"Look at our cool new toy! All the kids love it. See how much fun they're having? YOU could be having this much fun, too, if only you had this toy! Check out this kid... He was playing all by himself until he got this toy. Now, he's got a ton of friends who brought their cool toys over so they could all play together - and they're having a pool party, too! Just beg your parents for the toy and they'll get it for you... if they love you! Only $19.95. Get it NOW!!!"
That's how it starts. When we're young. Commercials have power. Did you ever beg for the toy in the commercial, only to have someone actually buy it for you? If you got the toy, was it nearly as cool as it was made out to be? Did it do all of the cool things the commercial promised? Did it break five minutes after you got it out of the package?
Advertising is amazing, isn't it? I remember when I started to realize that everything I saw or heard on TV wasn't exactly true. It made me feel smart that advertisers couldn't use the power of words and pictures to make me believe everything they said. I learned to read the fine print at the bottom of the screen. I figured out that the statistics that get flashed in front of me may have come from studies of 10 people. Like, "9 out of 10 physicians we asked prefer our brand!"
But, I didn't get the full jist of critical thinking until I took a college course on it. I learned about red herrings and hyperbole. I learned how it's not only advertisers who use this stuff. You need critical thinking skills for everything - politicians, drug companies, and the government are great at getting people to believe them. We're supposed to trust them, right? Why would they lie to us?
I have thought that schools should be required to offer critical thinking classes to all high school students. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that we cannot trust such a big job to them. They are part of the government! I believe that, if schools were to include critical thinking skill in their curricula, they would do a great job of teaching children to be wary of advertisements. Period. The government relies heavily on our trust in it, so why would it go out of its way to teach entire generations to question authorities of any kind? It could be disastrous to politics.
***Now, before we go any farther: The examples I am going to be using are MY personal beliefs. It doesn't really matter what I believe or what you believe. These are examples. It's the lesson that are important, not the personal political and health topics of the examples. So, if you don't agree with my point-of-view, that's cool. That's not what I'm writing about... OK? Still with me? Good.***
1) Do Your Own ResearchRemember a couple of years ago, when governmental health departments were threatening us with possible death from the flu if we didn't go out and get an immunization against it? There was a huge advertising campaign that probably cost billions of dollars that tried every angle known to man to get every man, woman, and child immunized against this killer. I remember one letter I received in the mail from our county health department, after we all should have received our shots. It was pretty creepy and gave me a "BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU!" kind of feeling. The letter stated that they knew my children had not been immunized with the flu vaccine and gave me a date and time of when a health department social worker would be at my home to talk with me about why I chose not to give the shot. Or, I could have the kids immunized, get a doctor's note, and mail it to them within two weeks. I was scared to death that they might have the power to take my kids into custody just because I didn't agree to have them immunized. Once the fear ebbed, I came to my senses and did some research, asked questions, and finally called them and told them a visit wasn't necessary. (Thank you, NVIC!) My state allows parents to refuse vaccines based on their philosophical standpoint. The letter was their way of scaring parents into getting the shot. I didn't know it at the time, but my friend received the same letter. She had her kids to the doctor the next day - she was sure her kids were headed to foster homes if she didn't do what she was told.
Now, I'm not writing about anyone's personal decision of whether to immunize or not - I just wanted to show you an example of how the government can cause panic by not giving you all of the facts. Nowhere did my letter tell me my rights. I now know that I could have thrown the thing out, let the worker show up at my door, and refuse him or her entry. There's nothing they could have done.
2) Question AuthorityAs parents, we need to step up and teach our children to question authority. They have a right to ask questions. Even the basic laws we have, in our homes or in our government, should be questioned. Laws are basically a way to keep peace in society. (Yes, I know. Nowadays, laws are more than that, but let's go into that another time.) There are laws about how to act when you drive a car. These are laws that keep us safe: Stop at red lights, drive at or below the speed limit, the car on the right has the right-of-way. A child might question one of these laws: Well, why do we have to stop just because the light turned red? If we didn't stop at red lights, people would go whenever they want and two cars going in different directions could crash. You can also teach kids that laws are a kind of set of rules for manners: You stop at red lights to give drivers going in the opposite direction a turn. I don't want my children to act like blindfolded sheep, just following along with the herd. The more questions they get answers to, the more they learn.
