A few nights ago, I was watching a dance talent show on television with my daughter. “She’s good,” I commented about one young hopeful. “Deserves to get to the next round.” My youngest shook her head: “She won’t get voted through. Her life’s too normal – she hasn’t got a tear-jerking back story.” That’s my girl, I thought. As cynical as her mum.
But is that a trait I want to encourage in my kids? My own somewhat jaded view of the world has been shaped by years of journalism – a profession that teaches you to question everything you’re told. And while I don’t want my children to simply accept everything they’re told in this era of ‘fake news’, where pretty much anyone can say pretty much anything, I don’t want them to become too world-weary at too young an age either.
It’s easy to confuse cynicism and scepticism. The former is when someone distrusts what they see or hear – especially if it doesn’t agree with their own beliefs. Even evidence to the contrary is often not enough to change their views. The latter is closer to critical thinking. The very word comes from the Greek skeptikos, which means ‘to inquire or look around’.
Dr Marilyn Price-Mitchell is the founder of Roots of Action, an organisation that helps parents, schools and communities nurture positive youth development. A developmental psychologist, she says there are several ways to teach children to be sceptics rather than cynics.
“Being a sceptic has been given a bad rap in modern society,” she says. “In today’s complex world, sceptics and cynics are often hard to differentiate. But Galileo was a sceptic. So was Steve Jobs. Both developed habits of thinking that challenged what appeared to be reliable facts.”
So, how do we raise our children to be sceptics rather than cynics?
1Teach them to ask questions
Every day, others present information to us as facts. This product will change your life. That politician will do what’s best for you. Our children need to learn not to take everything at face value. It’s ok to challenge what they’re told. That doesn’t mean accusing people of lying. Instead, teach them to ask for evidence to back up what someone is saying – facts, research or whatever their views are based on.
2Listen to the voice of doubt
When we watch commercials on television, we know companies are trying to sell us their product or service. Most of us have a healthy scepticism about their claims. But businesses spend a fortune on marketing experts because they know the best ways to persuade us to believe them. Teach your children that if they doubt what they’re being told is true, they should listen to their instinct. Question the logic of whatever argument is being presented – don’t take it at face value if it doesn’t feel right.
3Play devil’s advocate
This doesn’t mean being argumentative for the sake of it. Sometimes, taking a side you might not agree with can help you understand a situation better or reinforce a belief. By teaching children to try and pick holes in something they think is right, you’re showing them how to see different perspectives.
4Find a balance
Most of us naturally tend towards either logic or intuition when we choose what to believe. If we can encourage our children to use both, they will become better thinkers and true sceptics. Doubt and belief are powerful tools – they should be able to use them.
“How we adults model the tools of scepticism not only helps us make better-informed decisions but also shows our children how to think for themselves,” says Price-Mitchell. “And if kids learn to think for themselves, they learn to believe in themselves.”
5Check for bias
A true sceptic will want to find out whether a source of information is subjective or objective. It’s like those television adverts we mentioned earlier. Remember the ‘Pepsi Challenge’, when consumers were filmed while blind-tasting Pepsi and another leading cola? Of course the advert showed you those who preferred Pepsi – it was their own campaign.
Encourage your kids to see the other side. Teach them to ask themselves what someone has to gain from persuading them to believe a particular piece of information. What would the other side of the coin look like – and is it more compelling?