Teaching Your Teenager to be a Critical Thinker

The day The Boy got his driver’s license he asked me if he could use my vehicle to drive to a friend’s house about 7 kilometres out of town. I said no problem. He seriously aced his driving exam that afternoon and the impressed instructor had even taken me aside to ask who had done so much practice driving with him (me!).

The Boy called me close to 11pm to ask if he could stay the night at his friend’s place because some other teens were there and alcohol had come out. The un-stated rationalization here was that he would not drink and drive (it didn’t need to be talked about during this particular conversation because we talk about it so often). I did not reply to his question. Instead I said, “Let’s see… you have taken the car out for the very first time on your own, and you want to drink tonight and also stay out all night.” For starters, I wanted to simply re-state the facts as I understood them for two reasons:

  1. To check if they were correct. Was this actually what was going on?
  2. I wanted my son to hear this list of facts out loud. Many times the actual words have a lot of power when we hear them, rather than just think about them in our minds. Have you ever had it happen where you think to yourself, ‘I haven’t had a sit-down meal with my kid all week,’ and it’s no big deal, but then you say the same thing out loud to your friend and you think, ‘I’m kind of a crappy parent…’

The Boy agreed that these were the facts. So then I asked him, “Do you think that might be too much for your first time driving on your own?” I wanted to challenge him to reach for his own best thinking, because humans don’t learn to think critically by having others make tough decisions for us; we learn how to think critically by actively making our own tough decisions.

I will write in another post about my views on teens and alcohol use, so don’t worry – I’m not just going to leave that part hanging unaddressed! But for now, dear reader, just know that this wouldn’t be the first time The Boy was planning to drink.

Many of us can be scared to let our teens take full charge of making tough decisions themselves. We worry that their inexperience and still-developing brains and thrill-seeking natures will take them in dangerous directions. We try to convince ourselves that if we take the potentially treacherous activities off the table then our kids will be safe. But we all know that this comes with the cost of conflict; every time we tell our teen, ‘no, you can’t do that’ or ‘no, you can’t go there’ we probably have a fight on our hands.

Also, it takes practice to allow teens to make tough decisions themselves. When they were little, we were able to make almost every decision for them except what they would eat, how much, if they would pee or poo, and if they would sleep or wake. The whole parenting trip starts with us having all the responsibility, and we get so used to having it that we have a hard time letting go of it. We need to start with little things like letting them decide to climb to the top of the play structure, then letting them decide how far they want to swim into the lake.

The Boy thought out loud with me over the phone, explaining what a good time they were having at Alex’s house and who was all there and what he thought they might do for the rest of the night and where everyone would sleep. He told me that he felt confident about being able to drive the vehicle home safely and soberly the next morning because I had an appointment at the garage to get my winter tires mounted. I gave him my good listening attention while he spoke. As a parent who is interested in guiding my son to be a critical thinker, IT IS MY JOB TO LISTEN as he thinks out loud.

I know Alex and his parents, and I also know the other teens that were at the house, so what The Boy was saying made sense to me and didn’t sound outlandish or made-up. I asked what kind of booze they had, and where they got if from, and I asked The Boy how much he was planning to drink. After he answered my questions I told him, “I appreciate you phoning to check with me about this decision. I’m happy that we can think about this together. I can tell that your priorities are having fun with your friends and celebrating your new driver’s license and honouring the fact that you are driving a vehicle that I own and pay for. These are all good things.”

Then I said, “Since we have gone over this together, what do you think is the course of action that makes the most sense?”

After a short pause he said, “I think I want to have a drink or two with my friends. So I will stay here for the night and come home in the morning.” I told him again that I appreciated his call and the opportunity for us to think together, and told him I loved him and that I would see him in the morning.

After I hung up the phone I sat back and felt disappointed. I was hoping The Boy would think having the car out all night while drinking on his very first day with a driver’s license was too much. There was a little voice in my head that said, “I lost that one. Damn.” So I went over the situation again in my mind. Was The Boy safe? Yes, I felt confident of that. Was I worried about my vehicle? No, I really wasn’t. Did it bother me that he was drinking with his friends? No, that wasn’t a problem for me. It was all just a big step to take, and I was processing the fact that my son could now legally drive. It actually made me pretty nervous! I knew I had to work through my fears around having a teen with his driver’s license.

I reminded myself if I had told The Boy, “you really should come home tonight,” that it would only have given him something to fight against. It would have put us in a conflict dynamic where we held opposing positions. I am not interested in making him do what I think is the most rational thing because a) I can’t actually make him do a damn thing! I am not able to physically control him! and b) I am not helping him learn to think critically if I require that he follow my thinking.

About 10 minutes later I was getting ready for bed, lost in thought about my baby growing up, and the phone rang again. It was The Boy calling to tell me he changed his mind about drinking and staying the night, and that he would be home in a few minutes.

Wow! I was so pleased about what I had done to contribute to this outcome! The careful way I worded my thoughts during our earlier conversation allowed The Boy to change his mind without ‘losing face’. He could feel like he had made his own independent decision. Many times teens can only feel independent when they are opposing us, and they need to feel independent in order to grow up.