I know that I was safe from being charged with any kind of neglect for not having my kids immunized because I didn't just believe what they told me. I looked for my own answers. It's great to answer any questions that young children have, but it's even better to show them how to find the answers on their own! When my oldest was still being homeschooled, I used to carry a pen and a pad of paper with me. Whenever he had an authority-questioning inquiry, I wrote it down. This was back before the days of using the Internet to find all of your answers, so we visited the library once a week. I showed him how to look for books using the card catalog (yes, before computerized library systems, too!) Many times, we found ourselves in the law section of the library. But we also visited biology, physics, sociology, and reference. He learned how to find answers to his questions.
At the beginning of the school year this year, he came home pretty upset. One of his instructors was teaching the class that our Congress-persons were in Washington D.C. as representatives of the people who elected them. These representatives made decisions based on the needs of those people. My son's says he shook his head (now, my thinking is he probably made a snide comment to a classmate...) The teacher asked him to stand up and say what his problem with the lesson was. Now, he thought this was really cool - high school is a meeting of the minds! He told the teacher his basic understanding was that big companies usually told the representative what to think. (Now, whatever your opinion on this subject is is fine with me. This is my belief and I have explained my belief to my son who then adopted it as his own. For the purposes of the story, the table could have been turned and the teacher was telling the students about lobbyists and my son was on the other end of the argument. It really doesn't matter to the outcome.) The teacher asked him to gather his things leave the classroom. No explanation. Didn't send him to the office. Nothing. He stood in the hallway until class was over. He was confused, afraid, and angry. He had questioned authority and even gave his reason for questioning and was tossed out of class for it. He didn't think he'd done anything wrong and neither did I.
Now, I'll leave the rest of the story for another time because it really has nothing to do with my post. What it does show is that, when we begin to question authority, we're bound to run into those who are afraid of our questions. We need to prepare our children for this - something I neglected to to for my son. I'm remedying the situation right now. He needs to know that questions are OK to ask, whether the response is appropriate or not is another thing entirely. When he questioned the teacher's lesson, she didn't know how to cope with the challenge, so she reacted inappropriately. He now knows that he has the right to ask - no one can take that from him just because he's a kid! An improper response is just that - improper. He's not responsible for that part of it. And, if he should end up in trouble for asking a question, I'll stand behind him. Incidentally, I've also taught him the difference between questioning authority for a legitimate reason and doing it just to make trouble.
3) See For YourselfBack to that cool toy. I think the only way to convince kids that commercials are not telling them the whole truth is to show them. Buy your kid the "must have it" toy once in a while, if you can afford it. Here's how I did it with my oldest (still working on this with Little Guy.) He saw the commercial and just had to have it. And the darn commercial was on every single time we turned on the TV. The toy was in every ad insert in our Sunday newspaper. He saw it in the stores when we went out. He constantly begged for it. I got sick of hearing about it, so I decided that I'd try something other than ignoring the pleas. Whenever the commercial came on, I'd sit with him and watch it. I'd ask him questions: Do you really think that thing can fly that high? Does it really walk all on it's own? Wow - I wonder if that kid's friends are playing with him because they like him or the toy more. Do you think that mom would love her kid any less if she didn't buy that for him? Do you know that I have go away to work for three hours just to make enough money to buy that one toy? On and on. I asked one, maybe two, questions each time the stupid commercial came on. We talked about the answers. He still wanted the toy. So, I bought it for him for his birthday. He was so excited... then heartbroken. It was not nearly how he thought it would be. It broke the next day while he was trying to make it do something he saw it doing in the commercial. We talked about it. I asked all the questions again, this time he had the answers down. He knew.
The one experience didn't teach him to be wary of commercials. Soon there was another must-have toy and we went through the same things. I think we had about a year, between the ages of four and five, where the cycle repeated about four times. After that, he started asking himself the questions. To this day, there are still times when he comes across something he really wants. But, usually, it's because he's done his research and still wants it. And, usually, the thing ends up being true-to-life. He doesn't get caught up in all of the promises that ads make. In fact, I'd have to say that he's onto them even faster than me! Now, when a commercial comes on TV and we're watching together, we play a game of pointing out all of the crazy claims that they make. He loves being smarter than the advertising pros!
Do you have any advice on how to teach children critical thinking? Please share them. I think that Little Guy is going to be harder than my oldest was to teach these skills...