From age zero through sixteen, there was one top priority that I had with my daughters: Make sure that they grew up to be “free-thinking” individuals. Whether you have a young son or daughter, the importance of raising a free-thinking child is more important today than ever before.
What exactly is a “free thinker”? John Steinbeck once wrote,
“This I believe: That the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: The freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.”
Raising Free-Thinking Children
There are five key characteristics of a true free-thinker:
- They can develop their own beliefs and opinions unguided by external influence.
- They have a “shield” against the influence of modern culture.
- They’ve developed an immunity to group-think.
- They have a scientific curiosity and sense of wonder about the world.
- They know what questions to ask to understand the truth.
Whether your child is a boy or a girl, there are elements of society that will try to define them. Society works to restrict free-thinking and instead guide people toward predefined roles — artifacts of eons of tradition.
Boys and girls both face gender-based challenges because of long-standing traditions and institutions. These are traditions that in some cases help or hinder the child, depending what the child hopes to accomplish in the future.
For example, from my own personal experience as a child, I know that boys face influences that encourage them to self-sacrifice their own health — and life, if need be — to protect the health and welfare of others. Whether it’s comic book superheroes, movie role models and other cultural influences, boys are cultivated into expendable commodities.
Little boys are encouraged to dream of being a soldier, a cop or a fire fighter — or other dangerous forms of work. The coercion is so deeply rooted that the U.S. government even denies college-bound boys federal financial assistance if they do not agree to register for the military draft, a restriction that college-bound girls are privileged to be free from.
The list goes on for boys, but having raised two teenage daughters, I’ve finally gained some insight into the unique challenges young women face in becoming free thinkers in today’s world.
In this article, I hope to give parents of young daughters some powerful tools and resources to raise confident, intelligent, free-thinking daughters.
Girls Are Taught the Lie That Success is Innate
While growing up, girls face an onslaught of messages from ads, movies and other media creating expectations about what one must do to be “pretty”, “girly” or “good”.
In an interesting Psychology Today article by Heidi Grant Halvorson, she explains how researchers examined the habits of 5th grade boys and girls when faced with especially difficult academic challenges. Researchers found that even the brightest and smartest of girls were quick to give up, while boys often took the difficulty as a challenge, and would redouble their efforts.
The intelligence levels of the boys and girls were pretty much even, but the girls were found to give up more easily.
The reason researchers found as the root cause was the most revealing, and it helps with fostering free-thinking behaviors in young women.
Halvorson explained that parents and teachers tend to respond to girls who follow instructions and perform well as “smart”, “clever” and “good”. On the other hand, because young boys are often difficult to get to sit still and pay attention, they are told things like, “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.”
The underlying message is this: Boys become convinced that they only got an answer wrong because they didn’t try hard enough. Girls become convinced that they got the wrong answer because they aren’t smart enough.
As Halvorson explains, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy — an enemy within — that sabotages the best efforts of young women in the face of adversity and challenges.
“We continue to carry these beliefs, often unconsciously, around with us throughout our lives. And because bright girls are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they grow up to be women who are far too hard on themselves — women who will prematurely conclude that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon.”
How, as a parent can you counter this? There are many ways.
Encourage Scientific Curiosity
The best antidote to self-doubt is a healthy interest in Science.
The organization ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) advises that the best way to counter this kind of self-doubt (called “self-efficacy”) is:
- Teach your child that academic abilities are not fixed, but expandable and improvable
- Expose your daughters to female role models who have succeeded in math and science
- Provide informational feedback (focus on mistakes as opportunities to improve through trial and error)
I’m going to dive into two of these elements you can foster as a parent — teaching your child that abilities are not fixed, and exposing them to positive role models as evidence of what is possible for girls to accomplish.
Teaching Young Girls How Practice Improves Performance
In recent years, the whole concept of video games as being “bad for kids” has been turned on its head. New research reveals that the right kind of educational video games are actually beneficial to developing minds. The best effect video games have is that they teach kids how much better you can get at achieving something through practice.
Up until now, video games have been the playground of boys, mostly — but girls are becoming more interested in the activity in droves, and you can contribute to that by introducing your little girl to video games early on.
Scribblenauts Unmasked is a great game to start with. It’s available on the Wii U, the Nintendo 3DS, and even on PC.
Your daughter will have a chance to use her imagination to create objects and battle villains in this virtual universe modeled after their favorite characters and locations from DC Comics.
