How to raise your kid with an open mind

So many people tell me that they send their kids to school so they meet a wide range of people. The problem with that idea is that kids do not learn open-mindedness by going to school because school can’t have a ratio of thirty independent thinkers to one teacher. It would be chaos. Here’s how really to teach open mindedness to kids.

1. Open-mindedness doesn’t come from racial diversity. 
First, I want to tell you that diversity is largely socioeconomic. Public school is location-based, which means you are going to school with kids who live near you. So unless you live in New York City you are unlikely to get any sort of real diversity. The world is still segregated because housing is segregated economically to protect property values.

2. Open mindedness comes from an open learning environment. 
If you send your kids to school there is only a limited list of things you will expose your kid to. Rogue teachers get fired for not teaching to the test. Fringe ideas are not part of the national curriculum. There is no opposing view to the core curriculum.

Also, an important part of developing critical thinking skills that are essential to open mindedness is teaching kids there is not one, single right answer. But this cannot happen in a test-based environment where kids need to learn a right answer to pass a test.

How do kids develop an open mind if there’s no right answer? They enjoy unstructured parts of the day for thinking, because kids gain open minds when they are not under time constraints.

3. Be open minded yourself if you want an open minded kid.
I realized this when my son became interested in paleontology. It started with a collection of fossils and blossomed into an obsession with the disappearance of the neanderthals. It is somewhat of a mystery why humans survived and neanderthals didn’t. As I listen to my son’s insane theories to explain the mystery, but I remind myself that kids learn open-mindedness by experiencing the pleasure of someone else listening to their ideas.

As a bonus,  some of my son’s theories are not insane but are based in facts, and I’m learning a lot. For example, did you know that neanderthals were short and thick, helping them stay warm in cold weather, but then when the planet warmed  and savannas emerged, hunting by throwing a spear was most effective, and neanderthals didn’t have the shoulder flexibility to throw a spear.

My son was talking with Jeanenne, the person who helps me with the house and the kids. My son says, “I asked Jeanenne if she thought neanderthals mated with humans and she said no.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“She says the theory of evolution is just that, a theory.”

“That is so stupid.”

My husband, who grew up in rural Amercia—actually, right on the land we live on—says, “She’s a Jehovah’s Witness. She doesn’t think one species can evolve from another species. She thinks humans did not evolve from other species.”

“Mom, is that true?”

“I guess it’s true she believes that.”

“No. Is it true that that’s how it happened?”

” No. Evolution is true. For sure. Neanderthals and humans mated. For sure.”

“Why does Jeanenne think it’s not true?”

“Because she’s close-minded. She can’t handle hearing someting that does not make perfect sense with what she knows, so she closes her mind to new information.”


I’m on a roll now and I add, “So don’t talk to her anymore about anything like this.”

And my son says, “Mom, we can’t do that. That would be close-minded.”

33 replies
  1. Mark Kenski
    Mark Kenski says:

    Great points, especially the idea that listening to your kid helps them learn to think properly. If you never let your kid actually *ride* a bicycle they will never be much of a bicyclist. By the same token, many people think–and think most deeply–mainly by talking to others. This can be true even with introverts who, due to their intensely subjective focus, can find other people to stimulate new lines of thought.

    I wondered if you would hit what I consider the ultimate test of open-mindedness: currently held scientific paradigms.

    Evolution is one of those. It is incorrect to say that evolution is true. It is the best explanation we currently have. It is the consensus until a scientific revolution expands upon or overturns the current paradigm. Evolution has lasted a good while. Most likely it will be overturned in the sense that newtonian physics was overturned, by gaining a deeper understanding into the exceptions and anomalies (very large and very small and very fast in the case of newtonian physics–that spawned quantum theory and relativity). Is science, in any area, ever done? To me, no one who would answer that in the affirmative is a real scientist. Science can be settled, as newtonian physics was before it was upended by the two main fields within physics, but science–by definition–is never incontrovertible.

