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I am not a parent, nor will I be for a few years at least, but I am certain that I will be one day.

I have some personal demons that I'm struggling to resolve at the moment, which have had an impact on my outlook on many aspects of life. As well as this, I already had a generally cynical and pessimistic personality.

In the scenario where I now have a child, I appreciate that my own opinions and attitudes may not be the most constructive ones to pass onto said child.
I believe that a certain level of skepticism is important, as it helps to build critical thinking and encourages the formation of one's own opinions rather than following the herd.

However, I am aware that I can sometimes go overboard.
My personal opinions may conflict with those of most other parents on certain issues, but I do not want to be one of those embarrassing parents who kick up a stink and dominate school council meetings and the like, as that can be damaging to a child.

How can I encourage my child to healthily question things, and think for themselves, whilst discouraging outright pessimism?
Should I sometimes withhold my true beliefs about a topic when my child asks, and give them the 'proper, parenty' answers? Or should I be honest in the hope that my child will develop a healthy balance on their own?

Any help is appreciated, and this is my first question, so feel free to edit/migrate this however you see fit!

  • Welcome to Parenting.SE! I wonder: is the skill you're actually attempting to build is skepticism (being able to think critically and form opinions)? My feeling is that cynicism or pessimism are more related to personality (whether inherent or influenced). This is an interesting question. – Acire Jun 3 '15 at 14:16
  • hi @Erica. thankyou! yes, thats the word! I knew there was a better word than cynicism. – piggy Jun 3 '15 at 14:23
  • Please feel free to edit your question for any clarifications or change of terminology like this. The more clear you are, the better the answers you'll get (hopefully) :) – Acire Jun 3 '15 at 14:24
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This is a valid concern, and it's admirable that you're honest enough to admit that the degree with which you feel negatively about things is not necessarily the best outlook.

As you've noted, critical thinking is different from pessimism/cynicism. If you want to keep the latter out of your child's thinking, you'll need to keep your judgements to yourself. It is entirely possible. Sharing your judgements is teaching moral principles. That's different.

For example, when my kids were little, we watched television (there weren't as many options as nowadays). Breaking down advertisements is a good start to teaching critical thinking. Beer is a the big-budget advertiser, so we started on beer commercials (before they could read).

A (very) cynical outlook might be (exaggerated for emphasis):

the world/this country/the West sucks. The only thing that matters is money, and the only thing people are good for is spending it. Like this beer commercial. They portray people as happy because they're buying beer, like beer will cure society's ills. According to this ad, the homeless would have wonderful lives if only they could buy beer.

A non-cynical approach needs to leave the judgements out.

What is happening in this advertisement? The "star" appears in the most scenes, and the action centers around the star. Who is the "star" of this ad? (E.g. ans.: the girls) Is that true? let's count the scenes with the girls. Next time we'll count the scenes with the beer. (Eventually) The kids start seeing marketing trends - using friendship, sex, happiness, adventure, etc. to sell products.

The latter approach allows kids to come to their own conclusions. That's what critical thinking is.

If you think you might have a problem with judgmentalism, I highly recommend this exercise. Wherever you feel the most negativity about your cynisicm (as far as is practical) - for example, while watching commercials, or reading the news - have a notebook ready. Then write, describing what you're seeing/reading in completely neutral or exact terms. Keep doing it until it's not a struggle to find neutral terms, until it's not reflexive to label things with judgmental terms. It's a remarkably freeing lesson to learn that you don't need to "judge" everything.

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    This is very interesting! Some excellent suggestions that I will definitely try! Thankyou very much :) – piggy Jun 4 '15 at 7:41
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Honest, but not secretive.

If your child asks for your opinion, give it. And also give the context, and what other people think. Giving an amount of information that indicates you expect your child to take your word as opinion rather than gospel will do far more to develop critical thinking skills than handing books and sermons on the type of sceptical thinking you have and use. It is perfectly possible for an individual to avoid thinking and instead believe in any thing at all - science, religion, scepticism, traditional values, sports, 'nature', etc.

The sole thing that will avoid that is treating them as intelligent and giving them answers as you would to someone you respect, which requires both brevity to convey more information than a single opinion in a non-long-winded way, and wit to judge what the person will understand and what will give them the context to understand rather than simply later regurgitate.

The very best teachers have these skills down pat - developing them is something you can start doing now.

But the key part is to simply treat the child as intelligent, and be honest - that will serve better in resulting in an intelligent, critically-thinking individual (who is not necessarily going to be pessimistic - that tends to vary by individual). Not, though, going out of your way to attempt to inculcate some specific viewpoint unasked, or obvious attempts to 'shape' the child to some specific objective or mode of thought. Respect is typically the thing that garners the best level both of attention and intellectual advancement.