Your child will be able to use those objects to solve puzzles throughout the game. Leveling up in a game like this is like a massive boost of confidence for any small child — and confidence is always a great thing.
Another imagination and confidence boosting game for slightly older children is Portal, by Valve.
This game is a combination of first-person shooter and puzzle game wrapped into one. You are a “test subject” put through seemingly impossible courses, with just your wit and your brain power to get you through. Choose Portal 1 or Portal 2, available for Xbox, PlayStation, and PC.
And if you’d like your daughter to expand beyond just playing video games into the world of designing them (possibly sparking an entire career in computer science), then you should introduce her to Gamestar Mechanic, where she’ll learn how to make her own games from professional game designers.
Of course, you can’t forget the single most popular game of all time among pre-teens over the past several years: Minecraft.
Minecraft is an entire virtual world that just sparks the imagination due to the free-play nature of the game. Children can craft whatever they like, however they like, wherever they like. Alongside friends, kids can build entire communities.
And, if your daughter is as into Minecraft as mine was, she may even ask you if she can start her own Minecraft server (like my daughter did) to host her own Minecraft universe. Ah…but that’s an article for another day.
However, you can only imagine the powerful effects playing these games has on the young, female mind. It shows them that even if you fail at first, nothing is impossible if you just keep trying. It teaches them that they are as capable at mastering something as anyone else.
Exposing Girls to Female Role Models
You can tell your daughter until you’re blue in the face that women are capable of accomplishing anything they set their mind to. But the reality is that there’s just so much that they’ll encounter out in the world that it won’t be long before they’ll start to doubt what you’ve said.
This is why it’s so important early on to introduce your daughters to the women who have already accomplished the things you’ve said they can.
Female Leaders at NASA
The first place to bookmark and explore with your teenage daughter who may be considering the field of science (or even space travel!) is Women@NASA. This is an inspirational website featuring biographies, blog entries written by NASA scientists, and even outreach programs where NASA employees will reach out and mentor children.
If your daughter has expressed any interest in science or space, these are opportunities that you want to get them involved with right away.
Oh, and by the way – if your daughter is especially interested in space travel, you may want to expose her to some of Dr. William Rowe’s writings. At his website, he explains how physiologically, females are actually better suited for space, and he advocates that NASA should take this into account when selecting astronauts!
Of course, one of the most well-known female astronauts was the first American woman in space – Sally Ride. Introduce your child to her story, and while you’re at it, maybe send them to one of the many Sally Ride Science camps offered by Universities around the country.
It is actually only one of the many offerings you’ll find from the Center for STEM education for girls.
It isn’t just in space where women are making tremendous accomplishments, but women have also been very successful in the fields of science and technology as well.
Math Doesn’t Suck is a website created by Danica McKellar (remember the girlfriend from the TV show The Wonder Years?) Well she is also mathematician with a degree from UCLA and has been featured in the Journal of Physics and the New York Times.
The site is a companion to the math-tutorial book of the same name. The website features a full solution guide to problems in the book, as well as Danica’s encouragement for girls to excel in Math.
Engineer Girl is probably one of the most inspiring sites of all. Not only does it frequently updates articles and videos about science and technology, but it features a long list of successful women (under the “I’m an Engineer” section) who’ve landed impressive jobs around the world as engineers.
If you need evidence to show your daughter that being a girl who wants to be an engineer is really cool, this site is it.
Girls Who Code is an organization that can help you, as a parent, find opportunities to instill a love of computer science in your daughter. Of particular interest is the 7 week “Summer Immersion Program“, available in ten cities across the U.S., which trains young ladies in areas of computer science including robotics, web design and even mobile app development.
According to the site, 90% of the girls who attended the program majored or minored in a computer science related field! And if the Immersion program isn’t for you, there are Girls Who Code clubs launched all around the country — or launch one at your own daughter’s school!
FabFems is probably the first place you should start if you’d like to find a mentor for your daughter. Just click on the “Find a Role Model” link, and you’ll have access to a very large directory of women scientists from all around the world who are very happy to mentor your daughter in any field of study she may be interested in.
And if any of these resources aren’t enough to get you started, take a look at the long list of website resources offered by the Center for Stem Education for Girls for more.
Female Military Leaders
Do you have a daughter who has expressed interest in a military career? Well, today, more than ever before, there are unlimited opportunities for her. In December of 2015, the Pentagon finally completed the process started in 2013 when a bill was passed by Congress to allow women in combat roles.
