There can be nothing worse for a parent than to hear the dreaded words: “Your child is in a critical condition”. For any of us, that will immediately awaken our senses to the fact that this is serious, this is dangerous. Let me assure you though now – your child is NOT in a critical condition. However, that might just be a problem!

It has been widely noted that for all the good qualities that our children here in Zimbabwe have (disciplined, respectful, courteous, hard-working…) they are severely lacking in two areas – critical thinking and problem solving. They do not think critically and are not encouraged to think critically.

If your first reaction as a parent is to jump in immediately and accuse the schools of not doing their job (of not making them able to think critically), then you are in fact exposing one major reason why our children are not good at critical thinking! For, in truth, one reason that our children are not good in this area may well be that we as parents are not good at critical thinking ourselves.

We are very good at criticising, let it be said, but that is not the same as critical thinking. We are often very quick to criticise the school, the government, the police, the referee, the spouse, the pets; we are very quick to tell everyone what is wrong with our education system, country and sports teams. We consider ourselves experts in education because we went to school once! The problem though with criticism is that it is usually superficial, prejudiced, one-sided, short on facts, based on assumption and rumour, and above all negative – that is not critical thinking. If children are critical of their school, maybe it is because they have simply learned from us.

Let us consider how parents may not be good at critical thinking. Parents, firstly, love to look at results – they want to know the percentage pass rate and will immediately judge a school based on a mathematical figure without giving any thought at all regarding the pass rate. For starters, the percentage pass rate simply indicates the percentage of people at that school in that year who sat those exams and who passed – it is not a prediction of how their child will do or how next year’s pupils will do because every child is different, every year group is different, every exam is different. One school accepts pupils that other schools will not but parents will assume that all pupils must be able to pass all subjects at the highest level (it might be interesting to do a survey to see how many of those parents who demand that their child passes well did actually pass well themselves)! Think about it! Then we may also consider a multitude of other factors – the marks may be lower as some children were absent from school for long periods due to the parent not paying the child’s school fees or as some children had very low entrance marks and IQ or as some children come from disturbed homes. (Are schools only to educate ‘good’ children? How many parents were ‘good’ children?) Schools will analyse results, for sure, to see how they can develop their teaching (not to see how they can improve their results, note) yet parents are not always inclined to do so.

In addition and more personally, parents are often inclined to judge their own child by results and do not consider other factors. Parents might shout at their child if he did not gain high marks (even though it may be unrealistic) without thinking of the context – the parents may have had a massive row on the morning of the exam; his favourite pet died; he was left at school until after 6 each night the week before; or a myriad of other contributing factors.

All too often, parents just look at results without any critical thinking (only subjective thinking) – they look at other children or other schools and automatically assume (and require) their child to match them. It is the same (if not worse) with sport. Parents have never refereed a match in their life or studied the rules but they know exactly what the referee is doing wrong (simply because they are only looking for mistakes against their child). Parents do not think that the referee will see the play from a different angle from them – in addition, there may well be many bodies between him and the action; the parent may be higher up so can see over bodies. The referee will be closer to the action while the parent may well be further away and have a wider vision so can see things differently. The referee will be looking for a multitude of possible infringements; the parent is probably only looking for his favourite one. The referee will be looking, at any one time, at the ball,
at both sets of players, at the next likely move, at his assistants; the parent is only watching the ball. Should I go on? (I could!)

Furthermore, parents look at sporting matches as must-win fixtures but do not realise that the match is part of the curriculum, that school is a learning experience, and that the child is playing inter-school matches for lessons to be learned. A player will not be a better player by winning every match but parents only want their child to win. If a parent’s first question when the child comes home after a match is to ask, “Did you win?” the parent is not helping the child to think critically. What did the child learn, from the victory or defeat? What might be required for the child (and team) to improve?

In a similar vein, parents whose children are good at sport think that they must send their child to a school that wins all the time without stopping to think that in fact the child may not develop because they are not pushed or extended to win a game – assuming that the child makes the team! A child is likely to improve more by playing stronger opposition all the time, where they have to think how to overcome the opposition. Think critically, parent!

And then how many times is the parent shouting from the sideline telling the child what to do (often contradicting what the coach has told the team)? How is that helping the child to think critically during a match?

Parents are also prone to jump into situations without any thinking. When a child gets into trouble, parents are often likely to go to the school authority and blame, bribe or bully the school into changing the punishment. However, if a parent would only think first they might realise that always jumping in and ‘protecting’ their child will make the child think that they can get away with anything and everything. That is not helping the child in critical thinking or critical behaving, for that matter. Parents must think before they jump in.

By this stage, parents will want to have a say; they will want to defend themselves. They may well argue that they do help their child think critically because they allow their child to make decisions. However, often the decisions they give are the wrong ones and the child has no basis or skill to make an appropriate choice. All too often parents allow their child to choose what secondary school they will go to yet they will not allow a child of that age to choose their doctor or even their clothes! What does the child know about the suitability of that school? What does the child know about what they need educationally? The child will simply choose on the basis of where their friends want to go or which school wins or what the uniform is! Then parents of slightly older children allow their child to go to nightclubs even though their child is under-age – have parents stopped to think what that is teaching their child about the law? When parents allow their child to drink and drive, have they applied any thought to the possible implications? The child is not ready or mature enough at that stage to make those decisions – that is why parents remain responsible for their child until 18.

Critical thinking is about asking questions (not laying accusations), about examining (not exclaiming), about analysing (not arguing), about evaluating (not blaming), about interpreting (not interfering), about reasoning (not rushing), about reflecting (not refusing). It is about giving tools to think with an open-mind (not blind emotion).

If a parent has got angry or taken offence by what has been said, maybe he has not exercised critical thinking and been prepared to look at what is before him. This is serious; this is indeed critical. It is not just the school’s responsibility to develop a child’s thinking but the parents’ responsibility too. Zimpact, the “Zimbabwe Drunk and Dangerous Driving Awareness” group, have as their slogan “Drink Responsibly, Drive Responsibly” while their Christmas advert encouraged everyone to “Eat. Think. Be merry.” Such advice should be with us throughout the year. We must all help our children to think critically, not negatively. If we do not then our children will indeed be in a critical condition and be severely handicapped for the rest of their life.