How to Raise an Open-Minded Child

by Stephen Bradshaw February 09, 2017

woman travelling with a child. Mother and son watching rainbow

I grew up in a religious cult. I’m not talking about a church where our pastor said a few fundamentalist things. I mean a church where repeated instances of physical, sexual, drug, and emotional abuse occurred over a period of years. I remember one time on a camping trip when the pastor offered me, a seven-year-old child, a hit on his joint. Yeah, C.R.A.Z.Y. But do you know what could have stopped this cult from emerging in the first place? Open-mindedness. If one of the families had allowed themselves to see the other side of the coin, like, “Hey, maybe our family members telling us we’re in a cult are right,” they could have avoided some of the deep wounds the cult caused before it finally imploded 15 years later. As extreme as my cult experience may have been, we all have these hidden close-minded areas in our lives. For example, if you’re anti-Trump in front of your children, have you explained to them the legitimate reasons why people voted for him, or do they only see the fire and brimstone held out for “those crazies?” If your children are preschoolers like mine, open-mindedness might look like trying out new games they come up with even though it takes you out of your comfort zone. The point is that open-mindedness is hard, especially in this era of intense political polarization. Yet we all want our own children to be open-minded because being this way makes them more kind (because they can empathize), less likely to get taken advantage of (e.g., cult), better at problem solving (by seeing all angles), and a whole bunch of other good things. But it’s not always easy knowing how to teach these things. To that end, I’ve put together five things you can do to teach your children how to be open minded:

Fix you first

If we explain the importance of being open-minded to our children, but then rail against pro-choice people or people of faith without explaining the legitimate reasons why those people might believe what they believe, we are modeling close-mindedness to our children. The change starts with you and me. Identify the issues you are most passionate about, and consider the reasoning of the other side. For example, I did not vote for Trump. But I know that Trump voters didn’t vote for him because they approve of his lewd comments and other subpar behaviors. They voted for him because of his business experience, or because he’s an outsider who they believed could make a change in Washington. Understanding this allows me to talk with my Trump-supporting friends without having to bring their character into question (and, therefore, driving a wedge into our friendship).

Allow them to question

Despite my cult experience, I stuck with my faith. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I began questioning the foundation of my faith (for reasons other than the cult craziness). And it took the entirety of those two years to find answers to my questions. Now, I feel that I’m at a much better place. Had I not allowed myself to question my faith and instead chose to believe that “everyone else is wrong,” or something similar, I would have remained closed off, stuck in my close-minded ways.

Expose them to different things

When I was in high school, I traveled to Africa for three weeks and saw, for the first time in my life, what true poverty looked like. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least. Serving in soup kitchens, helping foster families, and visiting different countries has helped me understand that the world is much bigger than my white middle-class life lead me to believe. If you want your children to better understand the world and be open to the unfamiliar, be intentional about sharing it with them, including the ugly parts.

Point out prejudice

When my son was just learning to talk, I used to put words to his emotions for him. If I had to take a toy away and he began crying, I’d say, “Are you feeling sad?” Pointing out his emotions taught him how to recognize them. In the same way, we should point out prejudices whenever our kids are faced with them so that we can help them, first, to recognize them for what they are and, second, to teach them how to resist that way of thinking.

Teach them how to listen

I just told an acquaintance today that I’m in the process of selling my house. The first words out of his mouth were about how he needed to sell his house and all the things he needed to do to it before putting it on the market. From there, the conversation moved on. I didn’t feel heard at all. You have to be able to truly listen to others before you can understand a different viewpoint. Our world needs more open-minded, loving people. Start with your children. Teach them today what open-mindedness means and how it can change the world.

Stephen Bradshaw


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