Why We Need To Teach Nuance to Little Thinkers


Collectively speaking, we 21st Century humans seem to be prone to knee-jerk reactions, and who can blame us? New media (especially the social variety) make it really, really easy to make snap judgements, to like or dislike something instantly, to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. What’s more, we’re bombarded by a veritable geyser of information and it sometimes seems necessary to process it as quickly as possible. So we now to tend to think in extremes. You’re either with someone or against them. Things are either wonderful or horrible, worthy of our undivided attention, or not worth a single glance. We’re best friends, and sworn enemies.

It’s a little disturbing, really, but it doesn’t have to be that way for our kids. Even in our world of of fast facts, it is still possible to stop and peel the proverbial onion. Teaching young minds to appreciate, and even seek out subtleties, grey areas, the mushy parts of an idea, is beneficial in a number of ways:

  • It’s a little less whiplash-y, emotionally speaking. There’s something to be said for having space to take a breath and think about things in detail, before getting upset about them.
  • It promotes critical thinking skills, and encourages children to seek out explanation and discussion. These skills, and this mindset, will help them in all subject areas at school, and in their personal development.
  • It helps to develop all kinds of literacy skills. Reading, listenting, analyzing and communicating effectively are essential for 21st century learners.
  • It builds patience! Rome was not built in a day, and neither is a human being’s understanding of complex subject matter. These things take time.
  • Human beings, and the lives they lead, rarely fit into neat little compartments. We’re complicated creatures, and learning to explore and understand our complexities helps children appreciate themselves and others on a deeper level.
  • The grey areas of an idea or issue are often what makes it most interesting. There’s not much to learn in yes/no, black/white situations. Why limit your kids to just skimming the surface, when there’s so much cool stuff to be found beneath it?

So, how do we speak the language of nuance to little thinkers? Admittedly, they’re inclined to accept simple, fast answers to big questions (as are big thinkers), but there are ways to encourage them to keep an open mind and dig a little deeper.

  • When tackling a big question, see how many possible answers you can come up with together. Write them down, draw pictures of them, or make audio recordings with your phone. Talk about which ones work better than others, and make sure you discuss why. Welcome objections and counterexamples.
  • Ask questions like “Would you feel the same way if you were someone else, in a different place, time or situation?” Make sure they understand that any big issue affects various people in various ways. Using role play is often effective, as is playing dress-up and asking them literally “walk in someone else’s shoes”.
  • Use phrases like “Is there another way to answer this question?”, “Do we have all the information we need?” or “Is there anything that might make you change your mind?”
  • Make discussion an on-going thing. Explain to your child that one chat is often not enough to fully understand a big idea, and that they’re welcome to bring it up again and again. There are a lot of big questions that are never really entirely answered, and that’s what’s so special about them.
  • Respect and include their opinions. They need to know that a kids’ perspective is valuable, and that their contribution is welcome. They are once of the voices that make an idea or issue nuanced.
  • Model good thinking habits. Walk the walk and avoid making snap judgements, blanket statements and sweeping generalizations. Your kids need to hear you say things like “Whoa, that’s a big question. I need to really think about it before I answer.”

Here’s to raising level-headed, thoughtful and patient thinkers who marvel at the complexity of life, and who think a little before they speak!