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Two parts to your question. First, you are concerned about passing the pessimism and negative side of your personality. On that, I would say that passing on our personality to our kids is inevitable. At least some of it will rub off. I cringe when I see some of my bad habits and character traits in my kids. But it can be minimized, and for that there are two important things that come to mind. First, we must strive hard to do away with those parts of our character we do not want to pass on. It is not enough to want our kids not to have those bad qualities, we also must seek to put them away. Second, be honest with your kids; lay it all out. Openly acknowledge your shortcomings (within measure), and share your struggles with them, and share your hope that they will do better in those areas than you have. I have done this with my kids, and it is amazing to see how they are far better persons than I was at their ages. And I see them returning the favor - sharing their own struggles with me. It is amazing to me that my best friends, apart from my wife, are my teenage kids.

The second part of your concern is on teaching critical thinking. I love that. There is so much mindless crowd following in our cultures. I do not know that there is any amount of questioning that is too much. There are two things here also that come to mind as being important in shaping our critical examination of the world and ideas around us. First, we must retain a humble attitude. Question everything, but do so without an attitude that we are the ultimate judge of truth, even for ourselves. Question relentlessly, but without a demanding attitude, rather being content to wait on answers or even willing to let some issues go. Second, we must have a basis for deciding what is a right or wrong answer - there must be a foundation. Without answers or the hope of answers, questioning is just futility. Hope is as essential to the growth of our character (and that of our kids) as breath and nourishment are essential to the sustenance of our bodies. We, and our kids, must have a real reason, a foundation that gives us hope that our questions will not go unanswered forever and that those answers will fulfill.

I hear you about your personal demons. I hope and pray they do not come from pain inflicted by loved ones. But even if they do, I can tell you from personal experience that there is hope for overcoming those demons. Good can come even out of the most evil moments. I pray and hope with you for a future in which you will look at your kids and remember this struggle as a turning point that led onwards and upwards.

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    Hi and welcome to Parenting. Thanks for the detailed answer and I hope to see you around! – Joe Jun 3 '15 at 18:54
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    Great answer! thankyou very much for your advice, and kind words! :) – piggy Jun 4 '15 at 7:43
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I am very much a skeptic - in the true 'scientific method' meaning. Skeptical of everything.

I am also, apparently, the most optimistic and positive person in my group of friends and acquaintances. To me the world is generally a good place, and the majority of people are good to each other, themselves and the environment. I feel a large number of people who are pessimistic about the world these days are those who don't extrapolate correctly from the media. A newspaper's job is to sell itself - so hyping anything bad is a winning strategy for them. And psychologically, we are built to extrapolate from our local knowledge to the world at large - and we tend to interpret the media as 'local'

In my view, skepticism and optimism/pessimism are orthogonal and don't need to have any relationship with each other.

So my approach is to help my children see that the media view is not real - interestingly, once you take that out of the mix, it is very easy to focus on the positive elements of life. So I'm very glad that my kids seem as optimistic as me.

In the few areas where i do have pessimism (yes, there are a few) it is very easy to avoid passing on that view to the children.

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I think the distinction between pessimism and skepticism lies in intent. Skepticism is a tool we use to learn more. Pessimism is a hang-up some of us have that we use to "protect our biases" (almost the opposite of healthy skepticism).

I think the way you encourage children to be healthy skeptics instead of pessimists is a little counter-intuitive for some of us. Basically, you reward them for asking interesting questions, trying new things, or striving for something new each time they engage in an activity, and don't focus on their "innate" skills.

People who are hung-up about innate skills tend to eventually plateau at what they do and then become pessimistic about the prospect of anyone improving at it. People who focus on learning in every situation don't "plateau" per se, they just move on to something else that seems interesting, knowing that they could pick up the old activity and start learning again if they chose to.

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  • "People who are hung-up about innate skills tend to eventually plateau at what they do and then become pessimistic about the prospect of anyone improving at it." Do you have any substantiation for this claim? For example, someone who won an Olympic gold medal in the decathelon would certainly expect that someone will break his record someday. – anongoodnurse Jun 4 '15 at 23:52
  • Yes I do, it's the basis of Dr. Carol Dweck's research. web.stanford.edu/dept/psychology/cgi-bin/drupalm/cdweck Some people call it "Grit studies". – Calphool Jun 4 '15 at 23:55
  • Please edit it into your answer as a source (though I'm still curious at that interpretation). However, I respect Dr. Dweck's research. – anongoodnurse Jun 4 '15 at 23:57
  • Edited (pointed to a chart showing fixed/growth mindset characteristics -- as can be seen, the fixed mindset characteristics bend toward pessimism -- that's basically what the lack of grit is -- pessimism directed at the self). – Calphool Jun 5 '15 at 0:04

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