The Habit of Critical Thinking

In “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey talks about the 7 Habits as “natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as unchanging and unarguably ‘there’ as laws such as gravity are in the physical dimension” (7 Habits, p. 32).  The Leader in Me program for kids turns these 7 Habits into very prescriptive rules for how a child ought to behave, focusing on being proactive, doing the “right” thing, working before playing, planning ahead, following a schedule, looking people in the eye.

Just as Covey uses strong language in his belief that these 7 Habits are “natural laws in the human dimension”, the Leader in Me uses strong language that teaches children these Habits are “right”.  They teach the kids the “right” way to be.  The actual words “right” and “wrong” appear often in the description of the 7 Habits.

Consider this statement from Alfie Kohn’s article How Not To Teach Values.

Anyone who brushes away the question “Which values should be taught?” might speculate on the concrete differences between a school dedicated to turning out students who are empathic and skeptical and a school dedicated to turning out students who are loyal, patriotic, obedient, and so on.

If you begin with the premise that “good conduct is not our natural first choice,” then the best you can hope for is “the development of good habits”[42] — that is, a system that gets people to act unthinkingly in the manner that someone else has deemed appropriate.

If we want children to resist [peer pressure] and not be victims of others’ ideas, we have to educate children to think for themselves about all ideas, including those of adults.

I contend that the most important habit we should teach our children is the habit of critical thinking.  Rather than tell our kids to behave the way Stephen Covey believes is the “right” way, we should be teaching them how to figure out right and wrong for themselves. And we have to be human enough to recognize that “right” and “wrong” are not black and white – they truly can be different for everyone.

The slippery slope with the 7 Habits is that they seem so obvious.  “Put first things first” – who can argue with that? This program explicitly tells the children they should do their homework before they play. What parent wouldn’t love to have a kid who settles right down after school and gets that schoolwork out of the way?  Ten years of raising my oldest child tells me that this is a horrible idea for him. Making him sit down to do homework right after he spent a whole day sitting in school is a recipe for disaster. Trust me, I know this from hard earned experience. The “right” thing for him is a good, solid break after school to run around, eat a snack, be crazy, veg out, hang with friends, anything but more sitting still at a desk. And then he can buckle down and get his work done.

My kid is an individual, with individual needs, his own personality, his own ideas about the world. What works for some kids won’t work for him, and vice versa. This should surprise no one. We are a world of 7 billion people. Since when did anyone really think that you could write down 7 Habits that would be right for 7 billion people?

Parents and teachers want a silver bullet to “fix” our schools, “fix” our kids, to make them behave. But is our job truly to make them behave? Or is it to help them grown into adults who can understand the complexity of the world, and navigate through it in their own, unique, individual, and wonderful way?


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