    IF…even the bedrock of evolution can be understood as needing at least refinement and possibly even overturning someday, then one is in a much better position of open-mindedness to question far shakier paradigms. An example of this is questioning medical providers, who claim the mantle of science but must be examined with rigor. When you look at what it took to get doctors to start washing their hands, you see this is no science, and it never has been. It has a scientific aura, but the business of medicine is at best an art. And any art depends on the quality of the artist. There tend to be fewer good artists than poor ones at any given point.

    Climate science, social sciences? Now we’re into areas so grey, so political and politicized that I believe a mindset a little beyond open-mindedness, and into downright skepticism is appropriate. Doubt first. These are also the most likely scientific areas for ideologues to promote as incontrovertible.

    I note your link to defines open-mindedness as an intellectual virtue. Virtues are something that need to be cultivated. There are seeds of virtue in the hearts and minds of all children, but these seeds need conditions suitable for their growth and fruition. I believe the optimum conditions for the childhood development of all virtues is a healthy loving family. In home-schooling the family is given full force. It’s no guarantee but it is a big step in the right direction if you want to see your kids develop virtues like open-mindedness.

    • Nonnie
      Nonnie says:

      This is a really good point. Scientific understanding is constantly developing, and what we’re taught is almost always a simplification (but a *useful* simplification that can be used to accurately predict things).

      However I think it’s very important to distinguish, especially for children, between modifying scientific understanding because it no longer fully explains our best observations, and modifying scientific understanding because it doesn’t match up with what we want to believe about the world (due to religious, political, or other personal beliefs). Since we all have such blind spots, it’s important to be aware of them in ourselves and others, and not to be too harsh (“stupid”, “close-minded”) when we identify them.

  2. Cindy Gaddis
    Cindy Gaddis says:

    Yes, I think your close-mindedness was showing in that last example, Penelope. First, how do you know that the reason Jeanenne believes in creationism is because she refuses to listen to evolution ideas? Second, it sounds like you used the mirror effect on her because maybe it’s YOU that refuses to listen to creationism ideas…maybe ;-)

    That said, the way I shared things with my children is that I told them why I believe in creationism, why people believe in evolution, and why I don’t believe in evolution. I told them I suspect most people who don’t believe in creationism don’t believe in God, but that I don’t fully know. I then asked what they thought. They would share their ideas, and then continue on developing that point of view through experience and discussions throughout their lives.

    Those of my children who have a relationship with God still believe in creationism. One has had a falling away from God, and he considers evolution now. He still can’t answer my question against evolution, but we don’t have any heated arguments or anything over it. It’s where he’s at and he knows it’s where I’m at. Discussion can only occur if we’re both at an open-minded place, not at a place to defend, but to clarify and understand.

    I do agree that open-mindedness often is learned through example and modeling more than anything. I show my children I’m not afraid to listen to other viewpoints, and in fact, find them fascinating. It teaches me about people. At the same time, I can still hold strong personal beliefs.

    Open-mindedness doesn’t negate strongly held beliefs. It also doesn’t mean you have to change your beliefs because you listen to someone else’s. Open-mindedness allows me to stay humble to learning and that I don’t purport to know everything, while also strengthening my confidence in what I currently believe as I have to understand it to a deeper level.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      evolution is a scientific theory and not a believe system. There is ample evidence to support the theory of evolution, and there have been many changes and adaptations made to the theory over the last 200 years. It is grossly oversimplified and is represented in many incorrect ways in the public media. No, it is not written in stone, like no theory is written in stone, but it does work very well to explain many of the things we find around us. Intelligent design on the other hand is based on belief, many of the supporter of intelligent design use parts of the theory of evolution and combine it with their own beliefs. I am not agains beliefs but in contrast to a scientific theory they are outside of the realm of proof as it is understood in science. There is a tension as to where science begins and where it moves into the question of believing – particularly when evolution is discussed.

