Arming Your Young Adult with Discernment & Critical Thinking

Launching your young adult may seem really scary. Not just for them but for you too! When you look around at the world you’re launching them into it can feel intimidating. It may feel like sending your child out to fight battles without any weapons.

Arming your student for the battles they’ll fight in the world is a critical piece of preparing them to launch. Of course, there is much you can arm them with. One thing in particular that we want to focus on here is discernment and critical thinking.

Many mis-steps can be avoided if your young adult is equipped with the ability to discern and critically think through the situations they find themselves in.

Now, it’s beyond the scope of this article to teach everything you need to know about discernment and critical thinking (not to mention beyond the scope of this writer’s expertise!). But in this article I’d like to lay out three principles for teaching your student discernment and critical thinking that can help you both make progress in their launch into adulthood. These three principles are as follows:

  1. Appreciate the power of asking questions.
  2. Acknowledge the need for real experience in developing wisdom.
  3. Accept the importance of understanding context.

The Power of Asking Questions

The first principle we want to look at is: appreciate the power of asking questions.

This is something we talk about frequently at Unbound. We understand that the world we live in today is actually considerably different than the world that existed just a few decades ago. The ascent of the internet into pervasive use has led to an inundation of answers. The knowledge of the world is at our fingertips. More information can be accessed by an internet-user in one day than could be accessed by someone in their entire lifetime no more than one hundred years ago.

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This “age of information” has fundamentally changed the way we ask questions and receive answers. In fact, it has changed the relative importance of those two things. Jonathan Brush points out that “In the world of today, knowing all of the answers is not a significant advantage. Answers are available almost instantly. Instead, the critical skill is being able to find, sort, and test all of those answers.” (Emphasis original.)

Therefore, discernment, critical thinking, wisdom, and the like are not built on the ability to know many facts. It’s a matter of being able to ask the right questions to put the right information together. 

Let’s illustrate this with a bit of a goofy example: imagine that your student is approached by their friends and asked to invest their money in a hip new product that makes big promises backed up by significant statistics. Maybe it’s something like “Up to 90% of young adults rated this product as high quality.”

In order to discern the wisdom of spending their money on a product like this, your young adult needs to be able to ask critical questions, not just know factual information. It’s not enough, for instance, to know something about the product or to know basic math. Questions should be asked like: how were these statistics calculated? Who was reviewed? What is the company’s definition of “high quality”? It’s possible that the statistic does not mean what the company is wanting it to mean. 

This is a silly example but the truth is that many claims in our internet age need to be critically examined with questions, not simply accepted point blank as facts. Especially with the rise of artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT, many “facts” need to be genuinely fact-checked. This leads us to the next two principles:

The Need for Real-World Experience

The second principle is that young adults seeking to grow in critical thinking need to acknowledge the need for real experience.

Young adults naturally are low-stocked in real-world experience. They haven’t had enough trips around the sun to be able to be “street-smart” about life. This will come with time certainly but it doesn’t come without intention. Discernment often comes with life experience and age but it’s not automatically bundled in with them.

One needs to be proficient in trying things and learning from failure in order to capitalize on the opportunities of life experience.

This also happens to be a central component to much of what Unbound emphasizes: learning by doing is the best way to learn. Furthermore, failure is an option and one from which we can learn quite a bit.

Life experiences are needed in order to properly discern and make critical decisions. Mistakes and errors can be avoided due to the discernment that says, “I tried that once and it didn’t go very well.” Young adults learning discernment are well-served by failing fast and often in environments where the consequences of failure are minimal. 

Learning to fail well and learn from mistakes is a key element of learning discernment. To go back to our earlier example, if your student is convinced that spending their hard-earned money on a new flashy product is the best decision and it ends up that the product is disappointing, they’ve learned something. Not only that, but they’ve learned an important lesson about spending money that involves a poorly-made product presented to them with peer pressure. This should serve them well the next time they are pressured into making a questionable purchase. Better to learn the lesson with a $50 product than to learn the lesson when the mistake costs thousands of dollars and possibly their career.

Understanding Context

Finally, the third principle to keep in mind is to accept the importance of understanding context. I’ll admit: this is worded as it is to maintain the “a” alliteration across all three principles! But that’s not the important part. What’s important is the idea of understanding context.

Critical thinkers are people who are able to think about situations holistically. And this invariably involves understanding and evaluating the context of the situation. Some actions may be appropriate in one setting but not in another. The ability to decide when and where an action is fitting is part of discernment. 

For example, sometimes it’s incredibly important to get every detail of a project right. Other times, it’s more important that a project is completed on deadline, even if a few details are missing. Discerning the needs of the project requires contextual thinking. What is the context of the project? Where does the project fit into the broader goals of the group? Questions like these are key contextualizing tools. 

At Unbound, we’re fond of talking about understanding context in light of the story that we all find ourselves in. Understanding yourself and your role in the world starts with understanding the story of the world in general, particularly in the context of God’s story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

This is the heart of Unbound’s Understand pillar in our educational framework.


Let’s review: equipping your son or daughter with discernment is necessary as you launch them into the world to make an impact for Christ. There are three principles that help your student develop this critical thinking.

First, the ability to ask the right questions beats having all the right answers. In a world and time period where answers are incredibly easy to come by, critical thinking relies on asking critical questions and not on amassing hordes of answers.

Second, real-world life experiences ought to contribute to critical thinking and discernment. This only happens when failure is accepted as a learning opportunity and reflection is made about the experience in question. Practically applying things in the real world is the best way to learn from failure and get real-world experience.

Third, understanding the context of a situation, problem, or opportunity is necessary in order to critically evaluate and discern the right next steps. This requires contextual thinking and viewing the big picture.

As I’ve mentioned throughout this article, Unbound is heavily involved in teaching these kinds of principles to many young adults like your child. Our Navigate course is a great place to start for arming your student with critical thinking that will serve them well in a confusing world. You can find out more about Navigate by clicking here.

Beyond Navigate, we recommend that you and your student explore our Ascend program. This program teaches young adults how to clarify and own their purpose, build healthy relationships, and live resiliently for the glory of God. Ascend equips young adults to be critical thinkers who get experience in the real-world and find community support as they launch into what’s next for them. You can learn more about Ascend by clicking here. To talk to someone on our team about the program, click here and schedule a free consultation.

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