Mind Control: Raising A Critical Thinker


My son’s 5th grade Humanities class was given an assignment to write a letter to the Founding Fathers, explaining how the Constitution works today, and thanking the Framers for their foresight in developing the foundation for the democracy and freedom we enjoy.

My son disagreed with the assignment.

He said, “I don’t want to thank the Framers for the Constitution they drafted. They didn’t get rid of slavery, and that didn’t happen until Abraham Lincoln and the 13th Amendment.”

My son asked for—and quickly received—my permission to tackle the assignment differently. Rather than thanking the Framers for the Constitution they drafted, he chose instead to criticize the Founding Fathers for preserving slavery. He pointed out the contradictions between the promise of Bill of Rights and the reality that, in 1787, those rights only applied to white men. His critique of the Founding Fathers focused on slavery, but he also pointed out that women didn’t get to enjoy the full rights of citizenship until the 19th Amendment was passed in the 1920s.

I was proud of my son’s choice. He thought critically about the assignment and how he wanted to address it, rather than simply giving the expected response. Fortunately, his teacher received his take on the project favorably, and gave him a grade worthy of his effort.

While I was proud my son recognized the inherent contradiction between the Constitution’s Bill of Rights and the practice of slavery, I wasn’t surprised by his ability to do so. From their earliest moments, I’ve encouraged my kids to think critically about the world around them.

As I read books to my babies—including the beloved classics of my childhood—I thought about the messages those books conveyed. Some classic children stories taught messages I’d missed as a child, but found disturbing as an adult. In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I saw a privileged little girl invading the home and destroying the property of a strong, loving brown family. I questioned why so many princess stories featured evil stepmothers, as if a woman couldn’t love a child not biologically her own. I knew Goldilocks and princess stories were an unavoidable part of American culture. I couldn’t shield my kids from these stories, but I could influence how my children received them.

Being a lawyer, I couldn’t help telling my kids the bears should have called the police and had Goldilocks arrested for breaking and entering, then sued her for property damage. My children didn’t think Goldilocks should be hauled off to jail, and I’m not sure they understood what “sued” meant. But they did acknowledge they’d be pretty upset if some strange little girl broke into our home, ate up our food, broke our chairs and then slept in our beds, as if she had a right to be there.

After we saw movies, I encouraged them to be junior Roger Eberts and give their opinions – more than “I liked it.” For example, with the film versions of the Harry Potter book series, we talked about the choices the screenwriters and directors make when adapting books for film, whether they agreed with those choices, and whether the finished product met, exceeded or fell short of their own expectations.

These conversations carried over into real life as well. A few years ago, my son became fascinated with TV news. He asked me why all the bad people who kill and rob other people, are black. That prompted me to tell him about how news organizations choose stories, and how the perceptions of the people who decide what stories count as “news” influence what gets presented.

These conversations at home carried over into school. They were prepared to give their opinions in the classroom, because they are so used to expressing themselves at home.

Helping children become active participants in their own education creates better students. Children are smarter and more perceptive than we often give them credit for. When a child questions why a particular subject is being taught in a particular way, or why an assignment is framed in a way they find limiting, it means they are invested in what they are learning.

We can all raise our children to be critical thinkers. They will become more enthusiastic and engaged students, and later, more responsible citizens and leaders of their communities.

Carolyn Edgar, an attorney and writer,  pens parenting and relationship posts for CocoaMamas, MarriedMySugarDaddy and Technorati. Her personal essays have been published in Reconstruction Magazine and Mirror on America: Short Essays and Images from Popular Culture (Bedford/St. Martin’s). The University of Michigan and Harvard Law School grad lives in New York City with her two children.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Love, LOVE, love this article. My husband and I are on the quest of raising two beautiful AA males to be critical thinkers. It is paramount in this day and age!

  2. I’m having the same conversations as I read to my one-year old (as much as one can with a one-year old). Though she clearly can’t understand much of what I’m saying, the practice, for me is a good one. Asking questions leads to greater understanding, whatever the subject matter might be. This piece was wonderful. I hope to raise a wonderful critical thinker as well!

  3. Great advice!! especially about teaching Black children how to discern what’s presented in the news.

  4. Great story, counsellor! I am raising two beautiful AA male babies (ok- not babies anymore!) to be critical thinkers. I was refreshed to read your article as I sometimes wonder if I am the only mom encouraging my children to think critically, and OUTSIDE the box! Thanks for sharing.

  5. HERE, here!! (or is it hear, hear?) I think that critical thinking is a skill that is sadly under taught even though it’s a very important life skill and is needed in every aspect of life.

    What a great post.

  6. Loved this article. It’s a great example of what we should all do as parents. I always tell my daughters to think for themselves and that they cannot use my brain. Developing critical thinkers will help them make better choices for themselves when their parents are not around.

  7. What a powerful and critical message! Far too frequently in “our” community I see parents squelching their children’s desire to think divergently and/or engage in spirited discourse in favor of complete obedience. I saw the results as a classroom teacher: children who did not know what they thought, or how to verbally express what they were thinking. This is not the behavior we need from scholars, citizens and future leaders. I hope the teacher has made note to amend the assignment for the future and encourage all students to drawn their own conclusions. Kudos to you and your young scholar!

  8. This is wonderful. I think it’s great to raise children to be critical thinkers, I am looking (and doing the same for my biracial daughter).

  9. Great post! Thanks for sharing your techniques for helping your kids learn to think critically.

  10. When it comes to fairy tales, Goldilocks was originally Silverlocks and about a woman with dementia, most of the evil stepmothers were originally birth mothers but it was changed over the yeas as people were horrified at the thought of a birth mother treating her child so. Except for in Snow White where it has to new a stepmother because the story is about the monarchy and usurpers and rightful bloodlines. But other than misinterpreting morality stories from the dark ages right on.

  11. I loved this article. As an educator, I am inspired to find new ways to have my students become critical thinkers. As a parent of three girls, I work hard to have them think critically about every aspect of their education.

  12. I am pleased to see so many of us who are engaged in educating our own children, rather than leaving it to the schools. I am fortunate to have my kids in a great school system. However, I have never seen that as an excuse for not taking on the task of teaching my children to be critical thinkers. School frequently falls short, especially when it comes to issues of race, class and social justice. My sons are 11 & 9 and I still read to them, not because they can’t read for themselves (they both read well-above grade level and love books). I read to them so that we can share discussions about the issues and themes relayed in the books. So far, we have read Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, The Communist Manifesto, Animal Farm, Beowulf and more and we have had great discussions about the ideas of communism, socialism and capitalism; the role of government and order in civilized society; censorship; and so much more. It is never too young to expose your kids to ideas and develop their confidence in thinking critically. I’m so glad to see so many of us doing this!

  13. Claudette Jackson

    Excellent article. I encourage my granddaughter to ask questions, think, and voice her opinion (respectfully, of course). Thank you for sharing.

  14. I adore this article. This is the way I wished my parents raised me. We weren’t allowed to give opinions and were supposed to accept everything they said as fact. Heaven forbid their children should disagree with something they said. They raised me with the, “children are to be seen; not heard” philosophy, so my verbal communication skills suffered as a result. If I want to voice my opinion in the classroom, my anxiety causes me to flub my words and it sounds less educated and out than the point really is. When they ask, “Why?” I know why, but having been unable to verbalize my thoughts for so long has caused it to fail when it comes out. I commend you for this.

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