In December, Defense Secretary Ash Carter essentially removed all remaining limitations by saying that women can now serve in combat roles and that, “There will be no exceptions.”
Forget those silly movies with the lead heroine clad in skin-tight, low-cut leather. No, instead opt to expose your military-bound daughter to war movies like Courage Under Fire; the story of a female Gulf War pilot played by Meg Ryan who had…well…courage under fire.
Of course, that’s a fictional story. You’ll also want your daughter to see some real-world examples of courage by spending some time exploring Women in The U.S. Army, a site offered by the U.S. Army showing examples of successful women in the military.
With the historic “formal” acceptance of women in all ground combat roles (formal, because many women have been serving in combat roles before 2015), now is a time of the greatest opportunities for girls who are considering joining the military.
For women in Britain, there is a similar page on the Army site called Women in the Army.
The great thing about raising daughters is that these days there are so many resources available for mentoring, summer camps, technical training, college scholarships and so much more. This makes it so easy to put together a low-cost program of activities and resources to help guide your daughter into a field that may have traditionally been one that mostly boys were interested in.
However, keep in mind that part of what will make your daughter a true “free-thinker” is that you are not pushing her in any one direction when it comes to everything from job choice and appearances to religion or politics. The idea is that you need to educate your daughter on the skills required to learn and think for herself, but then you have to step back and let her actually think for herself.
Encourage Girls to Be Proud of Who They Are
Stories abound of teenagers who run off and become homeless, or otherwise disappear without a trace, often simply to escape a dictatorial household that seeks to define everything she must believe in and become.
However, when you let go of those demands, and if you’ve raised her with a proper “training” on how to think for herself — she will not be drawn in by the temptations many radical groups use to draw in more “followers”. Or, simply put, if she can think for herself, she won’t ever let someone else do her thinking for her.
The Nerd Community Will Help Her Look “Beyond the Norm”
Young girls face influences of the “cultural norm” the day they are born. Pink ribbons, frilly clothes, Barbie dolls with inhuman proportions, female superheroes who for some reason need to be half-dressed when fighting crime. You don’t need to shield your daughters from these things, but you do need to teach them how to view these cultural norms from the “outside” — they need to learn how to think intelligently and above the noise.
There are lots of online (and offline) communities that will teach your daughters that being “weird” is actually pretty cool. Think “nerd” and “geek” communities.
Nerdist, for example, is chock-full of podcasts, videos and other content that make the anti-culture nerds (most of whom are probably our most loyal readers) smile.
These aren’t the types of shows, movies and other things that all the teenagers of the world will love, but it is what people who have a deeper appreciation for science and technology will lean towards. People who think a little bit deeper about things, and are a tad more insightful about life, and the important things. Like Doctor Who.
It may sound strange, but if you want to introduce your daughters to a world where people don’t care what the rest of the world thinks about them, you want to take them to a Comic-Con convention. The International San Francisco one would be brilliant, but any of the smaller ones that take place across the country (and the world) would be more than enough exposure to spark the inner cosplayer in your daughter.
At first, it may seem awkward walking around and seeing all these people dressed up as characters from various comics, books and movies — but once your daughters see just how comfortable in their own skin these people are (and how much fun they’re having together) — honestly, it’s contagious. Before long, your daughters will want to dress up as their favorite book characters and attend the next convention again.
And if they really get into it, they can visit cosplay.com to get some fresh ideas for new characters to dress as, and for costume ideas and tricks.
The idea here is, instead of allowing the world and modern culture to define how your daughter should dress or look, using cosplay is a powerful tool to teach your daughter that she can use dress or makeup as an authentic way to express herself outside of those defined and expected “norms”. There’s not much “normal” about the cosplay community — except a general acceptance toward one another, and what expressing one’s true self really means. That’s some powerful stuff for a young woman to have access to at a young age.
Mel Levine, University of North Carolina Psychologist put it best in a Psychology Today interview and why parents shouldn’t try to force their kids to conform to middle school or high school social conventions:
“It’s the tastes they develop in their kids, the clothing and pursuits they pick for them. There are a lot of depressed cool kids, and it’s better to be a happy nerd than a popular anorexic. Nerdiness isn’t a pathology.”
If you want to develop a free-thinking daughter, start out by not defining how she should dress, look or act — but instead allow her the freedom and the space to define that for herself. Exposing her to awesome examples of free-thinking individuals along the way, of course.
