Daily life offers us parents many opportunities to strengthen our children ‘s minds. One way to do that is by noticing and taking advantage of opportunities to praise our children’s thought. “Yes, that’s right.” “Very true,” “I didn’t know you knew that!” “You remembered, good going.” “Was it your idea to do that?” “What did you think of that program?” “That’s very imaginative,” etc. It is easy to find the chance for such remarks, it pleases the child to be praised, and it is a pleasant thing to do.
Beyond those good reasons are several even larger and better ones to make a practice of praising your child’s thought. Most importantly, we are, by noticing and commenting on our child’s thinking, highlighting the fact that thought is a constant of life, a strength, and a personal value. This practice points out to a child the varieties of his own intellectual activity, and the multitude of occasions and opportunities to exercise it.
Gradually, and implicitly, this reflecting leads the child to formulate his option to think for himself, to recognize thought as a goal, and to sharpen his awareness of his nascent intellectual agency.
School-age kids find their mental activity being noticed and evaluated chiefly in terms of their schoolwork. Their time in the classroom and doing homework are officially the hours during which their intellects are engaged. Formal learning, memory for specific facts, and the ability to analyze and solve problems in an academic setting become part and parcel of their “intellects.” This is valid and important as long as it does not create a partition separating formal schooling from the rest of life. To offset this tendency, parents of school-aged kids need specifically to reflect the child’s personal and practical thinking, to create a balanced context within which the child sees himself as intellectually active.
We want our children to learn that choice is not fundamentally behavioral, but intellectual. We bring our children up, however, as if choice were chiefly a matter of correct behavior. Even if we know and accept philosophically that man’s choice is essentially the choice to focus, that it is a matter of engaging his thinking capacity, not a matter of muscular self-control, the exercise of parental responsibility focuses on choice as behavioral.
Children find themselves constantly audited for what they choose to eat, say, wear, and do, or neglect to do. How do we make the fundamental nature of choice clear to a child so that he is aware of his true volitional nature at the earliest developmental stage? Noticing and praising the focus, the attention paid, the independent thought that a young person enacts promotes this distinction in a natural and inductively efficient way.
A further problem with the usual mode of parenting is that our feedback is so often negative. This builds up a concept of a child’s using his capacity to choose as consisting mainly in giving in to or resisting temptation, failing to generate the initiative to clean up his space, leaving undone his homework and housework responsibilities, and various choices leading to interpersonal conflicts with siblings and peers. When thinking gets mentioned, in these contexts, it runs to the rhetorically intimidating: “What were you thinking?” “What did you think would happen?”
“Don’t you know any better than that?” And so on. While, in these cases, the connection between thought and result is acknowledged, it is exclusively the negative, the failure to think or to think correctly, that is pointed out. This creates a strong mental association between “thinking” and obeying people and rules that are undesirable.
This is just one of a large number of cultural factors that put thought in a negative light for young people. The youth culture scorns achievements of intellect with the unflagging determination to invert a value system that respects individuality and achievement. The schools are largely anti-intellectual, and peer pressure has reached dimensions of physical and psychological terrorism, which is inflicted right in front of adult overseers.
We want our children to regard reason as they do the act of breathing. We want them to regard themselves as thinking beings first and foremost. We want them to feel native pride in their own minds, a confidence that is unconscious and unquestioned, natural and absolute.
In order to grow into that point of view, children need to experience life as an endeavor of thought. In order to achieve that mode of experience, they need to recognize and understand, from as early an age as is possible, that they are already a thinking being; that their own mind is trustworthy; even as it grows in knowledge and scope. Parents can induce intellectual self-awareness in their child, from toddler-hood up, by deliberately and conscientiously acknowledging their child’s thinking in a detailed and positive way.
Praise your child’s thinking, and watch him bloom intellectually, and grow in confidence, as a result.