Every human being can think for herself. We are all able to problem solve and figure things out — until we are taught otherwise.

Small children make observations and begin a process of reality testing; they use their senses to perceive the environment and begin to make sense of the world. Parents can support a child’s thinking by asking questions, supporting the process, and allowing them to grow in their own time, by means of their own mind.  

Unfortunately, adults often do not allow children to think for themselves. We would, in fact, like our children to think what we think, to feel what we feel, and to believe what we believe. We feel threatened when their thinking diverges from ours. Often we feel afraid and out of control when they believe something different from us. 

Perhaps, we want to feel superior. Many of us believe that we know better and that we must tell children how it is, rather than allow them to discover. We think that as parents we know best and sometimes see our worth and value in directing children. 

 “Father knows best,” however, is not necessarily true. And it does not provide opportunities for independent thinking or self-reliance. When people have the chance to think through situations and try on their own ideas, learning is more meaningful and lasting. When children are allowed to think for themselves they are more likely to develop a Self. 

We all perceive through our own lenses and most of the time our lens is fogged by old experiences that are subjective. We are likely missing new information. And we forget to change the context and put ourselves in different scenarios. As parents we may not remain open to possibility, but instead go with old, familiar patterned, responses. 

When our child’s independent thinking feels threatening to us, we often tell them that they are too young to know, too inexperienced, or uninformed. Children are seldom presented with information and options, but rather a right way and a wrong way. Rarely do we give young people the responsibility or right to form their own beliefs.

When children begin to perceive the world independently, we often dissuade them from trusting their observations and the logical conclusions they come to. 

Children in many homes are told that Santa Clause rides his sleigh through the night and travels via roof-top to millions of chimneys to deliver gifts; once they begin to figure out the improbability of the story, many adults go to great lengths to convince their children otherwise. Some threaten children with losing gifts if they stop believing; others increase their efforts to encourage the illusion — dressing up in Santa suits, leaving cookies that they then disappear, sounding a deep “Ho-Ho-Ho” to announce Santa’s coming and going.  

Adults tell children that they are wrong in their perceptions. When Lily walks into the room after her parents have been fighting and senses the heaviness in the air, she asks what is the matter. Her father insists that nothing is wrong at all, and her mother adds that she is imagining things. Lily quickly learns that she cannot trust her insights or perceptions. She becomes self-doubting. 

If we want our children to become good problem solvers and if we want them to be mentally strong and healthy, we will encourage their independent thinking. If we would prefer they be proactive, rather than become victims, we will allow them to be empowered. 

When children are allowed to think for themselves, they learn how to use their sensory perceptions and their mind to make sense of the world. Their self-esteem grows and they feel capable. Children who are allowed to think do not feel stuck or confused. They trust themselves and are not pressured or intimidated into believing something to gain the approval of others. 

By incorporating two main principles parents and helping adults can avoid the primary blocks to a child’s independent thinking: discounting and rescuing. 

1. Discounting

Learning to not discountour children’s thinking capability will open the door to their autonomy. We must be careful to not discount the existence of many possible solutions to every problem, the importance of allowing independent, diverging ideas, and the role of creativity in thinking out possibilities. Discounting is denying. 

2. Rescuing

Refraining from rescuing behavior toward our children will ensure that they develop the self-confidence and skill necessary to think for themselves and act on their own behalf. When we rescue children by doing things for them that they can do for themselves, such as think, we send the message that we do not believe they are able. They lose practice opportunities and do not develop the skill or self esteem necessary to make decisions and problem-solve.  

Discounting and rescuing young people, robs them of the opportunity to practice, grow, and learn from personal experience. When we discount others, they perceive our lack of trust in them. 

Allowing children (and others!) to think for themselves is the greatest gift we can give them, as well as one of the greatest contributions we can make to society at large. In order to accomplish this we must let go of our own fears and our own self-doubt. We must let go of ideas of superiority and inferiority. 

Making room for mistakes and getting OK with the uncertainty required to allow independent thinking, takes courage. There are no guarantees that our children will think, feel, or behave as we do — or as we want them to. In this framework, we allow people to develop and become who they are: completely independent beings with the freedom to think for themselves and live as they choose. Independent thinking allows our children to develop into autonomous, spontaneous people, living authentically with us, as equals.