The act of thinking is in a bit of a predicament these days. American culture has never cared less about what has been known for millennia as “objective truth.” Despite the apathy, an objective truth still guides and directs reality, whether I or anyone else cares about it or not. Why would I care? The answer is simple. I, you, and everyone should care about objective truth and reality for one of the most fundamental reasons we care about anything: we want to be happy. Understanding reality (objective truth) is essential to living happily, and from the Catholic perspective, to living happily eternally.
We as humans encounter objective truth through reason by thinking. Thinking is a skill, and like any skill, it can be developed. As with all the gifts God gives, we, as parents have a sacred duty to help grow and foster the gift of reason in our children. The traditional age of reason given by the Church is 7, but you don’t have to wait until then to begin teaching your children about it. They certainly don’t wait till 7 to start working things out, as evidenced by an exchange I had with one of our children when he was not quite 4:
John: “I want to get a toy at the store.”
Me: “I don’t have money to get a toy today.”
John: “Well, don’t you get money for going to work?”
John: “Then just go to work and get more money, and we can get a toy.”
John was able to work out a wonderful line of logical reasoning before age 4. We are wired to reason. This is so essential, especially in our day and age where information, false and otherwise, reaches us (and our children) at an unprecedented rate. Some of that information is helpful and amazing. I’ve had professionals recommend YouTube videos for helpful, solid content. Then there’s the flip side. We don’t need to look far to find complete nonsense; truthfully, we don’t need to look at all; it finds us. So, in a sense, the faculty of reason is more important today than ever. We’re going to dive into some practical ways that you can foster the gift of reason in your children.
What is truth?
The truth is the truth even if no one believes it, and a lie is a lie even if everyone believes it.Archbishop Fulton Sheen
This question, famously asked by Pontius Pilate of Jesus, is a great place to start. Kids have a natural curiosity about the world around them. They want to know what is true. The way that the term gets thrown around these days, you could be forgiven for concluding that truth can mean anything or nothing at all. The first step to learning sound reasoning skills is helping our children understand the definition of truth and what it refers to. The simplest way to define truth is that truth refers to something factual or real.
The most important distinction to be made is between objective truth and subjective truth. Objective truth refers to things that are true independent of me. The classical example is math. 2+2=4 regardless of me, my opinions, or even my existence. It is objectively true. Subjective truth refers to things that depend on me. For example, I find pizza delicious. The reality of pizza being delicious is true only because I am there to find it so. If I weren’t there, pizza wouldn’t be delicious. At most, you could describe its flavor profile, but whether it’s delicious or not depends on the subject to experience it. Some people don’t care for it, and that doesn’t make my assessment that it’s delicious untrue. A subjective truth is a bit like an opinion. It’s real for me, but not for everyone. Reason is our path to objective truth. Reason allows us to grasp and share ideas and information that we need not directly experience. Our senses and personal experience lead to subjective truth.
A Hands On Activity To Teach Children About Subjective Truth
With children, one great way to explain this is to get three bowls of water. Put some ice in one and put the other in the microwave for a bit. The water should be noticeably warmer but not too hot to touch. The third bowl stays at room temperature. Have the child put a hand in the ice water for 30 seconds or so, then move that hand into the room-temperature water. Ask how the room temperature water feels. It will feel warm. Then, repeat the process with the other hand in the warm water. Now, when they put their hand in the room-temperature water, it will feel cool. You can explain then that the room temperature water is the exact same temperature; it is objectively the same temperature even though subjectively it felt different.
From there, you can simply start to ask the question, “Is that objectively true or subjectively true?” If you want, you can phrase the question in simpler language, “Is that true for everybody, or just for you?” Follow up by asking why your child answered as they did. This is less about getting a right answer every time and more about just learning to think along those lines. For older children, you can ask, “What about that is objectively true, and what is subjectively true?” We as parents often address this without necessarily trying to when we explain that denying a child a third helping of ice cream may feel mean, but it is actually loving. What we are saying is that we understand that the subjective truth is pain; the child is being denied what they perceive to be good. However, we know that objectively speaking, three helpings of ice cream is actually too much sugar and isn’t good for the body. Denying the ice cream is objectively loving. Having these conversations will train your child to think about and grasp what kind of claim is actually being made and to engage the person or content claiming the truth accordingly.
How do I know it’s true?