Encourage Her to Question Everything
If you want to help your daughter avoid falling for the various gimmicks and frauds that await her in the world (like that smooth-talking player working all the college night-clubs), then you want to make sure she’s got a good head on her shoulders. Give her the tools and the discipline to question everything she is told, and to dig out the truth for herself.
One great way to do this is introducing your little daughter to sites that teach them to dig deep in order to solve complex puzzles.
Puzzle games for kids can be found all throughout the Internet, from sites like Zylom, Games.com, AddictingGames and more. We’ve covered long lists of great puzzle games for adults and kids alike right here at MakeUseOf. Most are so convenient you can play them right in your browser.
One research study in Singapore in 2014 at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) found that puzzle type video games enhance the “executive brain function”.
“The process-of-elimination study examined the effects of several genres and found that a physics-based, complex puzzle game called “Cut the Rope” came out on top for improving executive brain functions. The scientific designation ‘executive functions’ is an umbrella term that implicates management of cognitive tasks such as memory, decision making, planning and problem solving.”
In my own case, my daughters were playing such games as early as three years old (age appropriate puzzles, of course), and over time they graduated to more difficult ones — and loved playing them as much as they loved playing with their toys (if not more).
When your daughters are young, their brains are developing dramatically — much faster than you might expect. Playing mystery games is another way to mold the thought processes into a pattern where your little girl will learn to always think critically when presented with any situation or information. The right games can train your daughter to be a skilled problem solver.
Zylom has a whole section of mystery games for you to download and play with your child.
Each one has a background story that’ll pull at the imagination. You can play some of the games for free, but the full games need to be paid for.
If you prefer free, Gamesloon has a whole selection of mystery games in the adventure game style format. If you’ve played any of the point-and-click adventure games of the 90s where you need to explore rooms and areas to find clues, this is exactly that sort of thing.
My daughters got wrapped up into playing these kind of online games for hours, at a very young age. They devoured them, and after a while they could solve the games in record time. All the while, their ability to discern unusual or out-of-place elements in a given scenario became razor sharp. Today, as young teenagers, they’ve retained those skills and use them all the time in their school work and in life.
Of course, you don’t only have to depend on online games for these, just check out game download sites like Big Fish Games which has a whole assortment of games for PC, Mac, mobile, and online that your kids can try out for free and purchase to download if you like.
The idea here is that there’s a never-ending supply of resources to entertain your daughters, and teach them to observe, analyze, and problem-solve with the best of them.
What will this do for them? Lots.
People with strong problem solving skills are the kind of people who land high-paying jobs. According to University.com, the best-careers for problem solvers include financial advisers, graphic designers, engineers and more. Not only that, but when your daughter is confronted by faulty logic and ridiculous claims that are so prevalent on the Internet today, they will be the last to believe it, and the first to challenge it with facts and evidence.
Give Her a Shield Against Modern Culture
All the skills that you’ve provided your daughter through the years, using the tools and techniques above, will serve her so well in life. They are skills that parents naturally teach to their boys — it’s part of modern culture for boys to be guided toward an interest in detective work, spy craft, science and technology.
Start early, buck those social trends. Give your daughters the advantage that they deserve. And if they want to pursue fields that are not traditionally male-dominated, that’s fine too — that’s the beauty of free-thinking; a person’s decisions are their own.
As they make their life, your daughters will have a natural pride for their abilities. Not because they are girls, but because they have the skills. You’ve taught them to view themselves as capable and effective human beings, not as the victimized “weaker” gender who need protection or assistance.
Author Elizabeth Wasserman once explained this kind of “free-thinking” mentality as follows:
“At a certain point, when we demand an equal ratio of men to women in certain fields, what we’re criticizing is not ‘the system,’ but the choices that women themselves are making…let’s keep our eye on the question of equal opportunity and stop obsessing about equal outcomes, lest we find ourselves trying to cure society, not of sexism, but of free choice.”
And for all that effort — for all those years of practicing thinking critically via online resources, doing electronic wiring projects together, studying the stars through a telescope, and exploring science museums – my two daughters are well on their way toward high-tech fields; one plans to go into graphic design, and the other will be pursuing either engineering or forensic science (she hasn’t decided yet!).
Do you have daughters? How do you encourage them to think critically and develop an interest in science and technology? Share your own advice and tips in the comments section below!
Image Credit: family with two kids by TravnikovStudio via Shutterstock, Patryk Kosmider via Shutterstock, Andrey_Popov via Shutterstock, enzodebernardo / Shutterstock.com