Raising Critical Thinkers Means Letting Our Kids Criticize Us

By Wendy Thomas Russell | August 16, 2012 | 12 comments

We’ve all heard the cliche about letting kids rule the roost. Countless books, TV shows, teachers (neighbors, in-laws, airplane passengers…) repeatedly instruct us to set strict rules, limitations and boundaries for our kids. They tell us this is the key to good parenting. They insist we demand courtesy and respect, and not allow them to display anger, disappointment or frustration “inappropriately.”

Largely because of these influencers, we start putting our kids in time-outs for talking back, or being unkind. We become infuriated when they speak to us in voices dripping with sarcasm and defiance. We remind ourselves that if our kids don’t respect us now, then they won’t respect us ever. And if we fail at asserting our authority, even for a moment, we are screwed.

Yet, amidst all this traditional authoritarianism, we have the gall to tell our kids it’s important to think for themselves, to question what they hear, to value their own opinions, to assert their independence. What’s more, as nonreligious parents, we rely on their critical thinking skills to spare them from brainwashing, propaganda and indoctrination.

Our real message becomes: “Question authority… Just not mine.”

Linda Hatfield, parenting coach and founder of Parenting from the Heart, says the the only way to truly empower children is to let them challenge our decisions and opinions — and win. When we use punishment, shame, guilt, bribery and rewards, she says, not only do children lose valuable self-esteem and miss out on excellent opportunities to think things through — but the parent-child relationship is damaged (which breeds a whole manner of other problems, she says.)

In her Los Angeles-area parenting courses, Hatfield insists that kids be able to challenge their parents without being punished for it. “Even if you don’t agree” with them, she says, “give them credit when they do their own thinking.”

In this way, she says, children will learn that it’s not only okay, but good, to question what others tell them. And they’ll respect our decisions and advice far more for the rest of their lives because we have respected them first.

 “What I think is most important,” Hatfield says, “is what we model.”

Now, I’m the first to admit, this is easier said than done. Kids are just so immature sometimes. They never just say: “Gee, Mommy, I strongly disagree with you. Please reconsider your decision and let me have that ice cream now, rather than making me wait until later.” Instead, they scream and cry and spit and embarrass us in public places. It’s tough. Even when we do think they have the right to challenge us, we often don’t feel we can, in good conscience, give in to their demands because they’ve been such shits about it.

But Hatfield, who runs her parenting courses and workshops alongside her husband, Ty, asks parents to understand that most of what they consider “misbehavior” is actually age-appropriate; kids, she says, are behaving not to be bad (a word she loathes) but because they’re going through normal developmental stages. So instead of blasting them for doing what you want them to do — challenge what they hear! — Hatfield asks parents to focus on the message, not the method — and to stop taking things so damn personally.

By all means, tell them that spitting is not okay, and that there’s no need to yell.* But then allow yourself to reconsider your own conduct and decisions, Hatfield says. Does it really matter whether the kid has ice cream now or later? Maybe it’s a good time to say “Yes.” If nothing else, take the opportunity to teach them to value their own opinions and feelings, and encourage them to help find compromises and solutions that work for both of you.

Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, says he talks about this in his workshops. In an e-mail, he told me:

“My kids heard from a very early age that they always have the right to know the reason for a decision AND to question it if they feel it’s wrong or unfair. I told them I couldn’t just say ‘Because I said so’ and the few times I’ve said that, they’ve gleefully called me on it. I’ve made a point of changing my mind, out loud, when they have a good point. That does more for their growing autonomy than almost anything else I can do. I can attest that the result of all this is not chaos but a pretty smoothly functioning home with scads of mutual respect.”

Here’s a cool video of McGowan speaking at a freethought festival in April:

*If you’re yelling this bit yourself, it’s probably not going to work. Just FYI.


  1. Heila says:

    I like the idea in theory but have problems with application in practice. My daughter is 10, intelligent and argumentative. (We want to apprentice her to a lawyer some time soon!) While we will often explain our decisions it can also become a long, protracted argument/debate for which there isn’t always time or energy. How do you handle it when you don’t agree with the child and need her to do what you asked e.g., right now?

