But, kids are stupid. They come to stupid conclusions about things. They come to amusingly persistent stupid conclusions about things. We can try to make them feel good for having an opinion, or we can challenge them to hold better, stronger beliefs.
With so much fluff in the air about self-esteem, it can be easy to think that we shouldn’t teach kids to doubt themselves. But doubt is the best tool we can give them.
…Maybe I should start with Plato. Everything else is just a footnote to Plato.
Plato (philosopher of ancient Greece; not the modeling clay), wrote a dialogue called “Meno”, in which his hero, Socrates, tries to show Meno that human beings are born knowing everything. Even a simple servant boy, Socrates claims, knows everything there is to know about geometry: we just have to ask him the right questions.
Soc. But do you suppose that he would ever have enquired into or learned what he fancied that he knew, though he was really ignorant of it, until he had fallen into perplexity under the idea that he did not know, and had desired to know?
Men. I think not, Socrates.
Soc. Then he was the better for the torpedo’s touch?
Men. I think so.
Soc. Mark now the farther development. I shall only ask him, and not teach him, and he shall share the enquiry with me: and do you watch and see if you find me telling or explaining anything to him, instead of eliciting his opinion.
Socrates thinks that although by eliciting guesses, and correction, he has made the boy waver in his certainty about the world, the boy is still in a better position because now he will be able to use his natural powers to recollect the true facts about the world instead of clinging to assumptions that were never tested. Doubt breeds knowledge.
Regardless of the weirdness of Socrates’ main claim (that we already know everything), there is something to the presumption behind his method: we need to rattle kids out of the fog of certainty they are in. This is what I mean about making kids feel stupid. Brains are wired to make conclusions; they will make conclusions no matter how flimsy the evidence, how short a time frame they have to work with, how badly trained they are. Part of training a brain to be curious about its own assumptions, and thereby to pursue better, stronger beliefs, is to do what Socrates does to Meno’s servant: He doesn’t reward the guesswork, or the simple effort, with praise. Rather, he insists the boy go further to (re)discover the truth about geometrical properties.
Feeling stupid, instead of falsely confident, motivates curiosity, drives discovery, and gives kids, in the end, something they can actually feel confident about. It’s okay to parent through gentle mockery: “Really? You thought a peanut butter and candy sandwich would be great for lunch?” “Ah, yes, 92% is a good score. 100% is a better score. What happened to the other 8%?” Self-esteem is something built like a muscle.
If it’s a person who loves them who is questioning their conclusions, gently guiding them along, then when they encounter someone who cruelly tries to undermine them, as surely they will in at some point because there are always going to be bullies, they won’t have their world shattered in a frustrating, embarrassing encounter. They will have earned their confidence, and you will have helped them do so.
(Editor’s Note: It is not without irony that you might recall Socrates was offered exile or death for walking around Athens making people feel stupid. Don’t try it with adults.)