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Skeptical, not Cynical

Q:  I want to encourage my kids to be critical thinkers, but not cynics.  Where is the line between healthy skepticism and unhealthy cynicism?

A:  Even healthy skeptics are often told that they are "just being negative."  Kids need to know that they’ll hear this kind of accusation often, especially from people whose favorite ideas are squirming under the microscope.

Skepticism—the simple request for reasoning or evidence before accepting a claim—is a virtue to treasure and cultivate in our kids.  But cynicism is something quite different.  A cynical position makes negative assumptions as a matter of course, not as a result of the evidence, so a cynic is as uncritical as a dewy-eyed believer.  One accepts without thinking; the other rejects without thinking.  Both of these are obstacles to critical thinking, and both should be actively avoided.

The key to avoiding cynicism is to teach the value of critical thinking from a very young age.  If you begin to see a pattern of unthinking cynicism, this value can be called upon to place a child’s developing inquiry back on track. 

Whenever you hear the too-confident, cynical dismissal of an idea, play devil’s advocate.  Lay out the best arguments for the other side or ask your child to do so.  It’s easy to build a confident house of cards if you don’t bother to hear the best of the other side.  Seeking out the most reasonable advocates of opposing viewpoints is one of the “best practices” for critical thinking.

And let’s not forget the old peek in the mirror.  If you’ve been known to strike a fashionably cynical pose once in awhile, don’t be surprised to see the kids trying it out.

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