      However, climate science is based on physics, hydrodynamics and a few other branches of science and the reason it is difficult to apply and understand is because we apply it to such a large and complex system as our planet. The methods are sound, but as is always the case, they have to be continuously adapted and improved. The reason it is such a hot topic is not that people do not belief in climate science, but that it cannot (as most description of complex systems) deliver a super accurate number with a precise timeline. Belief should not enter the discussion in this context, only inability to grasp the complexity of the problem.

  3. Amy
    Amy says:

    1. Trackin’ with ya.

    2. I’m mostly trackin’ with ya here too.

    3. I’m always conflicted when my kids call me out. I’m humbled and proud at the same time. It’s a weird mix.

    As far as Jeanenne’s point, I guess according to #2 it’s worth considering. In any case, I saw a cartoon the other day I bet she’d love. You gotta show her the snowmen.

  4. redrock
    redrock says:

    just for your son: it is not yet entirely certain whether Neanderthals and homo sapiens sapiens mated. There has recently been strong evidence for it, but it is not certain by any means that they were able to also produce fertile offspring.

  5. Adam
    Adam says:

    There is a great Bill Nye TED Talk from last August where he argues that teaching creationism to children is a great disservice for their education:

    I agree that ignoring hard facts and evidence is very close minded, but so would ignoring the discussion between evolution and creationism. Learning to agree to disagree now is important if your son continues with paleontology, especially when it comes to fundamentalist religion and science.

    • Mark Kenski
      Mark Kenski says:

      A person who set out to reap an avalanche of anti-science sentiment could do no better than to condemn others for exercising their constitutional right to religion, to essentially term them child-abusers. Patronizing such people is not helping either.

      I suppose attempting to use the power of the state to limit this inalienable right might be even better for creating hostility toward science and scientists.

      In short, Bill Nye is not doing science any favors with this kind of talk. It is the same freedom of belief that allows science to exist at all, that allows people to believe as their conscience guides them. Undermining that precious freedom is a step backward into darkness, not progress.

      To the extent science is true, it will win people over by being true, over time, without coercion. Bigotry and tyranny do not become good things, even when they are practiced in the name of science. Dogmatic thinking is no virtue, even when it is scientific dogma.

      So I agree, Adam, learning to disagree with civility–to agree to disagree–is a valuable lesson at any age. It’s funny how many people value an open mind so highly, right up until the moment someone disagrees with them about something they hold dear.

      • Adam
        Adam says:

        Hi Mark,

        I agree, Bill Nye’s talk certainly comes off as anti-religion, especially the title. Even though he went on to ABC to emphasize that he wasn’t “attacking anyone’s religion”, his personal feelings on the matter are pretty clear. I would argue that the merit of his video lies in his passion for science and not against religion.

        I think he genuinely wants kids to grow up with an open mind for science, and is concerned about the implications for our future if they don’t. “My concern, is that you don’t want people growing up not believing in radiology, not believing in geology…you want people to believe in science, this process, this great idea” –

        I would also like to point out that your earlier post stating that it is, “incorrect to say that evolution is true”, is somewhat false. Without getting into the semantics between evolution “fact” and “theory”, descent with modification is an incontrovertible fact, while the explanation why is still theory.

        And yup from my experience people value an open mind right until you disagree with their politics or religion : )

  6. colleen
    colleen says:

    As an educated Christian, I have recently reconciled the fact that God created evolution. The 7 day deal is just to dramatize (sp?) The effect of His power. I agree with Cindy, a person can still have beliefs and be open minded and learn much from other different views. Love this post!

  7. Anna Louise
    Anna Louise says:

    Want open minded kids who have been exposed to real diversity? Then TRAVEL with them, all across the USA and all across some other continent, stopping in small towns off the tourist circuit, big cities, farms, and nature preserves. You can travel by foot, by bike, with backpack, sleep in a tent or hotel. 3 weeks crossing a continent will do more for their open mindedness than 13 years in K-12 classrooms in one school district.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I really wonder about the value of travel. First of all, kids need stability and close relationships within the community in order to have the security to start understanding themselves. And travel disrupts that stability.

      Second, I traveled a ton with my parents. And all we did was go and look. It’s not like we were a part of the community of Crete or Paris or Stratford-Upon-Avon. We were just going to “see” them.

