Parents Perspective

How to Teach Kids to Think for Themselves

Here's one simple way to avoid being a helicopter parent and raise a child who's independent in the best sense of the word. 

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How to Raise an Adult, by former Stanford University dean Julie Lythcott-Haims, is the book I've been recommending to everyone lately. It is chock full of wise insights and realistic advice.

In one section, she suggests how to talk to children in a way that encourages them to think for themselves, so they won't always be dependent upon us to advise them about what to do. It is "the continual questioning approach," in which you ask your child the "what," "how," or "why" that's related to whatever she has just said. Lythcott-Haims give examples of how to use the technique with kids of all ages:

Preschoolers

Ineffective:

This applauds your child for what he knows but doesn't teach him how to think.

Child: A butterfly!

Parent: Yes, that's a butterfly. Good job! What color is it?

Child: Orange and black.

Parent: That's right! You're so smart.

Ideal:

This helps your child unpack what he already knows and figure out the next set of concepts related to what he knows.

Child: A butterfly!

Parent: Ooh, what's the butterfly doing?

Child: It's on that flower. And now it's on another flower!

Parents: Why do you suppose it likes flowers?

Child: Because they're pretty?

Parent: Maybe. Can you think of another reason?

Elementary Schoolers

Ineffective:

This dialogue doesn't teach your child how to think about her problem, but zooms ahead to solve the problem for her. Not only won't she know how to pick apart the situation and devise a solution, but she'll be more likely to leave her backpack at school again in the future because she hasn't suffered the consequences of having forgotten it.

Parent: How was school?

Child: Fine. But I forgot my backpack!

Parent: Oh no! I'll drive you back to school so you can get it.

Ideal:

This teaches your child that you don't feel responsible for her problem and that she is going to have to figure it out for herself. This "tough love" approach may be hard for you, but the most loving thing to do here is not to do it for her but to teach her how to do it for herself.

Parent: How was school?

Child: Fine. But I forgot my backpack!

Parent: Oh no.

Child: What am I going to do?

Parent: I'm not sure. What do you think you can do about it?

Child: I don't know! Will you drive me back to school to get it?

Parent: I'm sorry, but I can't—I've got other things to do this afternoon. What do you think you can do about it?

Child: I could call my friend and ask him what the homework is.

Parent: Okay.

Child: But I might not have what I need if it's in my backpack.

Parent: Hmmm. Yeah.

Child: Or I could email my teacher and tell her I forgot it and see what she says.

Parents: Those both sound like good ideas.

Middle Schoolers

Ineffective:

Kids this age want us to be involved and interested in their lives but can be quick to shut down if we seem overly focused, like this, on what to them feels like the wrong thing.

Parent: How was school today?

Child: Fine.

Parent: How'd you on the Spanish test?

Child: I got an A!

Parent: Great!

Ideal:

By focusing instead on what your child has learned or found interesting in the class, you help him home in how he knows what he knows.

Parent: How was school today?

Child: Fine.

Parent: What did you enjoy most?

Child: Spanish

Parent: Great! How come?

Child: It's my favorite class.

Parent: How come?

Child: I always get a really good score on tests and homework and is never hard and I'm never lost. I raise my hand all the time and when she does call on me, especially when other kids aren't getting it, I feel "Yay! I've got this!"

Parent: How can you tell you're good at it?

Child: Well, when my teacher is explaining something, I can guess what she's about to say because I already know exactly how it works. I know what's coming next. I can explain it to my friend.

Don't stress out about this, says Lythcott-Haims. You don't have to act like Socrates all the time. Just try to incorporate continual questioning whenever you see the opportunity and you're able to make the time.

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Diane Debrovner is the deputy editor of Parents and the mother of two girls. Follow her on Twitter: @ddebrovner.