Teach Your Children to Be Critical Thinkers

By Tricia Johnson

She was the professor of theology; my son was her student. He attended a secular university, and when he needed an extra elective, he thought theology would be a breeze, so he took the class. Her teaching was right on target most of the time, which was surprising since it was a secular university, but when she taught about Abraham and Lot, my son had to disagree with her summation of one particular scene.

You may recall, Abraham and Lot were about to part ways, as Genesis 13:1-13 tells us. They traveled from Egypt to Bethel. They went to the place where Abraham had first made an altar to the Lord, between Bethel and Ai. They each had many riches, but the land could not support them both, plus their herdsmen did not get along. So, Abraham suggested they each take a portion of the land that was before them. Abraham told Lot to choose first, and he would take whichever land Lot did not choose.

Lot chose the land of Jordan, seeing that it was well watered, and Abraham went to the land of Canaan. Besides a few details about the location and benefits of these lands, the Bible does not comment on these choices. And this is where my son had to disagree with his theology professor.

She condemned Lot’s choice, calling it selfish and accusing him of “looking out for number one.” My son said we don’t know that. He pointed out that the Scriptures did not pass any judgment on Lot’s choice. His professor argued that it was clearly a selfish choice. My son stuck to what the Bible said and reminded her that her opinion of Lot’s choice was speculation because the Bible did not teach condemnation of Lot.

He got an A in the class, much to his surprise. I hope he made that professor think. I hope she went back to the Scriptures with new eyes—nonspeculating eyes—and took the Scriptures for what they say and nothing more. Scripture did not condemn Lot’s choice; Scripture did not even comment on it other than to say what he chose.

I was proud of my son and realized he came by his approach to Scripture quite naturally. What my son practiced here is key to independent, critical-thinking success. Being able to read the Scriptures without speculation is a lost art among many Christians. Today’s Christian seems to be looking for the next Bible study book, the next “big idea” from their favorite author, or the next “biblical principle” they think will help them with their Christian walk. What they are getting is akin to junk food: it fills them up but does not provide what they need. It does not nourish their soul.

Simple Answer

How do we encourage independent, critical thinking in our kids? There is one simple answer: the Word of God. When I say the Word of God, I’m not referring to books about the Word of God. I’m talking about the Word of God itself—unfiltered. This is why my son argued with his theology professor; she taught speculation; he knew the truth.

God’s Word gives confidence. We can give our kids confidence in their Christian walk by giving them confidence in their Savior, who gives them the powerful Holy Spirit.

My son embodied Psalm 119:99, which says, “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation.”* Because of his direct approach to Scripture, he had enough confidence to question his professor right in class.

Even if he’d been wrong, one must admire his confidence. But, in this case, he was not wrong, and his professor may have realized it at some point since she gave him an A in the class.

God’s Word gives discernment. Consistent exposure to the truth helps us recognize false teaching. This is discernment. Those who follow Christ and learn his Word will develop discernment. We can help our kids develop discernment by taking the Word at its word and adding nothing.

When our kids were little, we started out with a “family Bible time” where we read from an illustrated children’s Bible. As the kids got older, we used Keys for Kids devotionals which worked great unless what the authors were saying was wrong. There were times when the authors misused Scripture, took it out of context, and misrepresented what God was saying to us through his Word.

At those times, we corrected the authors. We told our kids what the Bible said, then compared it with what the author said and showed them the difference. Then we reminded the kids the author is just a person and people make mistakes, so we need to always make sure the Bible itself is our final source. This taught them the truth of Acts 17:11 where the Bereans were praised for looking things up for themselves instead of taking someone’s word for the Word.

We eventually abandoned other resources altogether, and for years now we have simply read the Bible and discussed it together every night at dinner.

God’s Word creates disciples, not clones. Not all Christians look and act the same. Even in the writing of his Word, God allowed for the different personalities and writing styles of each person to show through.

