Introspection: why it matters to teach children to think about their thinking

By Lana Kristine Flores-Jelenjev

When I was teaching psychology to college freshmen one of the questions I often asked my students was “what is your favourite color?”. Soon enough after they answered that question, I then proceeded to the next question, WHY?

How about you? what is your favourite color? Why do you like it? What about that color that speaks to you?

Perhaps we can also use another question, when out on a date and your partner asks you, where do you like to eat?  Or what?  How much of a struggle do you have with making such a decision?

Now let us put it on a bigger scale, when was the last life-changing decision that you made? How long did you deliberate on it? How did you come about making that major decision? How did you know that it was indeed the right choice?

The ability to weigh options and make decisions are skills that as adults we sometimes grapple with. But if we look closely to what those skills are and the building blocks that are needed for them- one essential factor is present. These skills are based on our ability to introspect.

Some people might think that time used reflecting on one’s self is time wasted. But nothing could be further from the truth. Knowing yourself and having awareness of yourself is very important. Introspection and its byproduct, self-awareness are essential to any decision-making (be it small or life-altering), focus, prioritization and action. It is the reason why there are a lot of self-help and psychology books aimed at finding and knowing one’s self.

Another way that we can emphasize on the importance of introspection is through this activity. Think about a behaviour that you do quite easily or naturally, like opening a can of soda. When you pull the tab, what else do you do? Do you put the tab all the way back or do you let it up? Why do you do this? Habit? How did it become a habit? How did the daily things you do become so? How did you form thoughts, ideas and ideals about friendships? About justice? About parenting? About anything you value? There must be a reason why you cry foul over certain issues, or why you say, there are certain issues that you can let go. Introspection is the core in which we learn to understand ourselves better.

Now let’s do another scene and this time consider other people, when was the last time you paid attention to the way your child think? Hopefully not in a belittling way, but seriously, when did you say to your child, I like how you think? Or I like how you solved that problem?  It can even be as simple as “I like how you did that”

These questions are essential in teaching children that not only are we aware of their actions, we are also “present” as parents in our interaction with them. Asking these questions and saying these dialogues open up the opportunity for children to be reflective as well. Asking themselves, “what did I do? What did I come up with? What did I solve?

Perhaps as adults we tend to think of children specially younger ones as not fully capable of introspection because if we think hard about it, when do we really see the first signs that children can reflect on their mental state? Children’s ability to notice and reflect on their own mental states and experiences, and go further up a notch, be able to attribute such states to others, seem to be too big to expect from young children. UC Davis researchers Simona Ghetti, assistant professor of psychology at UC Davis and Kristen Lyons, a graduate student in psychology at UC Davis proved this notion wrong with their studies on metacognition in early childhood.

Their study showed that preschoolers aged 3-5 are capable of pointing to a photo of a confident-looking face when they felt confident that they had the correct answer to the question gave, and, they were also able to point to a photo of a doubtful looking child when they were not as confident with their answer.

This study provides a clear picture of how children use introspection, showing them more capable of such a skill than what we gave them credit for. Results of the study showed that children can introspect about their doubts or more specifically their awareness of their uncertainty for that moment.

Wouldn’t it be grand if, children grew up mastering such a skill? Self-awareness is a prerequisite for a wide range of milestones and decisions. For example,  how to choose the best career? Or why get into a relationship with someone? What can you do to make yourself happy? At the heart of all these questions is our ability to introspect and find the answers.

Like with adults, children need the tools to help them hone their introspective skills. Here are some dialogue prompts that you can try at home to start engaging your child in thinking about his/her thinking:

  1. What makes you say that?
  2. What are you thinking?
  3. How did you feel?
  4. What could this person be thinking?
  5. What could this person be feeling?
  6. What made you excited today?
  7. What was the best part of your day?
  8. What was the least that you liked about your day?
  9. Why do you like it? (best followed by what makes you say that?)
  10. Tell me something that made you happy today (use the other emotion words like frustrated, sad, angry)

Remember, that as much as these prompts are for your child/children, it is also for yourself. Find the time to share your thoughts with your child or the entire family during family conferences. Let everyone know what you are thinking and feeling and make it visible. Through this children realize that the chatter that goes on in their head is pretty normal and sharing it with their family is important. It also gives each other the opportunity to talk about not just what excites them or makes them  positive but most importantly the deep, dark and ugly thoughts that keeps them awake at night and uncertain. Self-awareness is also about building self-esteem and by being able to share these negative thoughts, we also give our children the chance to reflect on their fears and face them.

 

Lana is a child development specialist focused on sharing her expertise with parents on engaging activities to do with young children at home. She is also an education consultant that emphasizes on the importance of using gifted pedagogy in the regular classroom. She writes in her blog Visibly Engaged issues that parents and teachers can relate with and shares articles that they can benefit from. Lana also recently opened her webshop Smart Tinker that promotes the use of educational toys and how it promotes multiple intelligences (M.I.)in children. She is currently writing a book on how to promote M.I. at home through simple yet engaging activities.