Encouraging Children to Think For Themselves

When I taught fourth grade, every year there would be that one kid who would daily come to my desk expecting me to solve his problems.

I don’t mean the kind of problems like, “What’s the meaning of life?” or “Should I be a doctor or a garbage man when I grow up?”.  I mean problems like “My shoe won’t stay tied.” or “My pencil broke.”

Here is a typical conversation that would take place:

Kid: “Mrs. H?”

Me: “Yes?”

Kid: “My pencil broke.”

Me: “Really?”

Kid: “Yeah. See?” (holds out pencil)

Me: “Yes, I can see that.” (smiles)

Kid: (Shuffles feet while waiting for me to say more)

Me: (Pausing for effect) What do you think you should do about it?

Kid: Sharpen it?

Me: Yes.

Now, these kids were perfectly smart and capable. They just didn’t want to think for themselves. Isn’t it easier when someone else does all of our thinking for us? (That reminds me. Will y’all make my grocery list for the week? My brain is tired. ‘Kay. Thanks.)

Well, now I find myself the parent of that very kid! She is intelligent and capable, but she likes for me to do the thinking for her. The trouble is, I don’t play along.

Granted, it would be much easier for me to just tell her what to do, but I want her to think for herself, so if it hasn’t been one of those days when I want to just say, “SHARPEN IT! And then run outside and play while Mama drinks a Dr. Pepper, mkay?”, I try to help her come up with answers on her own.

This just happened recently, when my girl asked about some twin girls we know.

Her: “Mommy, are A and E identical twins?”

Me: “Well, what does ‘identical’ mean?”

Her: “Exactly alike?”

Me: “Yes, that’s right. Do A and E look exactly alike?”

Her: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Now, think. Are their eyes the same color? Do they have the same color hair?”

Her: “So they aren’t identical?”

Me: “You tell me. Are they?”

She finally concluded that they are not identical and I’m sure she knew it all along and just wanted me to confirm that she was right in her thinking.

I want to reassure her that she is capable of coming to her own correct conclusions, instead of providing ready made correct conclusions for her. As tiring as this can be at times, I think it will serve her much better than if she knew she didn’t have to bother thinking for herself because I will do the thinking for her.

Am I the only one who deals with this? How do you encourage your children to think for themselves?

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Comments

  1. I think I was this child, but I was too shy to ask for help, so I spent a lot of my early years confused. There are still times when I kind of freak out when I have to make my own decisions. I am learning that making a bad decision is better than no decision.

    With my kids, I usually say things like, “You’re thirsty? That’s interesting.” Or “Thanks for sharing with us that your shoes are missing.”

  2. I have one of these. She even wants me to help her decide between jelly flavors, should I color this flower pink or red, and should I wear the purple or green shirt?

    Sometimes I give her an answer, and sometimes I tell her “I don’t know which one you like best. Only you know what’s your favorite!” She doesn’t like it when I do that.

    She also does it with spelling words that I KNOW she knows. Aaarrgghh!

  3. With any “Why” question, I always ask back “WHY do you think X is that way?” I’m trying to foster critical thinking which will hopefully lead to good essays when they get older!

  4. I have this same conversation with my 4 year old at least 20 times a day! I was beginning to think I was going crazy…glad to hear I am not unique in this situation!

  5. Thank you for articulating exactly what is going on with my daughter. I’ve been trying to think how to help her through this phase (OK, I’m really hoping this is a phase). We just ordered a critical thinking exercise book to try and show examples of how to get from A to B.

    At the risk of sounding stupid, it never occurred to me to make her go through the thinking process with the simple stuff. I apprecate your converstational examples — I’ll give it a whirl today and see what happens!

  6. I have one of these children and although he is much better than when he was younger (he is 13), I still worry sometimes. Mine used to make sure he had my OK to go to the bathroom, at home! Or whether or not he could drink milk. Now, I know it can’t be because I am that strict, because my other two children don’t ask and he see’s that they don’t get into trouble.

    I guess the encouraging thing is that as he has grown, the questions have become less. But sometimes he will ask me something and I will look at him and ask him to think about what he just asked. Then he will come up with an answer and I will tell him that it is the correct or incorrect answer. I know I should have more patience, but I must admit that patience is NOT one of my finer virtues!!

  7. I have a 15 year old son who does these things daily. One of them is asking me a question he knows the answer to. I just turn it around on him and restate what he just asked me and he answers it. I think in some cases this is just a habit. Don’t know when or why it started but I really want to stop it.

  8. I see you already have a lot of good comments, but I’ll just chime in to say that my son not only does this with questions, but with tasks. For instance, this morning, he spilled some water. Now if it was red koolaid on the white carpet, I would have rushed right over to help clean it up fast, but water, I thought he could handle on his own. He kept saying, “I spilled some water, it’s a lot of water.” And I kept saying, “I have the utmost faith in your ability to clean that mess up.” Finally, he went and grabbed some towels and cleaned it up. I guess this is similar to the broken pencil kid.

