Children learn by actively making sense of their world. They are constantly identifying features in the environment, using those features to create models, and testing those models to see if they work. For example, a child might notice that a tree loses its leaves in the fall, create a model that all trees lose their leaves in the fall, and then test that model by noticing that most trees do but some don’t. The observation that some trees don’t lose their leaves raises a question in the child’s mind, and this question is the spark of curiosity. Learning through curiosity leads to a deep understanding of the world and the ability to think independently.
Independent thinking gives children a leg up, and you can help them cultivate this skill through natural interactions. For example, you can help your child learn to determine someone’s true intentions. When a gentleman from Nigeria sends you an e-mail about making a large sum of money by helping him move a fortune out of the country, show it to your child. See what your child thinks. Try to let him or her form an independent opinion before you give yours.
Closer to home, the next time a commercial comes on TV showing something great that can be yours for three easy payments of only $19.95 (plus shipping and handling), talk about it with your child. Explain that it appears that the item costs $19, when in reality it costs almost $70 when the three payments are taken into account and you have paid the $9.95 in shipping and handling (whatever “handling” is). You can also show your child that piece of mail from the local auto dealership that says your current car is in especially high demand. Teach your child to use his or her models of sellers to determine that what the advertiser is really trying to do is sell cars, and that when you trade in your car, you buy another one. These types of shenanigans are particularly interesting because they are a legal form of lying.
Independent thinking is increasingly important in our technological society that seems to change faster than we adults can keep up with. These new technologies open up new opportunities, but they also present new dangers. As our lives are increasingly taking place online, just about everything your child does on the computer is tracked in some database somewhere. Small pieces of personal data can be put together in surprising ways. It has been shown that a camera watching you in a public place can use facial recognition to link to your Facebook profile and then, using information such as your birth date and hometown listed there, can guess your social security number. Even pictures now have embedded information. Photos often capture the location at which they were taken. If your child takes a picture of your house and posts it online, someone could find out where you live.
We can teach children specific techniques to avoid online predators and other bad situations, but the bad guys and the world are always changing, and your child will need to be able to evaluate situations that he or she has never seen or heard about before. Independent thinking will be crucial. Armed with this deep knowledge, your child will be ready for our uncertain future.