      Diversity is what comes when you have to face it every day, as part of your life, and your sanity depends on figuring out how to conform. There is a lot of research about this for teams at work, so I don’t think I’m going far afield to say that you do not teach your kid diversity by visiting the Acropolis.

      Also, you don’t need to travel very far to see diversity. I have lived in New York City and it’s pretty much the same as Athens and Paris and London. But going to rural America is stunningly different. Like, another planet. So when people say they are traveling to see different cultures, I think, well, they probably are not. They are probably traveling to other countries to see people who are basically similar to them. And if not, then they are just looking.

      There’s my diatribe on why I think travel is largely a waste of time.


      • Ebriel
        Ebriel says:

        “I traveled a ton with my parents. And all we did was go and look. It’s not like we were a part of the community of Crete or Paris or Stratford-Upon-Avon. We were just going to “see” them.”

        YES — this is exactly why I stopped working as a travel writer several years ago. And why I began wanting to stay in one place, for more than a year at a time. (My partner and I are torn in different directions, nationality- and career-wise, so we compromise on this.)

        So much of travel is a zoo: looking at others through the bars of some expensive cage, after spending a day locked in an airplane or train to get there.

        • Sheela
          Sheela says:

          What about travel that is not ‘just looking’? I lived in Italy, with Italian roommates, and I served in a village in Papua New Guinea for two years with the Peace Corps. I was already fairly open-minded before I had either experience, otherwise I wouldn’t have sought them out. Here are the permanent benefits I gained from them: comfort with uncertainty, good instincts for keeping myself safe, adaptability to new situations, ease with non-western communication, compassion and a big picture perspective of my place in this big, messed up and beautiful world……those were priceless. Kids can start gleaning these benefits when they are teens or pre-teens, I think, if they have chosen the experience.

      • Julie
        Julie says:

        Ehhh, I totally disagree that kids need stability that is so stable it can’t even accommodate travel in order to “understand themselves.” I think that staying in one place for most of your life and having very strong ties to a community can inhibit understanding yourself in many cases and in many ways. You don’t need to understand yourself very well when you don’t need to confront new experiences and people and find ways to adapt, and so (in my experience), you don’t spend a lot of time on it.

        I say this as someone who moved a lot as a kid. Most of the travel we did was not for sightseeing purposes, but rather to see family, so I can’t speak much to that (although I suspect you are correct that it does nothing for open-mindedness). I love to travel, because the feeling of potential and newness gives me a huge thrill, but I hate sightseeing.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I recently watched a show on Neanderthals named “Decoding Neanderthals” on PBS’s NOVA. They reconstructed the Neanderthal genome, compared it to the human genome, and they’re convinced successful interbreeding did take place. The link to the show is here – . The Neanderthal does not appear to be nearly as primitive as we thought.

    • Daniel Baskin
      Daniel Baskin says:

      Yes, and in fact I’ve seen somewhere that the neanderthals could’ve potentially possessed even greater intellect than homo sapiens. The issue was that they were less socially adept and died out for that reason (with some interbreeding previous to extinction).

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        This stuff is just totally fascinating to me. The fact that humans did so well because we are socially adept really sheds light on my family full of people with Aspergers.

        Also, in one of the bazillion TV specials we watched on evolution, we learned that the men stayed in their tribe and the women moved to a new tribe to mate. Which meant that the women had to develop social skills in order to figure out how to be accepted, which, to me, explains so much about why social skills disorders affect the male population at 10 times the rate of the female population.


        • MBL
          MBL says:

          In the NG article I referenced below, it discussed the maturation of Neanderthals and was determined to be about 4 years faster than homo sapiens, thus they had less socialization and time to pass down shared wisdom.
          The section on reading tooth development like tree rings was fascinating!

        • channa
          channa says:

          Have you read any of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s books? My favorite ever. Felt like therapy for my brain when I had my first child.

