Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Futuristic Thinking for Tots

Parents may beam, but to a contemporary scientist a preschooler’s ability to recite his or her ABCs and 123s is a bit unremarkable.  Nostalgic, rote memorization tasks like ABCs and 123s were once used to measure a child’s proficiency, but times have changed.  We’re not commuting in Meet the Jetson’s styled autonomous personal aircrafts yet, but the Information Age has transformed society and with it the required skills for success in our new world.   In the modern day, if you want your tot to impress a scientist, or future employer for that matter, you’ll need to teach them how to think instead of what to think through fostering critical thinking skills.

Scientists are hot on the trail in search of just how to promote advantageous childhood cognition for the future leaders of our modern, information-driven world.  The results from two recent studies (citation below) by researchers Dr. Cristine Legare (UT Austin) and Dr. Tania Lombrozo (UC Berkeley), indicate that critical thinking skills are best fostered though asking children causal questions.  Cognitively probing and explanatory questions as to how and why something occurs enables children to think at a deeper level, even if children are just thinking quietly to themselves. It should be noted that Legare and Lombrozo’s studies found that refocusing a child’s thinking onto causal relationships can come at a cost to very young children (3 & 4 year-olds) who may be more likely  to not recall perceptual or descriptive details in exchange for their critical thinking.  (This was not necessarily the case for the old children (5 & 6 year-olds) in the studies.)

Here are three quick applications, based upon Legare and Lombrozo’s research, to help you nurture more futuristic, causal thinking skills in your preschooler and kindergartner. 

1) Explain v. Describe:  Asking a child to explain a phenomena will elicit a different response than asking a child to describe a phenomena.  While the former focuses on an analysis of the phenomena, the latter merely asks the child to recite what they see.  When your child is observing an interesting phenomena, ask probing questions like “how” and “why” to foster causal, critical thinking skills.

2) Use if/then statements: Part of understanding causality is grasping deductive reasoning.  When you speak to your child, use “if-then” statements to help them understand how one phenomena can cause another.  You can also engage in if/then conversations by posing questions like the following:

– Offer the first observation and then ask the child to fill in the logical blank:

“If Action A occurs, then what will happen next?”  

– Or you can pose a more reaching question that digs even deeper:

“If I swap Action A for Action B, then what, if anything, will change ?”

Children like thinking about causal questions  such as these and it should be relatively easy to engage in this type of dialog with a young child.  You’ll enjoy watching their gears crank and take even more delight in their creative and sometimes surprisingly insightful responses.

3) Never demand or expect a child to answer your inquiry:   The results of Legare and Lombrozo’s studies indicate that children need not answer orally for the causal questioning to make an impact.  Therefore, do not worry if your questions go unanswered.  Children will consider your question whether or not they choose to share their response with you.  It is far more important that learning and theorizing remain fun and interesting for children than it is for children to reach the right answer.  Causal conversations should feel like a non-competitive game, played solely for the sake of the game.  Forceful and high-pressured situations where an answer is demanded from a child can be counterproductive and, in great quantity, damaging.

Intelligent Cautionary Note

Of course with every Intelligent Nest recommendation, I always offer my empirically-based advice with a disclaimer.  Perfect, brilliant children are never a worthy goal and extreme parenting to achieve such ends will back-fire.  Intelligent Nest is not a home for Tiger Moms, rather a safe place to gather information and ideas for more effective parenting.  To the extent to which you can challenge your child to think causally, by all means, when it is appropriate, welcome and enjoyable for all.



  1. Cristine Legare et al. Selective Effects of Explanation on Learning in Early ChildhoodJournal of Experimental Child Psychology, April 2014        Full Text Available Here
  2. Quick Summary of Legare & Lombrozo Study Available Here

For Further Reading:

  1. Einstein Never Used Flash Cards by Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff



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