When my oldest son, Will, was about four, he started asking questions like: Why do I dream? Can you be sad and happy at the same time? Are thoughts real?
As a graduate student in philosophy, I recognized these as philosophical questions. They involved curiosity about some of life’s large and unsettled issues.
But could children think philosophically? I had never considered the possibility, assuming, I guess, that they couldn’t. Then I started reflecting about my own childhood, and the times I had been unable to sleep thinking about what my life meant or whether dreams were real. Do children have philosophical tendencies?
Since that time, I’ve talked with hundreds of children about their questions. And I’ve found that, from preschool to high school, most young people naturally have what I think of as philosophical selves — the part of us that wonders about our lives and the world. Acutely aware of life’s mysteriousness, they are interested in exploring the deeper questions underlying experience.
Often, though, children find there is no avenue for examining questions like these. Parents often don’t approach children’s questions as if they have the potential to open up philosophical lines of thinking, because we tend to assume, often without really thinking about it, that children aren’t capable of philosophical exploration.
I think that part of the reason many adults don’t feel comfortable engaging with children’s philosophical questions is that ordinarily the role we play in our children’s lives is that of the experts. We teach them how to tie their shoes and how to tell time, what foods are nutritious and how to treat their siblings. We are used to providing answers, to being the repositories of wisdom.
But in the case of questions like — What is the purpose of my life? — we don’t have the answers, either.
Discussing philosophy with children involves a shift from our role as adult experts to what I think of as co-inquirers, seeking with children to better understand the puzzles of human experience. We are more equal in these exchanges, both bringing something important to the enterprise.
While adults bring a greater conceptual sophistication and life experience to our philosophical conversations, children bring a fresh perspective and openness to exploring all possible views.
What adults might sometimes characterize as children’s naïveté becomes a strength, as they tend to be unafraid to think about a question imaginatively, without worrying about making a mistake or sounding silly. They share their thoughts with relative unreservedness.
We tend to assume that children’s thinking is always less mature than that of adults, and that therefore what they say can offer little or nothing to what we already know. But childhood is more than the stage of “adults in training,” and children’s perspectives can enrich the way all of us understand the world.
Every stage of life has its own perspective, and cannot just be reduced to preparation for the stages that follow. The insights of childhood are often lost when we reach adulthood. Listening to children reflect about some of the deepest questions of life affords us access to those insights, enlarging and expanding our own thinking.
What are some strategies for engaging with your children in thinking about philosophical questions? How do you identify when a child might be seeking a philosophical exchange?
- Instead of always reacting to a child’s question with an answer or advice, try pausing and reflecting a little. What is the child asking?
- It is the child’s questions that should spur the philosophical exchange. The idea is not to enlighten children with your thoughts about, say, free will, but to invite them to share the questions that intrigue them, and to help the conversation to flow from there.
- Listen for questions that invite deeper inquiry. For example, your child might ask, “Are numbers real?” You could respond asking what prompted the question. Maybe your child replies, “I was just thinking about numbers — you can’t see or touch them, but are they real?”
- Think about the question yourself. You might say something like, “Why do you think we have numbers?” or “What do you think it means for something to be real?” Read The Velveteen Rabbit with your child and ask questions such as, “What is something you think is real? If we can’t see, hear, smell, taste or touch something, does that mean it isn’t real? Is happiness real?”
When we try to answer all of our children’s questions, we don’t make space for them to gain experience questioning and examining their own experiences and ideas. Encouraging them to explore their own questions, and reflecting about these questions along with them, opens a space for children to think for themselves about their lives.