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Teaching your children to think independently is one of the most challenging tasks for you. You are at the heart of a real parenting paradox. You want your children to think independently but you also want them to accept your ideas and values. How can you keep your children on the right track while simultaneously assuring they become autonomous individuals who think independently? How do your children move from being the one who is influenced to being the one who is influencing? How do your children make the transition from follower to leader or independent participant? It happens gradually and spontaneously if you first encourage it to happen and then allow it to happen. Let’s make the point through a fairly simple example and then move on to discuss the idea in depth.

A six-year-old had grown up in a family where she was allowed to express her ideas, disagree, and dream. Her first- grade teacher encouraged independent thinking and her parents took delight in her imagination, innovative thinking, and developing intellectual agility. Similarly, her teacher liked children who appropriately said what they thought, entered into lively discussions, and showed enthusiasm for finding out about the world. This particular incident happened in a school where the practice was to start the school day with a prayer. After one such group prayer, teacher said to the six-year-old, “You did not have your head bowed and your eyes closed during prayer.” Teacher was trying to encourage the child to conform to customary praying behavior. The precocious child spontaneously responded, “You must not have had your eyes closed either, or you would not have noticed I did not have my eyes closed.” How did the teacher handle this? Did she see the reply as smart alecky? No, she saw it was a perceptive conclusion for a six-year-old to have made. She said, “That’s true; why don’t we both close our eyes and bow our heads next time?” Three cheers for this teacher.

When your child tells you about something bothering him, he may wait expectantly to see what you think. You can tell him what you think, or you might respond, “What do you think about that?” If your child says, “I don’t know; what do you think?” you might then say, “I will tell you what I think but first I want to find out what your ideas are.” This encourages independent thinking and lets your child know he is both permitted and expected to think independently.

Another child comes to you with a problem, wanting to know what she should do. You go through the same process of asking her what she thinks she should do. You say, “Why don’t you think about it for a while; then let’s talk.” You are saying, in essence, “You think independently a while longer and I will think independently about the situation also.” Go back to your child after a while and ask, “Have you thought any more about the situation?” This again encourages your child to think independently and renews your permission to think independently. A mild level of skepticism is fundamental to your child’s growing capacity to think independently. For instance, your child comes home and tells you her friend has two ponies and three dogs, when you know her family does not own land and they are not boarding animals. You say to your child, “That is not true.” Your child insists it is true. You say, “I do not think it is true; and it is clear you and I disagree about whether or not it is true.” That is the end of the conversation. Have you helped your child to think independently? You have pointed out things are sometimes misunderstood by you or are misrepresented by others. This encourages your child to be a little skeptical about things she is told by others. The same approach can be used with things your children read or are told about.

Do not always impose your beliefs and values on your children. The extent to which your child learns to think independently has a lot to do with your willingness to permit independent thought. You further encourage independent thinking by letting him know you feel good about it when he expresses his own ideas, comes to his own conclusions, and thinks independently. At times you insist he think independently by refusing to say what to do or think, making him think things through himself. You also demonstrate independent thinking. Just as your child is permitted to disagree with you, you have the right to disagree with him. He sees you come to your own conclusions and do not always accept what others say. In addition, you point out independent thinking techniques such as considering alternatives, mental rehearsals, and the old standby, “Think before you act.”

Helping your children think independently is a real parenting paradox. If you err, it should be on the side of independent thinking. your child may be a little flippant or rude, but this is more acceptable than risking his becoming mechanical and closed off.

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