Raising Kids With Character

Teaching Your Kids to Think

  • Thom Van Dycke, Author
  • Speaker, coach, writer

Probably the most famous parenting proverb from the Bible is found in Proverbs 22:6 (NIV) “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” Did you know this is how the Navy Seals train as well?

In his book, The Culture Code Daniel Coyle shows how Navy Seals training differentiates them in how they approach missions. In one story he compares a joint mission between a Seals unit and a unit of Rangers, a comparably elite arm of the US military. The mission was being observed by live drone footage back at a command post by both the commander for the Seals and Rangers unit.

At one point the commander for the Rangers looked over at the Seals’ commander and gave him a look as if to say “Why aren’t you talking?” The Rangers’ commander had been giving a steady stream of instructions to his guys on the ground, while the Seals’ commander just observed. The difference was, the Seals knew what to do without instruction; they had already received it in their infamously intense training.

You want to be a Navy Seal parent, not a Army Ranger parent, which is precisely what Proverbs 22:6 tells us! The goal of parenting is to release our children all prepped and wide-eyed, into a strange world that they can navigate because of their training.

But what kind of training do they need? Well, they certainly need relational training. They need to know how to keep a budget. They need to understand work ethic and how to work for someone. But I believe, the greatest training we can give them is teaching them how to think.

So how do we help our children to grow to be healthy thinkers ready to face the world? Here are some tips.

Teach Them to Cultivate Wonder

A key to problem solving is having a healthy imagination. Think about it, if I as an adult, am facing bankruptcy and I cannot even imagine a way out, I will just give in. On the other hand if I have a healthy imagination, I will start to entertain all sorts of creative, possibly wild, ways to overcome the current challenge.

Now, I’m not talking about being disconnected from reality! That is actually a sign of a mental health issue, I’m talking about actually facing life’s problems with creativity and optimism.

Really all the points below on fostering thought in our children, will also foster a spirit of wonder, so read on and you’ll get both healthy thinkers and wonderers. However, a word of caution, remember that video games can rot a kids imagination. I love video games, but they need to be moderated so they don’t become the sole source of rewards in a kid’s life. Take them outside. Play, exercise, go camping; just remember that digital media can harm the imagination.

Now let’s get some positive ideas.

Read together

The difference between books and movies is that in a movie the director shows you what to think, whereas with a book you need to provide the pictures in your own imagination. The imagination is like a muscle so the more we make it do on its own, the stronger it will get. Reading strengthens the imagination.

So with little kids, find the best pictures books out there, but try and push towards books without pictures if possible. And prepare to invest in books, whether with a library card or buy purchasing them. Reading is a worthwhile line in your budget.

Watch movies, but then discuss them

I love movies and I know they have their place. But if you want to use movies to train your children to think, you will have to help them with that. There isn’t a movie out there that doesn’t have some sort of philosophical motivation. I recently watched a GREAT animated movie with my 11 year old, but I knew as I watched it that they were subtly attacking religious people as being old-fashioned. So on the way home, we talked about it. It was a great conversation that made watching the movie totally worth it.

Our kids do pick up on these messages and we actually need to help them think critically about what they are being told and that can be done while celebrating the story telling as art and entertainment!

Let them explore even if it means they look at scary things

One of my intellectual heroes is a mathematics professor at the University of Oxford named John Lennox. He is a devout Christian and has done tremendous work to help people understand the reasonableness of faith. I have heard him say in several places that his parents, while Christians themselves, encouraged him to read about all the world religions. They even gave him the Communist Manifesto as a young teenager!

It can be unsettling when our kids start to explore worldviews that we don’t agree with, but the way to deal with that is not to have a good old fashioned book burning! Not at all! If anything, read with them! Do your own research and learn together. Careful thought usually surfaces truth in the end.

Teach them to be critical without be skeptical

Finally, teach your children to ask lots of questions, but not to be skeptical of everything. Skepticism is negative; a sort of paranoid assumption along the lines of “even if there was truth out there, we wouldn’t be able to know it.” Skepticism assumes that something is wrong instead of looking for what is right and beautiful in the truth.

I am a Christian and an exclusivist at that, I truly believe that Christianity is the truest faith and therefore worth adhering to. That means I believe that other religions are not true. But I can still appreciate the similarities, celebrate the good and beautiful, and have wonderful, meaningful relationships with people who believe differently than I do.

To question everything for the sake of questioning isn’t good. But to think critically about everything, including our own beliefs is very good! If we are going to train up our children to face an uncertain future, we need to teach them to think like this. With a critical eye, but a hopeful mind.

Thom Van Dycke has worked with children and youth since 2001 and is a passionate advocate for healthy foster care. Together with his wife, since 2011, they have welcomed 30 foster children into their home. In 2017, Thom Van Dycke was trained as a Trust-Based Relational Intervention Practitioner.