My middle-school aged stepson came home with a new project recently. He had to give a presentation on a historical figure who had left an impact on the world. The list of notable individuals to choose from was long and varied, including kings and queens, world leaders, sports heroes, scientists, fashion icons, celebrities and Nobel peace prize winners. When he told my husband and me that he had chosen Christopher Columbus, we were…underwhelmed.
Given the fact that my husband had spent most of his teaching career working in Native American communities (where Columbus is most certainly not celebrated as a national hero), his choice was in fact a little distressing. When we asked him what he had learned about Columbus so far, we got what felt like the typical white-washed kindergarten history version of the man who “discovered America”. (Shh…don’t tell the Vikings.)
We discussed with him the mixed legacy that Columbus had left behind in the hopes of steering his presentation in a direction that we both felt more comfortable with. As we talked though, it was clear that we were deflating his enthusiasm for the subject, and I was afraid that we were making him feel bad about his choice. So, I also emphasized that no one was perfect and if we tried, we could find something disappointing about every other “hero” on that list. They’re not just the sum total of what they’re famous for. They’re also fully realized human beings who had flaws, made mistakes and still managed to have an impact worthy of recognition.
A few days later I was reviewing his first draft with him, and it was everything that we were afraid it would be. Discovered America. Most famous explorer. American Hero. Ugh.
I asked him what sources he was using, and he said they were only allowed to use the state online library because, as his teacher told him, “you can trust it if it’s in a library”. Having paid some attention to news stories about the agendas that can lead to books being either in or out of any particular library, there was no way that I was going to let this stand.
Here before me was a teaching moment on critical thinking…that could come back to bite me in the ass and make the upcoming teenage years all kinds of difficult.
I described for him a simplified version of the logical fallacy “argument from authority”. I basically broke it down to “just because you found it in a library, it’s not automatically true, and it’s not automatically complete. Anybody can put a book in a library. If you can, you need to verify your information and corroborate with other sources.”
Although it’s important to me to make sure he learns critical thinking skills (and I try to teach them at every opportunity), this particular one is hard. I want him to not automatically accept everything that his teachers tell him, but to do so without disrespecting them or being adversarial in a way that impacts his education.
More selfishly though, I want him to question authority…just not mine.
As a stepparent I’m particularly sensitive to this because I’ve worked really hard to earn that authority in the first place. My husband had to be willing to concede some of his authority to me. My stepson had to be willing to accept it. I had to prove that I deserved it. It took long time, but we got it down and it’s been working for us.
Maintaining the authority that I have is increasingly difficult because of all of the other authority figures that he has in his life. Two sets of parents, teachers, school administrators, friends, media, grandparents — all of us telling him what to do, what to believe, how to behave.
Now that my stepson is a preteen and has entered middle school, he’s starting to push back in an attempt to establish some autonomy. He doesn’t want to be told when to do his homework or when go to bed. He thinks he should be able to decide these things for himself. When his mother remarried last summer, he bemoaned the addition of yet another parent and authority figure to his life (even though he really likes his new stepfather.)
I fully expect the next few years to be extra trying in this regard and it’s not helping that I’m essentially telling him that he shouldn’t blindly trust in everything that he’s told. Except when it’s coming from me, because clearly I know what I’m talking about.
I suppose, though, the real lesson here is for me. Authority has to be earned, whether as a parent or as an expert. My stepson accepts me as an authority figure because I’ve been trustworthy and consistent. I need him to expect the same at school and with the other influences in his life. If he does, he’ll have the core skills he needs to be a lifelong skeptic and critical thinker.
Featured image from Accidental Hedonist on Flickr.