  9. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    The difference between science and religious belief (which is not to say that science automatically = adherence to evolutionary thought) is that scientific theories consist of verifiable (reproducible) evidences, with roots in initial verifiable observations. Religious belief is based upon non-verifiable (non-reproducible) observations–revelation / Scripture / tradition / experience, etc. (don’t get me wrong, parts of religious texts are reliable historical documents, in which many truth claims *are* verified)–but many claims simply can’t be reproduced.

    You cannot prove or disprove God. That doesn’t mean personal belief is irrational. If you have a personal spiritual encounter, there is validity to that. But actionable epistemology (or, knowledge that is worthy of being acted on or used to fuel useful and practical science) requires reproducible evidence.

    To the dismay of strict naturalists, there is some observational merit to intelligent design, but not as much observational merit as there is to evolution, in my investigation.

    I think what Bill Nye, and others, are getting at when they say that religious upbringing is child abuse is that a belief in hell or the need for a perfect guy’s suffering because of your imperfections is needlessly traumatic to teach to a child, especially before a child is developmentally not able to sort religious belief out for themselves.

    • Daniel Baskin
      Daniel Baskin says:

      To clarify about developmental readiness for critical thinking:

      Even young children are capable of intense critical thinking to certain capacities. I don’t think Bill Nye would have a problem with religious upbringing if the parents taught their religion with an open hand, and encouraged independent reasoning and investigation.

      The main problem Bill Nye, et. al, have is when parents deny their children the developmental growth opportunities of thinking for themselves, and in (hopefully) rarer cases, ransoming love and acceptance, hoping that their child doesn’t think for themselves.

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      While I suppose it can be, I interpret it as “Won’t even consider another viewpoint.” At least that’s what I mean by it.

      Now if someone were to say it about me, well then surely it would signify that they were incredibly stupid. . .

  10. MBL
    MBL says: is an excellent, engaging cover story on Neanderthals by Stephen S. Hall.

    What I got out of it is that we and they may have had the same ancestors and then diverged and developed in independent branches with a 99.5% genetic match. There is some evidence of mating, but it was not frequent enough for neanderthal lineage to still be discernible in modern humans.

    The article is from 2008, so who knows what the story is these days.

  11. Mark Kenski
    Mark Kenski says:

    Adam, I will grant you that everything I have ever said in my life has been arguably “somewhat false” :) I only aim for having some nugget or essence of useful truth! A hard enough target.

    I’m heartened by the civility of the discourse here, when as I’m sure you have seen, even a totally unrelated science blog post or youtube video can erupt almost instantly into the most imbecilic and infantile name-calling arguments between various kinds of true believers.

    Your comments, and those of Redrock, Nonnie, and Daniel all have shown nuance, consideration and restraint that indicates what I think is an admirable openness of mind. In so doing, I believe you show yourselves to be true friends of science, and a productive part of the long term social process of science slowly “settling.”

    I thought Cindy and Coleen, for their part, did a good job of reflecting the fact that to have religious beliefs that might seem to encroach on scientific domains is neither the end of the world, nor the downfall of society. I happen to believe in a supreme consciousness, so I sympathize with the efforts all such believers must go through to function in a modern technological society. It is a rigor that atheists like Bill Nye are spared, since–for them–there is nothing to reconcile. That rigor, that wrestling of heart and mind and struggle to resolve facts and beliefs and the heightened awareness of differences it brings, is something that gives great value to the viewpoints of many religious people–and I wish more secularists saw that value and made use of it to enrich themselves.

    Our family switched a while back from watching television together to reading classics aloud (something I heartily evangelize for!) and my son started reading Sun Tzu’s Art of War aloud today. It seems to me that Sun Tzu felt the fundamental principle of war is deception. Deception allows you to bring about bad judgement in your opponent. And by controlling deception, one can guide which bad decisions your opponent makes, and thus win.

    And it occurred to me that the somewhat less-studied Art of Peace has a similar fundamental principle: honesty.

