Thursday, June 02, 2022

Learning To Think For Themselves

Whenever I tried to make the argument that I should get to do something because “Everyone is doing it,” Mom would reply, “If everyone was jumping off a bridge, would you want to do that?”

Mom was, of course, concerned that I would succumb to peer pressure. She wanted me to be thoughtful about things that could be harmful like drinking or messing with venomous snakes or jumping off bridges. And even if, as she would also point out, it wasn’t true that absolutely “everyone” was doing this or that, the people who I cared about were, and I wanted to be like them . . . which is exactly the point she was trying to make. She wanted me to be like me and only me, an autonomous human who knew when to say, “No thanks.”

Peer pressure is, of course, a real thing, one to which all of us succumb from time to time. The stereotype is that young people are more susceptible to peer pressure because of their developing pre-frontal cortex, but there are obviously plenty of adults who jump on every passing bandwagon, so I'm not entirely sure it's just a problem for youth.

And I genuinely don’t begrudge anyone their bandwagon. It’s none of my business as long as they aren’t hurting me or the people I care about. In fact, bandwagons can be awesome things. I mean, what was abolition if not a bandwagon of sorts? Civil rights? Christianity? Peer pressure is just one of the names we give to the dark side of this entirely human phenomenon.

Brainwashing, role modeling, and even rational, reasoned discourse all fall into this bucket of people influencing one another. We warn one another to not fall for this or that, but at the same time we try to get others, including our own kids, to do what we want, for their own good. Then, on top of that, we urge everyone, including our own kids, to think for themselves.

The truth is that we can’t think for ourselves. It’s not possible. Our species, as is almost certainly true of every species, including plants, thinks collectively, even as we are under the illusion that we are thinking for ourselves. 

Alone, we are poor thinkers, but together, in dialog, we are geniuses. It’s only together, while bouncing thoughts, ideas, and feelings off of one another that we, as a species, are truly capable of the sustained self-awareness required for deep, productive, creative thought.

This is an adaptive trait, one that allows us to overcome our individual limitations, but it also leaves us open to dubious, even evil, influences. I’m thinking specifically here of those young men who are finding one another in the dark recesses of the internet and convincing one another to use assault weapon to commit mass murder.

We all know this, even if we don’t think about it in these terms on a day to day basis. It’s why we, as important adults in the lives of children, find ourselves torn between allowing children autonomy and sheltering them from “bad influences.” 

How do we walk this line? How do we allow them to think for themselves while at the same time inoculate them from jumping off a bridge? Lectures and scolding don’t work because as much as we are prone to be swayed by others no one likes to be told what to do. Warnings make us anxious. Strict rules tend to teach the anti-democratic lessons of obedience and almost always lead to rebellion. Leaving it up to the world puts them at the mercy of strangers.

The secret, I think, lies in dialog; constant, ongoing, honest, dialog about anything and everything. To qualify as dialog, it can’t just be us adults telling kids what to think, but rather engaging in a true sharing of ideas. The temptation is to simply provide our adult-approved answers to our children, but thinking isn’t about answers, it’s about the process of building answers through the give and take of dialog. It's about relationship. It's about both listening and being heard. Of course, we owe children our honest opinions, ideas, and beliefs, but only when they serve the dialog, and that still doesn’t mean they will automatically go along with us. Most of the time they will because they love and trust us, but if they don’t have the freedom to doubt and debate then it isn’t dialog. 

I think too often, we neglect the importance of genuine dialog, opting instead for the short cuts of commands, rules, and "because I said so." When we do this, when we neglect to give our children the opportunity to think through dialog with us, they will invariably seek out someone else, like peers, who will, because it's only through dialog that we can sustain the self-awareness required for deep, productive, creative thought, which is, in the end, what thinking for yourself is all about. 

It's an apparent paradox of the most beautiful kind: we can only truly think for ourselves when we are thinking with others through dialog.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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