The Establishment’s Worst Nightmare: Why I Want My Daughter to Question Everything


By Alicia of

Nearly every Friday in my classroom is “Current Events Friday”.  On these days, I bring in articles to share with the class.  The students read, analyze argument, debate hot topics, and write essays regarding the writing.  Not only is it good reading, writing, speaking, and listening practice, but it also brings the rest of the world right to my students.  Many of these sixteen and seventeen year olds will be voting soon, moving out into the “real world”, and I, for one, more than wanting them to remember Macbeth’s lamentations on the futility of life or Hamlet’s suicidal contemplations, want them to have the critical thinking skills to be constructive members of society.  (It’s all pretty selfish, actually.  I like those kids, but I don’t want a bunch of non-thinkers messing up my future!  Just kidding.  Sort of.)

Anyway, it was the end of the semester that one of my students popped in for a chat.  I was actually in the midst of setting up a CNN video clip for the class to watch and, hopefully, argue about.  “I wanted to thank you, ” he began, “for teaching our class.  It was one of my favorites.  You are like, The Establishment’s worst nightmare – you actually teach and encourage kids to think.”

Oh man.

Best teacher compliment ever.

I must have grinned about that all day.  Because yes, that was my main goal – developing critical thinking skills in students.  And while I’m pretty proud that, he “gets” the class I was simultaneously saddened by the fact that throughout his schooling experience, he hasn’t found many who want kids to think for themselves.  I can’t imagine that the idea that critical thinking is contrary to The Establishment comes directly from our school.  I know that my colleagues and administrators love nothing more than having kids question texts, evaluate arguments and analyze assertions.  However, he’s not totally incorrect.  In fact, the first thing that comes to mind Texas Republican Party’s 2012 Platform.  In the section on education, they state that they “oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills…critical thinking skills and similar programs…which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority” (Republican Party of Texas, 2012, p.20).

I shudder because in many respects, I am totally cool with challenging fixed beliefs – something I don’t believe undermines parental authority. Where would the world be if someone hadn’t challenged people’s fixed beliefs on, well, anything!  Yes, I want my kid to think for herself.  When the other kids decide to bully someone, I want her to be the one to stand out.  If she is overlooked, I want her to be a squeaky wheel.  When her government acts I want her to ask questions.  If she disagrees, I want her to protest.  To do what she thinks is right, to be guided by her own compass, to sit in, speak up, or walk out.  I want her to be a counter friction to stop the machine, straight up Thoreau style.

Well, at least, in theory.

A couple of months ago, my kid began asking a ton of “why” questions.  Then she started challenging my edicts and dictates.  It was then that I realized that I was now The Establishment.

That’s right.

I’m the one saying that we go to bed at this time, that it’s time to use the potty, that the TV had been on far too long, that going outside at the moment wasn’t an option, that we weren’t going to spend money on A because we needed to spend it on B.  And, stupid me, I taught her to ask questions, and girl, does she ever.  “Why?”  She asks.  And before I can answer that one good, she adds on another “Yes, but why?!” It pops up at every turn!

And the explanations!  Sometimes, when you ask a kid to stop jumping on the bed, you just want them to stop jumping on the bed at this very moment.  (Yes, Mom, I know that this is parenting karma.  But I was just stepping on the bed.)  But kids that think?  Kids that think have explanations for everything.  A simple “please stop spraying the mirror with water” gets a long explanation of just why she decided mirror spraying was a great idea.

Who taught this kid to think?!  Who taught her to ask questions?!  Oh, that’s right, it was me.

Womp womp.

So how do you become The Establishment’s Worst Nightmare? (And, perhaps one day, your own…)  It’s simple, really.

  •  Answer Those Why Questions!  Answer the questions as completely as you can – it encourages your child to ask more.  Unless, of course, you’re pretty sure she already knows the answer – then ask her what she thinks.  If you don’t know the answer, admit it then do one of two things.
  • Turn the question around and ask her. “I don’t know why it’s still raining.  Why do you think it’s still raining?”
  • And if neither of you can come up with a suitable (or awesomely creative) answer, look it up.  “Why can’t I eat chocolate for dinner?!” was one of my favorite research projects.  Via Sesame Street’s YouTube channel, we discovered that even The Cookie Monster eats healthy foods.  The promise of having strong bones has been enough to get her back to eating peas.  For now.
  • Ask Questions of Your Own!  When she starts in on a long explanation about just why she felt the need to do exactly what you asked her not to, don’t just ask her what she was thinking.  Instead, once she’s out of danger, throw some open-ended questions at her and ask her to make predictions about the consequences of her actions. The oven incident didn’t end with just a spanking and an “I told you not to!” – it also included questions about how warm the oven felt and what she thought would happen if she touched the oven without a grown up.  It gave me the chance to correct some commonly held misconceptions about the oven’s ease-of-use.  (I must admit though, this approach did not work for electrical outlets.  Or, for some reason, rolls of toilet paper.  That took…more effort.)
  • Challenge Stuff!  Is that guy happy?  Was that the right thing to do?  Is Alexander right to be so grumpy?  Why don’t you need a nap?  Should we wear seatbelts?  I think I’m going to wear pants on my head today, do you think that’s a good idea?  Now, occasionally I’m thrown for a loop when she says “Yeah, wear those pants on your head.”  However, most of the time, she’s pretty good at stopping me from doing something too silly.  The main purpose behind this game is to get her to use logic to support her arguments.  Full disclosure, it doesn’t always work.  Case in point: The other day, she wanted a new washer and dryer set from Sears (okay, I wanted it, she was complicit) and tried to hand the sales person some pocket lint as payment.  It took forever for me to convince her that lint would not suffice.  It was funny, I’ll admit it.
    So how do I teach her to question authority – just not mine?   Well, see, I don’t think I can.  And yes, I get frustrated, who wouldn’t?  One study of moms in the UK found that we get asked about 300 questions a day!  And it takes everything in me to stop myself from answering whys with becauses and from telling her to just do whatever it is because I said to do it.  There are plenty of times when I begin counting, because I’m all out of words and I just don’t feel like fighting any more.

    I try to make those times rare.  And to help us both out, I keep trying to remind myself that “Why?” is a question I never want her to stop asking.  Because once she does, The Establishment will win.