Metacognition. Thinking about thinking. Alice in Wonderland was a pro at this. She was always asking why of herself and the rabbits and caterpillars passing by. Her mind was open to possibilities. If an ace of spades could walk and a cat could talk, then perhaps a girl named Alice could reason for herself.
Thinking about your thinking leads to thinking about your bad habits and good habits and the oddities that make you, you.
It teaches you what kind of learner and lover and friend you are. Freud would love it. But Freud couldn't handle the full maelstrom of unfiltered thought that is a three-year-old. If you are the parent to any kid under the age of 12, you know what it is to tread water in their stream of consciousness. But it doesn't have to pull you under. You can harness it and make their metacognition work in your favor. You're not out to enlighten the whole world, but you can at least help your family grow in self-awareness. If Descartes was right and thinking makes us human, then here are five ways you can help your kids practice their humanity.
1 | Start asking why
Kids love to ask why. Why is the sky blue? Why do crickets chirp? Why are you driving so slowly? Why are you making that face? They are natural questioners, but they rarely question themselves. They are also aggressive questioners, always pushing out at the world, like little cops on the chase, but it is just as important for them to learn to turn the “whys" inward. So, start asking them the whys. Why did you get so angry when he took the blue cup? Why do you get sad every time you have to go to bed? Why is this your favorite book? Asking them why about anything and everything teaches them to explore their preferences and tendencies. It holds up a mirror at mind level so they can see their psyche more clearly.
2 | Let them find the solution
Every parent knows how to step in and manage the kid fight, the no-nap meltdown, the picky eater at the restaurant. It's what we do. We manage our kids like coaches in the ring, rubbing ointment on shoulders and squirting water into mouths before sending them back out in the ring to do their kid thing. But sometimes we need to manage a little less. This is the hardest part after asking “why?" This is the stepping back.
Your job is not always to supply an answer. Let them fiddle with the problem for a bit. It's not always going to work perfectly, but they need to practice working past the sibling rivalry, the middle-child mindset, and the slimy food – without your intervention. The circuits of their brain need to activate on their own, without you manning the controls.
3 | Pull in the arts
Music makes the mind malleable. It turns what looked like a dead end into a little pathway. It's why movies have soundtracks and why we secretly wish we had our own. Visual art, too – the creating of something out of nothing – allows you to express what's inside.
Whether it be painting or drawing or a score from “Phantom of the Opera" cranked up to the highest volume, art opens the mind and lets you feel your way through it. It helps your kid ask, where does this sound, this color, this shape send my mind and my heart? Give them paper, crayons, paint. Put on your favorite playlist. Sit back. Watch them make it their own.
4 | Introductions
Introduce yourself to your kid. Seriously. Do it like you're at summer camp playing the “get to know you" game before getting off the bus and claiming your bunk. State your name and your favorite color and three things about yourself that your kids might not know. Then have them do the same. Introductions like this make everyone involved think about the impression they make and why they pick certain things to share and not others. It makes them look at themselves from the outside in, like a character in a book – a bird's-eye third-person view. They greet themselves like they are meeting someone new, because in a way they are.
5 | Give them space and time
Because metacognition is not a natural practice for kids, you're going to have to give it time. This is the long wait where you feel like you're talking hippy nonsense at them while they launch a spoon missile-like across the room. This is the 15,000 deep breaths you take while they scream themselves out on the floor before they can even begin to hear the whispers of their minds. This is the necessary lag time in their journey to getting to know themselves. Thoughts are murky and elusive, like spies in trench coats. Your kids will have to learn to follow their trail and it takes time and a million tries before they start to recognize their own trigger points and proclivities.
Reflection seems like a grownup's game, the thing that happens when life has passed and we can finally sit down in front of a lake at sunset. But reflecting on our actions and reactions and thoughts should be a lifelong game. It can teach our kids, from early on, to be active participants in their own lives, running alongside the running conversation in their heads instead of lagging behind.