Reflections on Skeptical Parenting

July 1998
by Merriol Almond

SKEPKIDsIf it’s important to us to be skeptics, it’s probably also important to those of us who are parents to rear skeptical kids. Looking back, I was brought up by my parents to be skeptical, and my husband and I tried to bring up our children along similar lines. It seems likely that a tendency to be generally credulous, or generally skeptical, is inculcated at an early age, the foundations being laid as soon as a child learns to talk.

The most important thing a parent can do to encourage skepticism is to respond with interest and enthusiasm to every question “why?” The second important habit is to provide a thoughtful and stimulating response, usually including some indication of the source of information and whether the information may be questionable or incomplete. When my parents addressed my early religious questions, for example, their response, though simple, was always prefaced by “some people believe—.” Questions with answers in the realm of physics, geography, or spelling elicited a less qualified response. Still, the attitude toward religion was respectful and not dismissive.

Credulity, on the other hand, is promoted by authoritarian or thoughtless parents who discourage the raising of probing questions, or parents who indicate that some topics are “Off limits” for questioning, or who provide frequent examples of illogical thinking.

We know our children are going to be exposed to huge numbers of instances of faulty reasoning. Advertising, for example, is designed to promote the drawing of faulty inferences, suggesting that social acceptance or prestige will result from the purchase of Beverage X, or Car Y. Even more seriously, our children’s teachers may inadvertently provide our children with examples of faulty reasoning, since many are not well grounded in scientific thinking. Here one needs to tread carefully, because the intent is not to bring our children to feel or show disrespect, even though we may privately feel that our children’s teachers ought to know better. The best antidote seemed to us to be frequent family meals, with vigorous exchange of ideas including discussion of which inferences it may be proper to draw, and which don’t necessarily follow.

Above all, I think the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes is a splendid one upon which to bring up our children. Some points this story makes forcefully are that it is not always in the interest of those close to power for the truth to be known, that the truth may be apparent to anyone, regardless of age or position, and that the evidence of one’s senses is important. Another good teaching device, however, is the presentation to young children of simple optical illusions — showing that sensory evidence, although very significant, is not always conclusive.

I hope other Skeptical Parents will have suggestions about rearing skeptical (but mannerly) kids in a society that seems to promote credulity more than it promotes skepticism. (Our children are now grown up and working or studying in the fields of travel, architecture, medicine and economics to all of which we hope they bring abundant healthy skepticism.)

Merriol Almond is a medical librarian at New Britain General Hospital and is a past contributor to the NEJS.