Moving away from subjective truth, let’s focus on things that are objectively true. There are a few basic ways that we can tell if something is true:
1) Reliable testimony. This one is pretty simple. Who did you hear it from? Do they usually tell the truth? The more consistently someone tells the truth, the more reliable they are. This is our primary learning method as children, but we never outgrow it completely. Teaching small children to rely on testimony mostly involves teaching them a simple list of people to trust: God, parents, teachers, priests, etc. As they get older, you can start taking it further. One question you can introduce around middle school is, “Who benefits if I believe this?” When it comes to the internet, in particular, just about everyone is selling something, and this question will help your child develop the skills to identify when they’re being sold. It is important to note that just because a particular person or group would benefit, it doesn’t automatically make them liars, but it does probably warrant taking another step to corroborate what you’re being told. As one grows in the skill of critical thinking, one grows in their discernment of reliability and learns to trust only sources that deserve it.
2) Logical coherence or non-contradiction. This basically means that we can examine whether what we’re being presented with makes sense with the rest of reality as we know it. If we see a headline proclaiming that a man in Utah discovered the secret of human flight, we would discount it immediately. We know enough about gravity and being human that we can identify the headline as made up. Now, we live in a beautiful and mysterious world, and none of us knows everything, so this one isn’t always enough on its own. The younger a child is the less experience of the world they have and the less context they have to use this tool. Simply asking if a given piece of information makes sense is a good way for young children to start cross-checking what they hear against logic.
One way to build this skill in small children is to play true/false games. One variation is to take a topic the child knows something about and present them with three statements: two truths and a lie. See if they can use what they know about the topic to identify the lie.
A great challenge for pre-teens and up is to look at this website, which is intended to appear legitimate but is fictitious. See if they can identify it as false: Save The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus (zapatopi.net)
3) Proof. This one has a great deal of variety to it, as what it means to prove something will change depending on what it is being proven. Proving 2+2=4 requires almost nothing, and proving where I was at a given time would require something else entirely. Proof that I love my wife looks very different than proof about the boiling point of water. Essentially, though, what we mean when we say proof is that we want something that can’t be faked. Unfortunately, nowadays anything digital can be faked. A quick YouTube search of the word “deepfake” will reveal that. Whereas things like photos and videos were once considered proof, they’re hindered by the modern ability to fake them. More and more proof has become reliant on the previous two ways of knowing truth. When it comes to children, obviously trying to explain a deepfake to a 6-year-old is not going to be helpful. Your best recourse, once again, is to ask questions. You can ask, “Do you believe that?” and “Why?” For older children, you can challenge them to prove things to you and observe the methods they use to do it. There’s not necessarily one right way to prove something, but the questions exercise the skill of critical thinking.
Emotions and the standard of proof
One of the most significant challenges to the pursuit of truth is our emotions. Emotions and reason aren’t enemies, but they do influence one another and sometimes to the detriment of one or the other. Specifically, emotions change our standard of proof. That means that how I feel about something can change what I need to see in order to consider something proven. The more I want something to be true, the less evidence I will demand before going ahead and believing it to be true. The less I want something to be true, the more exacting my requirements will be when it comes to proving it, especially if knowing that something is true will require me to change my behavior. An excellent question for small children is, “Do you think that’s true, or do you just want it to be true?”
Try creating a litmus test for the standard of proof. Find a topic that is neutral to your child and that won’t know anything about. Then, come up with a statement about that topic. Discuss and write down what it would take to convince your child that the statement is true. Then, do the same for topics your child is passionate about, either for or against. Compare the results against one another, and you’ll likely see the emotional bias come out. You can repeat the exercise for different scenarios, factual statements vs. personal statements. Proving or disproving a material fact differs from determining whether to believe a statement about a person. You can even save the results or organize them into a chart that you can refer back to when it seems your child is falling for something they want to believe or resisting something they don’t.
Discerning the truth is rarely an exact science. There is certainly very little that we can prove with the exactitude of mathematics. Asking questions and conversing with your children about truth early and often is a great gift that will help them learn to think and enjoy the freedom that truth brings. It’s a process, and we won’t always get it right, but honest conversations are a blessing, and even our mistakes can be enlightening. When you’re up against a wall, remember that God promised to send us the Spirit of Truth, and we know God is trustworthy.
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.