Treat Your Kids Like the Little Philosophers They Are

TIt is an uncertain world right now and our children are asking big questions. During the 2020 protests over police violence, our younger son, Hank (then seven), wanted help understanding why “good guys” sometimes do bad things. Lately, we’ve been talking about war. And that’s led to conversations about religion, as we’ve wondered whether the awfulness in the world provides grounds for doubt that God exists.

I’m a philosopher. My children are still in elementary school. But the conversations we have over dinner rival any I’ve had with the college students I teach.

Hank was having an argument with Rex his older brother about the nature and truth of truth.

“Donald Trump is a bad President,” Rex said.

“He’s a bad President to us,” Hank said. “But he’s a good President to the people that like him.”

“No, he’s a bad President,” Rex said.

“To us, he’s bad.” Hank insisted. “But he’s good to the people that like him.”

“Hank, do you mean that the people who like Donald Trump Take a look at these ideas he’s good—but they’re wrong?” I asked.

“No,” he said, emphatically. “They think he’s good, and we think he’s bad, and there’s nothing in the middle that says who’s right.”

There, they debated whether to render judgments such as Donald Trump is an unfit president can be true or false—and whether we all have the same truth or each get our own.

I want them to keep having these kinds of discussions. It is important for them to be deeply involved in the world. They must ponder great ideas such as truth, justice and God. However, research shows that these conversations tend to fade with age. Little kids (age 3-8) often raise philosophical questions on their own (“Why does the world exist?” “What is it like to be dead?” “Am I dreaming my entire life?”). They’re puzzled by the world—and they’re trying to puzzle it out.

As they get older, children start to be concerned about how others view them. They don’t want to seem silly or risk being wrong. And they notice that the adults in their lives don’t discuss questions like, “Why does the world exist?” or “Am I dreaming my entire life?” Over time, they lose some of their curiosity and courage as thinkers.

I think that’s a shame. We could all use more deep-thinking and discernive thinkers. We’re flooded with disinformation, and too many people are too easily duped by it. Hot takes and Twittering are more important than long-term thought in our society.

We can do our part to push for that. If we support our kids’ philosophical adventures, they’re more likely to continue them. It is possible to raise philosophers.

How? It is simple: Talk with your children, encourage them to be thoughtful and ask questions. Ask questions of your kids and ask them for their responses. The questions don’t have to be complicated, and you don’t need to know any philosophy to ask them. You can actually use a collection of questions to get through any situation.

  • Tell us what you think.
  • Why would you believe so?
  • What is the meaning of. . .?
  • Do you have any other reasons you may be incorrect?
  • How do you define it? [punishment, justice, fairness—any idea will do]?

The aim is to make the kid make an argument—and get them to see the other side. The kid should do all the talking. But don’t hesitate to help when they’re stuck. Above all, treat it like a conversation between equals. Take what your kid says seriously, even if you disagree—even if it strikes you as silly. Reason with your child—and resist telling them what to think.

Plan philosophical talks with your children. Teaching Children Philosophy is the website of The Prindle Institute for Ethics. You will find pages about common picture books. Knuffle Bunny The Pout-Pout Fish. The book gives parents background on the philosophical topics raised in the books. It also suggests questions for children to consider as they read.

But you don’t need books, or anything else, to get a conversation started. If you simply listen to your kids—their complaints and curiosities—philosophical questions will crop up often. When a kid says something’s not fair, ask what fairness is. Or whether it’s your job to make things fair. Or if she has ever benefited from injustice. You don’t have to have answers in mind to ask questions. You just have to open up and let the conversation flow.

As a child, my curiosity was constant. I wanted to find out what was the best thing about something. Always, my dad would answer.

“What’s the best music?”

“Rhapsody in Blue,” he said.

“What’s the best TV show?”

“The Lone Ranger.”

He found the answers idiosyncratic. However, he also missed an opportunity.

“What’s the best music?”

“That’s a good question,” I’d say. “What do you think makes music good?”

With that, we’d be off and running on a conversation about aesthetics. And no, you don’t need to know anything about aesthetics to have the conversation. I sure don’t. Let the child speak and let you know what your opinions are. Accept the strange questions kids may ask. If your kid wonders whether he’s dreaming his entire life, don’t dismiss him. See what your child thinks she knows about the universe. Ask a child a question and then stop to wonder about the world with them.

And don’t insist that the kid see the world your way. I was a bit bothered when Hank didn’t seem to believe in objective truth. He was stubborn, and I tried to convince him.

He wanted to know why I was so passionate about it.

“I’m a philosopher,” I said. “We want to understand everything. But especially truth.”

“You’re not a very good philosopher,” Hank said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Your arguments aren’t persuasive.”

It was a good laugh. Because persuading people isn’t really the aim of philosophy. Or at least, it’s not my aim in philosophy. Hank helped me remember that.

I see philosophy the way Bertrand Russell did: “Philosophy, if it cannot answer so many questions as we could wish, has at least the power of asking questions which increase the interest of the world, and show the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.”

Children are open to this strangeness and wonder. Until they learn to stop being that way. I hope you’ll help the kids in your life hold on to it. And I hope, just as much, that you’ll find it for yourself.

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