for each of those behaviors. Write them down and post them in the kitchen so you can refer to them often. Perhaps picking up his toys is where he struggles the most. You might decide to take those toys away for a day. Let the punishment fit the crime, and make sure your consequences are ones that you can follow through on, even at your own weakest moments.

The key here is that you plan ahead so that when you’re faced with disobedience, you’re not scrambling to come up with a consequence. You want to respond swiftly, especially as you’re just beginning. Refer to my post on intentional parenting for more.

Do non-conflict training
Whether he’s 2 or 12, take the time to explain to him your new standard of obedience. He needs to know that you are changing the rules of the game and that you will be giving consequences the first time he disobeys. Clearly explain to him that you expect him to respond to your instructions the first time you give them. Be specific. Tell him that if he runs away from you at the park, you will go home the first time. Tell him that if he speaks to you with disrespect just one time, he will lose his TV privileges. Remind him often, several times a day every day.

Follow through
This is where you make or break the deal. You can do all of the work I describe above, but if you don’t follow through when your child disobeys the first time, all of your work will be for nothing. Not only will it have been a waste of time, but now your child won’t believe you when you say you will require first-time obedience. If your child disobeys just one time, issue the consequence, no questions asked. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don’t repeat yourself. Don’t threaten. Don’t get angry. Keep a calm demeanor and follow through.

Now, don’t kick yourself if you slip once or twice. You are both acquiring a new skill, but do make it a priority. Even set aside a few days when you can stay home and work on it.

Set your child up for success
You want your child to achieve first-time obedience, right? So set him up to succeed. Don’t start your work on first-time obedience by asking your 4-year-old to mow the lawn. Take baby steps. Start by giving him a task you know he’ll do willingly. If he does it the first time, praise him! Expect that he will succeed. Make it so that he wants to give you first-time obedience. Then once he is doing well with simple tasks, move on to more difficult ones.

Be fair
You cannot expect your child to give you first-time obedience if you haven’t done all your work first. You can’t issue a consequence the first time if you haven’t told him what you expect. For all he knows, you’ll repeat yourself 20 times like you usually do. And consider context. Don’t start expecting first-time obedience when your fuse is short and your child is tired and hungry.

Require a happy heart

I started this post by asking you to work on your own attitude, and I’ll end by saying you need to ensure your child has the right attitude as well. A big component of first-time obedience is doing it with an attitude of submission. You might want to spend a week or two working on the mechanics of first-time obedience before you move on to changing his attitude. But once you are ready to do so, explain to him at a time of non-conflict, what you expect of him. Then if he gives you first-time obedience but sulks off after complying or whines about doing the task, start requiring him to respond with a happy heart. One of the best ways to do so is requiring him to do the task over with a better attitude. If he needs a few minutes in isolation to find his happy heart, let him go to his room and then come back to you when he’s ready to comply with a better attitude.

This was a long post full of weighty ideas. Refer back to it often. Good luck!

“Okay?”

It’s a simple word. It’s universal and is used in many different languages. It’s casual and comfortable. But I recommend you remove it from your and your child’s vocabulary. Here’s why.

Don’t use “okay” when giving an instruction
There are two problems with a parent using the word “okay”. First, it is often used at the end of an instruction, which turns the instruction into a request.

Instruction: Evan, clean up your room.
Request: Evan, clean up your room, okay?

Instruction: Sophia, mommy needs you to wash your hands before dinner.
Request: Sophia, wash your hands for mommy, okay?

If you really want your child to respect your authority and obey your instructions, you must not phrase them in the form of a question. When a child hears your inflection go up or hears that “okay” at the end of an instruction, he truly thinks you are asking him whether he agrees or not. He thinks he has the option to say no. Don’t give him that option.

You will also want to be cautious when saying “please” when you give an instruction. It is certainly polite and you want to model polite speech for your child, but you need to be sure you use an authoritative tone when you use the word.

Good: Evan, please put your toys away.
Bad: Evan, put your toys away, please?

Good: Sophia, please share your ice cream with your brother.
Bad: Sophia, share your ice cream with your brother, please?

If you’re not sure whether you sound authoritative when using “please,” don’t use it when giving an instruction. Model polite speech for him at other times of the day. Save it for later when you ask a simple request like pass the salt. Or if you do honestly have a request (not an instruction) for your child, say “please” then.

Don’t use “okay” when answering your child
Here is another time when you will not want to use the word “okay.” Whether your child asks you for a glass of milk or wants to watch TV, you are far better off saying “yes” or “yes, you may” than “okay.” In these cases, the word “okay” can have an ambiguous tone. Your “okay” could sound like, “alright, I don’t really want to agree, but you’ve convinced me.” You never want your child to believe he has the power to convince you to do something you don’t want to do.

You also want to avoid using “okay” in this instance because you want to model polite speech for your child. You want your child to respond to you with a “yes, mommy” or “yes, daddy” so give him the same courtesy. Here’s how it works in my house:

William: “Mommy?”
Me: “Yes, William?”
William: “Can I watch TV now?”
Me: “Yes, you may. Go find the remote and I will turn it on for you.”

It does not sound like this:

William: “Mommy?”
Me: “Huh?”
William: “Can I watch TV now?”
Me: “Okay.”

Do you see how the first example is more polite? It is also more authoritative and respectful.

Don’t allow your child to use “okay”
As I’ve discussed in previous posts, you will want your child to respond to you with a “yes, mommy.” He will do so in two instances: 1) when you first call his name, and 2) after you give an instruction to show he will comply. You should not allow an “okay” in either case.

You should also discourage the use of “okay” when you are having a general conversation. If you ask him how school went or how he feels about a particular situation, he shouldn’t reply with “okay.” You should require him to think it over and reply with a complete answer. When we answer someone with an “okay” we are telling them we don’t value the question and don’t want to put any effort or thought into our answer. Now, if your child says he doesn’t feel like talking about a particular subject right then and tells you why, you may allow that. But don’t allow him to brush you off by answering your questions with an “okay.”

It might take constant effort on your part to remove the word “okay” from your vocabulary, but it will be well worth the effort. After a week or two, it will become second nature.