How To Raise A Skeptic Without Raising A Cynic
When I gave birth to my son four years ago, I gazed down at his squishy, fresh-from-the-womb face and vowed to love and protect him forever. He was so tiny and new, radiant with an innocence I wanted to cherish and preserve. As a new mother, my Mama Bear instinct was strong: I would—and could—shield him from anything and everything that threatened to mar his tender, precious purity.
My son is four now and I’m no longer the new kid on the parenting block. We’ve both gotten a little battered and bruised by life; his shiny newness has lost some of its luster, and protecting his innocence has ceased being my primary aim as his mom. I now recognize that my job isn’t to prepare the world for him, but to prepare him for the world.
And the world I’m preparing him for isn’t always pretty or safe! It’s a world where fake news is rampant, a constant barrage of targeted ads is the norm, and predators lurk around every digital corner.
In 2019, naïveté is not an option or even a goal for my child, but neither is cynicism. As my son grows more aware of the world’s unsavoriness, I hope to help him find a healthy balance between uninformed gullibility and closed-hearted suspicion. One is a gaping entryway, left open for everyone—including those with impure motives; the other is a door slammed shut in the face of predators and well-wishers alike. Our third option is somewhere in between: by raising my son to be moderately skeptical, I’m teaching him to be cautiously receptive to the messages he receives, making informed decisions about what to absorb and what to leave behind. It’s a closed-but-not-locked posture that I believe nearly every mother wants for her children.
I’m not a parenting expert, and just four years into motherhood, I can’t guarantee that my approach will be effective. However, in these early days of parenting, I’m drawing from my own parents’ tactics in raising me—and those I see in other parents whose stance on this issue I admire—to form a game plan for raising a healthy (not cynical) skeptic:
1. Cultivate curiosity.
Curiosity is defined as the desire to learn or know. Our children are born with an intrinsic desire to discover and learn, and when we cultivate these behaviors, we teach them to ask questions, form hypotheses, and seek answers. Author and researcher Brené Brown says that “the opposite of being curious is disengaging.” When we encourage our children’s curiosity, we are showing them that it is not only acceptable, but beneficial, to engage with the information they encounter—not blindly accepting it, or automatically discrediting it, but seeking out the truth and forming their own conclusions.
2. Model a healthy perspective.
Like it or not, our children are watching our every move, and they are sure to mimic our behavior. (That’s just as true when we let a bad word slip in front of them as when we commit a random act of kindness with them by our side.) We can’t just teach our children to be skeptical, we need to show them. In the early years, this might mean asking clarifying questions of our children, or seeking further information from others in their presence. As they get older, it could take the form of involving them in nuanced debates about politics or religion. Our children need to see that it’s okay to seek clarification before forming an opinion, and that even as adults, we can change our minds.
3. Identify positive fictional role models.
My son and I love to read together, and I often pause in the middle of a story to comment on, or ask questions about, a character’s decisions or behavior. Lately, I’ve been making a point to highlight curiosity and skepticism when we encounter them in literature. When a character’s skepticism slides into cynicism, I make a note of that too, and we discuss why the character is so closed-off or “mean”. Beyond books, role models can be found in television shows and movies—it’s amazing how often naïveté, skepticism, and cynicism appear in fiction when you pause to look for them! When our children are young, as mine is now, these discussions will be brief, but they pave the way for deeper, more important conversations about these qualities as our children get older.
4. Praise the progress you see in your child.
Children crave our praise and attention, so it’s no surprise that the actions and attitudes we notice (and comment on) are the behaviors our children begin to exhibit more often. To that end, if we want our children to become skeptical, we need to catch them in the act and celebrate their perspective. This might not come easily when our children are skeptical of something we have said or asked them to do; but engaging their questions—and even praising them—will strengthen their skepticism muscles so that they’re ready to be flexed in the real world.
5. Above all, love.
Our love is the most valuable gift we can give our kids. As we pour into their hearts, filling them up with compassion, empathy, and unconditional love, we are teaching them that love supersedes every value, attitude, and opinion. Love is neither naïve nor cynical. Love leaves space for curiosity while remaining grounded in the truth. A child who has been loved isn’t afraid to ask questions, but is also willing to trust. And when we lead with love in our parenting, we prepare our children to acknowledge the world’s harshness while also choosing to believe the best in others.
At four years old, my son already exhibits a healthy skepticism. He asks questions about Santa and God and how the world works; he’s not certain about any of it. My job as his mom is to make space for his skepticism and continue to lead him along the path of seeking truth, while remaining guided by love.
Mamas, I’d love to hear from you: where do you find yourself on the naïveté/cynical spectrum? How are you helping your children settle somewhere in the middle?