Clearing the Air

Blog · Mar 12, 2020

Young minds are constantly seeking examples of acceptable behavior. From the youngest ages, parents and the other adults in a child’s life set the model of behavior and norms. As children mature and begin to socialize, their peers become models for normative behavior as well. Whether it is what to say and do in social situations to fit in, how to respond to stressful situations, or adopting normative expectations of what is healthy and good and what is not, children observe and adopt the actions and attitudes set for them by their peers and the adults in their lives. Later, messaging in social media and traditional media becomes a new source of influence.

The question is, are we doing enough to prepare children and adolescents to consider and analyze the powerful and persuasive messaging they encounter? Are they prepared to question the validity of an idea before adopting attitudes and behaviors automatically? Are we doing enough to promote the adoption of healthy norms and expectations and mitigate the influence of negative norms and expectations?


Safe? …or just less bad?

How do we instill in children and adolescents the instinct to question conventional wisdom?



Consider the rapid rise in vaping among children and adolescents as a challenging example of media and peer messaging to study. In the last decade, the introduction and widespread adoption of products like vaporizers and e-cigarettes has sparked varied conversations in the public sphere about safety, efficacy, and health. Specifically, consumers wonder what is safe and if these products are a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes. A fascinating follow-on phenomenon that has developed from this conversation about the public health benefits of nicotine vaporizers to help smokers quit is the development of an implied message that vaporized nicotine is somehow benign. For children and adolescents, the message effectively received is: smoking is bad, vaping is safe.

So, why do we default to assuming a product is safe merely because a more dangerous alternative exists? How do we instill in children and adolescents the instinct to question conventional wisdom? Indeed, if something is a less bad alternative, is it automatically good? Of course it isn’t. Nicotine is not a benign substance. Nicotine use in any form is a risk factor for heart disease, skin damage, and yellowing of the teeth, skin, and nails. Nicotine disrupts the healthy development of the adolescent brain. Nicotine is a highly addictive drug.

So much of the messaging in our society is designed to influence our decision making, and to be sure, it is not all sinister. Independent of the motivation behind media and other messaging, children and teens must learn to recognize the efforts to focus their attention on a predetermined story or point. Preparing children and teens to develop their critical thinking skills to assess messaging with a critical eye will equip them to make smarter decisions about the health and safety of products like e-cigarettes. Helping children develop critical thinking skills early can help them question the media messages that inundate them every day and will ultimately prepare them to make smarter, healthier decisions for themselves.



A Recipe for Mindful Decision Making in Children

Encouraging children to tackle the question of "what if?” will help them see and experience the connection between their behavior and a specific outcome.


One way to help children develop the necessary skills for making healthy choices is to promote their own self-awareness and social awareness. In that way, they are prepared to acknowledge and account for the role their emotions and other internal influences play in their decision making in the moment and to consider the motivations of others as they work to deciding a course of action. They will be ready and more inclined to factor in the effect of external influences on their attitudes and expectations. They can then consider the question on the merits of the information at hand.

The application of these skills to develop and practice critical thinking can be amplified through specific exercises that focus on action, thought, and questioning. Specifically, critical thinking skills can be fostered in children if they are presented in the following ways:

  • Stop to Think: Encouraging children to stop to give themselves time to think through their options and the consequences of their decisions before acting can prevent regrettable outcomes and promote making choices consistent with their goals. This time to think should be spent evaluating the information they are given. Are their sources reliable? Is there a motive behind those sources? Is that motive consistent with my short and long term goals? Will the consequences of this decision outweigh the benefits of the outcome?
  • Role Play: Encouraging children to tackle the question of "what if?” will help them see and experience the connection between their behavior and a specific outcome. Role play can illustrate the effects of strategies for resolving conflicts, resisting pressure, and demonstrating positive choices. Hands-on experience can set the foundation for further development of abstract critical thinking.
  • Engaging Discussion: Asking open-ended rather than "yes/no" questions encourages children to look a little deeper into the problems and solutions they face. It can also help children develop hypotheses, encouraging them to think in different ways, opening them up to consider multiple alternatives and actions.

We have built these social development skills into our prevention programs to ready children to establish their own healthy values and expectations to navigate the world around them. The program design facilitates discussion and applies social interactive activity design to engage students to learn, practice, and apply the skills essential to analyzing influence and factoring those influences as part of a larger decision making process. We focus on five essential skills to promote social emotional competency:
  • Setting Reachable Goals
  • Making Responsible Decisions
  • Bonding with Pro-social Others
  • Identifying and Managing Emotions
  • Communicating Effectively

Together, the capacity for critical thinking and a bit of healthy skepticism can prepare children to challenge peer influence that promotes unhealthy behavior. To learn more about our programs and curricula, visit

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