    My other issue is her behaviour when she is with other adults. She has a friend who is very assertive and who will often try to argue with me about things I ask them to do / not do when she is playing at our house. I can handle that, but I don’t particularly like having my authority questioned by someone else’s kid over every little thing, I think it’s rude. We would also like our daughter to not engage her grandparents, or teacher, in debate every time she doesn’t agree with them.

    I guess it all boils down to teaching your child how to be respectful. We will have to work at that. But at 10 she doesn’t yet have the ability to distinguish between situations in which it is appropriate to negotiate and situations where you should just shut up and put up.

  2. Ty Hatfield says:

    Your points are nicely elaborated Wendy! I also enjoyed watching the video of Dale McGowan. He brings up excellent points about allowing children to self-evaluate their own perceptions and think for themselves. Children who can think like this will be more likely to be able to make important decisions for themselves as adults.

    In the book, “The Gift of Fear,” Gavin de Becker explains how many victims of crimes did not listen to their intuition and became a victim by trying to be “nice” to others that gave them a strong negative vibe. Intuition is taught by allowing children to think for themselves and to have their feelings, thoughts and opinions honored by their parents.

    Thank you for inspiring us to parent our children consciously so they can become aware adults who authentically know themselves.

  3. Derek Cramer says:

    One thing that really bugs me when it comes to parenting is hypocrisy. I hate it when I see a family on bikes go by and all the kids are wearing helmets, but the parents are not. I always make sure that if I make a rule, I also follow it.

    A good example of this is my son loves to bring his toy cars to the dinner table, so if I say he can’t have them there while we are eating, I can’t then go reading my phone at the same time.

    I really agree with this article, but it can be really hard to get a toddler to settle down and think about something rationally. I like the idea of Dale’s where the parent has to explain WHY the rule is, and it isn’t just “because”.

  4. Hoebywan says:

    Kids need boundaries and discipline. These were not in short supply when I was growing up, my mother would not have me disrespecting my elders. However she also made sure that even though she was raised a Catholic I had the chance to decide my own fate. It is not good parenting to let children question every decision and rule. A good parent will reward a child for being intelligent and inquisitive when it is appropriate and when you are a child it is not always appropriate. I was lucky that I had a parent that was able to strike a good balance. It enabled me as an adult to be socially adept but not afraid to seek out bullshit wherever it hides.

    • Thanks, David. I definitely think boundaries are necessary! Didn’t think to imply otherwise. But, David, you kind of lost me with your comment about how it’s not always “appropriate” for a child to show intelligence and inquisitiveness. Hard for me to get past that part.

      • Hoebywan says:

        Hi Wendy,

        I work in an environment where I often see kids with little or no discipline. I am sure many of those badly behaved kids are very bright. As a once fairly gifted child myself I remember interrupting and shouting out things over people because I was just so excited by what my little mind was coming up with. That is all I meant by it. There can be times set aside for such voyages of discovery between us and the little tykes. That is all I meant by it.

        • Ah, I see. I guess it would be interesting to know how many behavior problems are really a result of too little discipline, and how many are a result of too little attention. Patience, empathy and attention can be much harder to dole out than discipline, I’ve noticed.

          • Hoebywan says:


            I can only with any degree of confidence talk of my own childhood here. In my case though my behavioural issues were not because of of a lack of any of these things. I had a patient mother and good teachers at school. As you said though a myriad of factors can be at work to influence a childs life and “cure all” solutions are not easy to come by. I am all for encouraging forming minds into remaining inquisitive. You see we don’t have to teach a child to question things, it’s what they do best. Maybe if we help teach them some of the tools they might need. These will include certain tools that will help them decide which battle to pick and when to ask questions.In my experience the best sceptics out there are also very socially adept too.

  5. Rich Wilson says:

    “I told them I couldn’t just say ‘Because I said so’”

    I’ve given myself a loophole- “I don’t have time to explain it now” Which I generally only use when driving, or when something else requires my attention. We’ve never really talked about it, so probably I should emphasize that that’s not a put-off-forever.

    The problem with yelling is that it DOES work. Like crack. It works REALLY well, NOW. But by the third time you have to yell louder.

    • Yes! One of the best things I learned from Linda Hatfield is that “because it works” isn’t a reason to do anything. Lots of really terrible ideas work really, really well.

      • Charlie says:

        More importantly, I think, is that lots of really great ideas ALSO work really well. Doing something shitty “because it works” is a lazy cop-out.

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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