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Teach children to question authority

February 10, 2011

When I was at the Social Justice Summit last weekend, I had a conversation with a woman who asserted that children have no respect for authority these days. As a parent, I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. I want my children to question authority—not to defy authority just for the sake of being defiant, but to seek an understanding for why rules and power structures are as they are.

The blog Pharyngula recently featured a video in which the comedian George Carlin says:

“Children should be taught to question authority. Parents never teach their children to question authority because parents are authority figures themselves and they don’t want to undermine their own [authority] inside the household. It’s much more important to teach parents to question what they read. Children should be taught to question everything, to question everything they read and everything they hear.”

So, so true.

In a chapter of Parenting Beyond Belief: On raising ethical, caring kids without religion, Stu Tanquist writes the following about authority:

We have two explicit ‘rules’ posted in our home: (1) Always question authority; (2) when in doubt, see rule 1.

These two simple rules—really one, of course—are a source pride for my daughter and an ongoing wonder for her friends. And yes, these rules apply to my own authority as well. This may seem counterproductive to many parents, especially to those who struggle with disciplinary issues. Quite frankly, it has not been a problem. To the contrary, this simple concept has been a wonderful and positive influence in our home.

I should note that our rules encourage her to question my comments, decisions, and rational, to receive justifications beyond ‘because I said so.’ They do not authorize anarchy. Inviting questioning is not the same as a complete abdication of responsibility. As her parent and legal guardian, I obviously need to put my foot down from time to time. The point is that my daughter is encouraged to openly and feely challenge my views, without fear of consequence for the challenge. If I am a good parent, my parenting should stand on its own merit, both in terms of her perception and the kind of person she becomes. Conversely, if I blinded myself to criticism, how would I know if I’m a good parent or not? That sounds like a recipe for self-delusion.

Our house rules are a recognition of the error in reasoning called argument from authority. People commit this fallacy when they blindly accept statements made by people in a position of authority. It is important to remember what regardless of expertise, credential, or experience, none of us is infallible. We can all be wrong and so should not be placed above honest question or challenge.

This passage has stuck with me ever since I read it a couple years ago. I want my children to think critically, not just about issues of faith or theology, but about everything.

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