Should children be encouraged to think for themselves? This is one of those questions that seems to invite an immediate and emphatic, almost dismissive answer. “Of course children should be encouraged to think for themselves. We’re not raising robots, after all. What’s wrong with you? How dare you ask such a silly question!” Well, my personal defects aside, the question is far more difficult than it first appears.
For one thing, we should all learn to be particularly cautious when our response to a question is too strong. The tone of an answer like the one just given is often an indicator of two rather unpleasant truths. First, the person is far less sure of his answer than he would like to be, but he covers this uncertainty over with emotional emphasis. He is scared that he might be wrong, and he doesn’t want to entertain the possibility of investigating a weak point in his thinking, so he raises his voice in psychological self-defense. Second, and closely related, we often become emotional in resisting ideas which expose our own flaws. We seek to deflect even our own eyes from looking at our actual practices by more loudly using our voice to proclaim our “true” values.
See, no parent in America today would likely affirm the idea that children should not be encouraged to think for themselves. But a closer look at the way they treat their children would reveal the clear fact that they do not practice what they yell. Children are told to do things “because I said so,” “because I’m the parent,” or even, in a Christian home, “because God says.” Personally, I think all these phrases serve the quite useful purpose of teaching a child about authority, as long as they’re not used exclusively in situations where the parents really have no idea why the thing they’re commanding is correct. Yet, even though we all know that children should sometimes be told to think as we do, it’s still not something we’re supposed to say out loud. So we practice wisdom privately and proclaim submission to a foolish social standard. This disconnect explains the indignant voice. “How dare you make me contemplate my inconsistency!”
But this is not the entire story. Many parents, and particularly Christian ones, are scared by the idea of individual thinking. “God provides the answers in His Book, and who are you to even consider questioning them?” Well, true. But how does memorizing a set of answers cultivate the capacity to form conclusions in new situations which do not come prepackaged with ready solutions? It does not. And if we are supposed to use the brain God gave us for something, that something probably includes the art of thinking effectively for ourselves.
For my own part, I think God wired children to remind us of this important developmental feature. They seem almost wind-up doll like in their use of the question, “Why?” And it’s plausible that one purpose of this tendency is to encourage parents to impart not merely a set of answers by rote, but also the ability to comprehend those answers and form new ones as well.
But the real challenge for parents who understand both the need for honoring parental and Godly authority in good answers as well as independent thinking is obvious. What do we do when children come to self-formulated ideas which are at odds with what the Bible or we teach them? You might wish for a simple solution for this conundrum. I do not possess it. Nor, I think, does anyone else. I’ve tried their wares, and the proof is not in the intellectual pudding. It is not possible to fully affirm both a process and a result at the same time. Fair competition means you may not win. Free markets will often produce inequality. Electoral politics will often yield officials we do not prefer. And teaching a child to think for himself may well produce an adult who does not think like you.
So here’s my encouragement. It’s tempting to just propagandize children. Tempting because we fear the real danger they may, if taught to think for themselves and ask questions, come to conclusions we abhor. But God gave them brains, and we must honor the gift as good stewards. So the key here, as with so many things, is to trust the Maker that honoring His gift will work out alright in the end.
God gave children their brains. And the real question at the end of each parenting day is whether you are more interested in shaping that child in the Image of the God who made him … or in your own image? Then, we must acknowledge that picking the right answer to that question will require from us more than just loud lip service to the idea that children should be encouraged to think for themselves … most of the time … especially when the scariest thing to imagine is the possibility that they might actually learn the lesson.