By CAROLYN EDGAR
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.