  9. I’ve had conversations like that. And when I was a teacher my favorite was the child whose pencil just rolled off their desk, (while they watched it) and then they raised their hand. “My pencil fell.” ARRRGGGGHHH!!!! “And?”

    The thing I will not play along with is the child who hurts themself (a little) and instead of just telling you they hurt themselves, they hang around you and make sucking noises like they are in pain. Waiting for you to ask, “Did you hurt yourself?” Or the kid who says, “I like crackers. They are really good.” Instead of saying, “I’m hungry, can I please have a snack.” It’s almost manipulative and I see other adults jump right in and solve their “problem” for them but I think like Kathy said above, sometimes they just don’t know what to do. You have to directly teach them, “When you need something, you say…..” and practice it with them.

    As for your kiddo (I mean, I don’t even know them…or you) did they really wonder about the identical twins or did they just want your attention and to have a conversation with you? I mean, clearly they kinda knew the answer to their own question.

    Or they could be like mine and just like to hear herself talk. :)

  10. Oh this brings back teaching memories! Usually at home if you ask a question it gets answered with a question. Really, I believe my husband and I were meant to be lawyers and missed our calling, lol. But it’s beginning to work because now my older two think it through before they come to me:)

  11. If you find a great answer for this, please share!! We have never really dealt with it before, at least not on a regular basis, until now. My 11yo has decided that mom is only here to do all the little things for him, complete his homework for him, etc. Ahhh!!!

  12. I hadn’t really thought about it, but that’s exactly what my oldest does. He’s in 4th grade…ha! Silly me, I was just so thankful that he was communicating with me that I never stopped to realize the pattern forming here. Hmmmm…I’ll have to keep my eyes open for this next time. I’ll be ready!

  13. I have one like this too! Her questions often take the form of ” I see I have a tiny invisible bump on my arm?” I say “OK, I don’t see anything and I can’t feel it either” and she says “What should I do?” and I say ” Keep breathing”. It drives me nuts.

  14. Interesting. My oldest is very much like this. Gotta love kids. No really, we do…right?

  15. I have a child who is getting better at this issue…he is somewhere on the spectrum and he doesn’t pick up little social cues. Things that other people obwerve and learn, he needs to be more thoroughly and specifically taught. He really didn’t know if it would be okay if he did “x” without asking, even though he had already figured out that w, y, and z were all fine.

  16. i teach fourth grade as well _ you’re right about it being a daily event. . . more like an hourly event with my kids ;)

  17. As a former teacher (4th and 5th), I so HEAR YOU! So much so that I started in the beginning with trying to get my daughter to solve her own problems. I can remember once when she was three her coming to me with something she totally knew how to solve, and me turning it back to her to the amazement of all the other mommies around me. They were shocked I wouldn’t just do it for her.

    Now, she’s 7, and we’ve discovered a couple of ruts we’ve fallen into mainly because she’s an only child, and so I can focus more time on her than your average mom. To the point where I’ve realized I’m now doing TOO MUCH for her and am having to pull back. You know what? She can solve it all by herself. I just have to get out of her way. Lesson learning for mommy here.

  18. I have a 3 year old that regularly asks questions that he knows the answer to, such as–while watching me put on make-up asks “mommy, are you putting on your make-ups?” I usually make him answer his own question, but I like your Dr Pepper response and may or may not have given a similar answer once or twice. Not that you ever did that.

  19. While I don’t have kids, I’m dealing with this problem on a daily basis during my student teaching experience. Six hours a day of wanting to know the answer, second guessing themselves when I try a similar technique, and a plethora of “I give ups” wears on my nerves quickly! They will ask me if their (correct) answer is right And when I answer with something like, what do you think? what does the paragraph say? they read the answer verbatim and then look questionably up at me. And then if I say anymore they change their answer! If I don’t they still give up thinking its wrong! Aughh…. Any more conversational technique suggestions?

  20. Boy are we living this right now. I am in the process of trying to teach my 5th grader to think for herself and work more independently. So far, not going so well. Comes to me for everything. Any ideas would be helpful.
    Blessings
    Diane

  21. LOVE the new site look! :-)

    Yes, I have one child like this. It’s so encouraging to know I’m not alone! We are doing the same thing – making her think out loud, and then reassuring her that she can figure things out on her own. Funny thing is, sometimes when we’re in the middle of completing a thought process with her, she won’t like where it’s going; so she’ll switch topics and complain about some other unsolved “problem”, so we start over. The pencil complaint? Oh…been there, done that.

    Sometimes to lighten things up we’ll start singing the “There’s A Hole In My Bucket” song, but substituting the words with whatever she’s talking about. So the pencil song would go: My pencil has broken, dear Mommy, dear Mommy…. Well what should you do-oo, dear child, dear child? Um, sharpen it, dear Mommy…. With what should you sharpen it, dear child? That helps break the tension MANY times… Sometimes all we have to do is start humming the tune (particularly if it’s a really simple solution that we KNOW she knows) and she’ll smile and get it done.

  22. As an adult wh0 was like this as a child, I would suggest you observe if this behavior is just with you or with other adults as well. I did this only with my mother and it was my way of saying, “I want your attention”.

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