Thursday, April 11, 2013


The following scenario has recently come to my attention: A person in his [or her – below understood] late teens or early twenties expresses an idea to a parent or educator [below P/E] that is entirely new to P/E. This idea contradicts some key belief or value of P/E. The idea is from a subject with which P/E is unfamiliar. The idea is expressed in terminology with which P/E is unfamiliar. Impressive authorities are cited as supporting the idea.

The typical reaction of P/E contains the following elements. In terms of feelings and thoughts: surprise and confusion, embarrassment that P/E is unfamiliar with the subject, fear of the cited authorities and [especially from parents] a compensating thought that the child must be very bright to have understood this idea on his own. In terms of action: sometimes P/E reacts in a defensive manner by rejecting the idea in an overly aggressive fashion and criticizes of the child’s intelligence and/or midos. Sometimes P/E is cowed into submission in front of the child and cannot respond at all.

In my opinion, none of the above reactions is justified. Below are my suggestions for how to react in practice. In context I will explain why the feelings and thoughts are also inappropriate.

  1. Always treat the child with respect. The reactions should be calm, interested and non-judgmental. Non-judgmental is all-inclusive: no judgment of the child’s character or motivation [“agenda”], no judgment of the cogency of the ideas he expresses,  no judgment concerning the child’s understanding of the ideas he expresses [see below] and no judgment concerning the child’s intelligence [see below]. In particular, there is no need whatsoever to respond to the ideas he expresses on the spot. If P/E has nothing to say at the time, then the appropriate response is: “Thanks for sharing that with me; I will think about it and get back to you.”
  2. Do not be cowed by impressive sounding technical terminology. Say to the child: “I am not familiar with those terms. Can you please explain them to me?” Listen carefully to the explanation and keep asking until you really understand what he says. Do not fear sounding stupid to ignorant; you sound the exact opposite – interested, respectful and desirous of really understanding. [[Often the result will be that it becomes clear that the child does not understand the terms at all. Then the challenge has been defused. You can invite him to try to clarify his ideas and try again. He learns a valuable lesson that superficially browsing an idea will not be useful to him. Unless he is very motivated to look for challenges, the whole process will stop there.]]
  3. If his explanation of the terminology makes sense, then go back to the idea itself and plug in his explanations of the terms. Often the explanations do not fit the idea – they make the idea clearly false or without foundation. Then you say: “Well, I understand your explanation of the terms, but I do not see why you think the idea has merit.” [[The end result is the same as 1 above.]] [[Notice that if either 2 or 3 occurs, the judgment that the child must be super intelligent is completely out of place.]]
  4. If the terms and the idea now sound reasonable and you know of no reply, say as above:  “Thanks for sharing that with me; I will think about it and get back to you.”  [And see 5.] I can guarantee that there are many people who know the subject and can give you answers that will neutralize the challenge in the idea. All you have to do is write to one of them. [[If you have the energy, you might look at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy here and check any topic. You will find vast controversy, so that no one position could be regarded as the settled truth. So there will always be intelligent critique of his ideas.]] You then invite the child to another discussion. You should say explicitly that you consulted with others on this subject – let him know that there is a great world out there with people who know these subjects who are available. You then respectfully present your reasons for not accepting his idea and then invite him to try again. [[Do not worry that the invitation reinforces his examination of dangerous ideas etc. The focus must be on winning the war, not the isolated battle. Defusing his motivation temporarily will not be the solution in the long run. He needs to give the project a real effort so that failure will last him for the long run.]]
  5. You can also say: “That is a very interesting idea. Are there other opinions on the subject? Does anyone disagree? What are their reasons? How are their reasons answered by those who believe in the idea?” This has two effects: if he is unaware of any critique of the idea, that brands him as ignorant of the subject. [[And again, the judgment that the child is super intelligent is out of place.]] You can say [with astonishment]: “You mean no one disagrees?” And then next time you can present him with a list of dissenters. Second, if he is aware, then you can ask how he chooses to side with one side over the other.

I have received several such challenges from distraught parents and educators in the last couple of years. The content of the challenges was absurdly weak and irrelevant. The reactions I describe above could have defused the challenge and provided the improvements I described. Instead there was an escalation of conflict so that when I finally became involved all the logic in the world would not dislodge the child from his commitment to his absurd position. What a shame!