    For me, honesty starts with this realization, that Socrates and I suspect even Carl Sagan would heartily endorse: we do not know as much as we’d like to. Nor probably even half as much as we think we do. Nor a fraction of what we will one day. Being honest with ourselves consists of being willing to consider things we disagree with and reach rich, sophisticated answers, or sometimes break through to the simplest answers, rather than carry around a stock of straw-men that we can project on everyone who has a different point of view or belief from us.

    I am sensitive to this also because I’ve been a homeschooler. An unschooler in fact. Just one of many unconventional beliefs I have strongly held. I’ve spent half my life fighting for my right to evaluate the merits as my ability allows and live based upon the conclusions I reach, such as they are. I do not require others to agree with me, just give me room to explore for myself. I’ll listen to your arguments, just don’t take for granted that I hold my opinion due to ignorance or mental incapacity, since you simply do not know that.

    As I said, this discussion has been pretty encouraging. Perhaps none of us has as much to fear as we might be led to believe by the overwhelming prominence of the most strident percent or two of the internet that seems to dominate so much traffic on these subjects.

  12. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    I’m the opposite because I’m very open-minded. I would still let others say their views and reasons first even if I already know that they are illegal, immoral, or unscientific. Then I would say what the law, a particular religion, or the science says on that issue and let them think for themselves.

    Maybe introverts could be more open-minded than extroverts simply because they listen more. And maybe intuitive types are more open-minded than sensing tyoes because they can often see the big picture. There are always exceptions. But there is another personality test that measures preference for openness.

  13. Mary Kathryn
    Mary Kathryn says:

    Your son is correct. Jeanenne’s view is one of those “fringe views” that schools are careful to ridicule and ignore. You wouldn’t want to do that, would you?

  14. S.J.
    S.J. says:

    As a former “close-minded” evolutionary geologist who is now a creationist, and who has published in a secular geology journal, I would like to add to Mark’s statement that it is encouraging to see a non-escalating combox discussion on this issue.

    Re: Adam’s comment that “descent with modification is an incontrovertible fact, while the explanation why is still theory,” I would argue that a fact must be backed up by evidence.

    However, as Phillip Johnson said in his ground-breaking book, Darwin on Trial, “…evidence never speaks for itself, it has meaning only in the context of rules of reasoning which determine what may be considered and what counts as evidence.” (Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Regnery Gateway, 1991), 14.)

    Descent with modification is one explanation proffered for the fossil record and the existence of shared biological characteristics among organisms. However, those can both be explained equally as well by the assumption of a common Designer and of a worldwide catastrophic flood.

    Which explanation you choose will depend in part upon your fundamental assumptions about the existence or non-existence of the supernatural.

    Take, for example, Carl Sagan’s famous quote, “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

    It’s not logical for anyone to claim that their “grasp of the universe” is any more realistic than someone else’s until they’ve resolved the question of whether or not there is an order of existence beyond that of the purely natural. If the supernatural exists, then a supernatural causation for the universe is on the table when considering explanations for its existence. If not, then it isn’t.

    And for those who would hold that only non-supernatural explanations are admissable by science, it’s important to realize that science, by its very nature, only treats of phenomena that can be discerned by the natural senses.

    Therefore, science, while an important component in the search for truth, cannot claim to be the final arbiter of Truth—unless, and only unless, the fundamental axiom is upheld that the supernatural does not exist–which is not a theorem provable by science.

  15. Cindy Gaddis
    Cindy Gaddis says:

    Mark, I loved everything you said, and also had been thinking to myself what a great conversation and discussion has occurred here with an often volatile subject.

    And I also found your perspective and ideas, S.J., quite fascinating and interesting. Thanks everyone for the great contributions!

  16. Jillian
    Jillian says:

    I don’t know, man. I stopped trusting science when they started contradicting themselves – wait, Pluto isn’t a planet now? I’ve had about a dozen of those learned-something-in-school-that’s-been-proven-completely-wrong-now things, and so I teach my kids what’s out there and just explain that sometimes we get new information and we change our ideas of how things happened. Hell, even history is super-biased, and we were actually there for that stuff.

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