Kids who know the Word are not prone to a “herd” mentality where they are ushered with a crowd and expected to act, think, and look like everyone else. We say we want our kids to be independent, critical thinkers, but we balk at them when they don’t go with the flow or when they stand out from the crowd.

When I became a Christian at age 18 (the first time I ever heard the gospel), church members told me I couldn’t wear pants anymore, and I had to evangelize every Tuesday night, and they gave me a whole list of things I was to do or not do. As I grew in my faith, I realized these instructions were ridiculous because I couldn’t find them in Scripture.

God, being a gracious, loving, and creative God, allows us to be who he created us to be and have our individual personalities.

Warning: If you raise your kids to be independent, critical thinkers, they will take you out of your comfort zone over and over again. They will quietly balk at traditions and push the boundaries of faith to a frightening point.

Without Speculation or Tradition

There is no magic formula or set of steps for raising kids who are independent, critical thinkers. There’s something so much better: the Word of God. Teaching kids to read and study God’s Word without speculation and without tradition getting in the way is the crux of raising kids.

One thing we must understand is that we don’t own our kids. When they are little and need daily guidance just to use a spoon, it’s easy to forget they are God’s, and God may lead them down paths we would not choose for them. They may be called to serve in places we would rather they not go.

As parents, it’s easy to spiritually abuse our kids, in a sense, by teaching them principles that make us comfortable. But, remember, in his day Jesus went against the grain of accepted thinking again and again. His Word still does this today.

Recently, Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, apologized for the book and some things he said at the time he wrote it. Apparently, growing up and actually having a serious relationship taught him a few things. People were abused by others who abused his book. It had very negative effects on others. One statement he said resonated with the thrust of this article, “There is no formula.”

I know one thing from raising eight kids: Their paths aren’t mine to carve out or create. They belong to an all-loving, all-sovereign God who is far better equipped than I to lead them in the path of righteousness. Stop looking for formulas. Don’t buy yet another book in hopes it will help you guide your kids. Go to the Word alone. It is a light to their feet and a lamp to their path.

The first commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and the second, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” are essential truths we must teach our children. Loving their neighbor as themselves might lead them to a dangerous, Middle Eastern country to fight terrorists . . . it did one of my sons. It might lead them to an inner-city work among gangs. It might lead them to an emergency room as a nurse or doctor where they see horrid things that cause nightmares. It might lead them to a small Midwestern town that needs to be turned upside down by the gospel. It might lead them to be a cop on a late-night beat with danger all around.

In any case it will lead them, and there is no safer place for them than to be where God leads.


*Scripture quotations are from English Standard Version of the Bible.

Tricia Johnson is a homemaker, freelance writer, and pastor’s wife residing in Beltsville, Maryland.

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  1. August 18, 2017 at 11:17 pm

    I agree with everything in this excellent article except the college story in the first five paragraphs. Contrary to the young college student’s view, I believe the Bible does condemn Lot for choosing the land of Jordan, for Genesis 13:11-13 tells us Lot chose to live among the “wicked” cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which implies a condemnation on him for making such a horrible choice that often “tormented” his soul (2 Peter 2:7-9). Then Genesis 18:16-19:29 highlights the condemnation even more clearly. However, I do applaud the young man’s critical thinking, which was the whole point of the article.

  2. February 16, 2018 at 12:51 pm

    Andrew, thanks for your comment. My son, in class, was talking specifically – and only – about the time of the choosing and had observed that there was no condemnation of Lot’s choice recorded in the Bible. Also the professor was telling him Lot made a selfish choice by choosing a land well-watered (which had nothing to do with Sodom and Gomorrah), but my son’s point (and mine) is simply that the Bible does not teach that Lot made a selfish choice at the time of choosing. Perhaps staying in Sodom later on was a bad choice, but the original choice of the land, itself, is never condemned in the Bible; it’s only condemned by commentators who weren’t there.

    But, yes, kudos to him for his critical thinking . . . it’s how I raised him and all 8 of my kids.

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