Every Child is a Philosopher

Every Child is a Philosopher

– Mom, is this a dream?

– No.

– How do you know?

– …

 This was the brief dialogue between my friend Ozge, and her 3-year-old son, Kaan…

The 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes, who famously said “I think, therefore I am”, asked the same question as Kaan, only at a much later age: “How could one be sure that he is not dreaming?”

The original meaning of the word philosophy comes from the Greek word philo, meaning love, and sophos, meaning wisdom. Children are small-sized philosophers who love to question anything and everything about the world around them. The swanky names we use to describe the world around us create the questionable perception that children are incapable of thinking on big concepts.

Yet, this is unfounded: “Does God exist?” “How was I born?” “Where did my grandma go after she died?”, “Mom, is this a dream?” Children keep asking questions about metaphysics, values, existence. Most of the time we do not have a real answer. We either pretend we do, or we think we really do, or we simply bypass the question.

“Our future improves our past.”

When I was little, a weird thought used to pop in my mind every time my parents left my room: Do they evaporate once out of sight? When I asked them, I was told to “Stop thinking nonsense, just go to sleep”. I stopped questioning after a few failed attempts.

Much later in life I came across a school of thinking that echoed my childhood musings. Irish philosopher George Berkeley had asked a similar question; “Can something exist without being perceived? If no one is around to see, hear, touch or smell a tree, how could it be said to exist?” It looks like he was not told to “just go to sleep”.

A few days ago, I was playing with my 5-year-old nephew Ali, my 9-year-old niece Zeynep at home. Our next-door neighbor, Aunt Ayten was there with us, knitting quietly in a corner. Ali said out of nowhere, “Our future improves our past”. I thought it was an interesting perspective, since the more common line of thinking is the other way around.

Aunt Ayten was quick to correct him: “Son, that is incorrect. Our past improves our future”. Aunt Ayten is not a philosopher whose name is written in golden letters on the pages of history. Yet she seemed determined to plant her own way of thinking in my nephew’s young brain.  

Thankfully, Ali’s sister jumped in. At the age of 9, her still “un-adult-erated” brain was in a perfect position to act as an arbitrator. In limbo between the questioning world of childhood, and the adult world that tries to stop one from such questioning, she defended her brother:

– Auntie, I think Ali means, “I will do something good today. This will make my tomorrow better. So, by tomorrow, I will have done something good in the past by thinking about my future. That is how my future improves my past”.

As I was in awe watching this brilliant brain gym, Aunt Ayten, who seemed unimpressed, repeated:

– That is wrong. It is our past that improves our future.

My niece and I passed each other a secret smile; a smile that meant “no hope”.

Aunt Ayten absolutely meant well. She was trying to teach the right thing with all the best intentions. Yet, I was extremely proud to see my niece on my side. Ali had already gone back to play, trying to “improve his moment” by crafting imaginary characters.

Every child is a philosopher until…

Children are little philosophers who constantly question life. Then you know what happens: Either an Aunt Ayten tells them they are wrong, or someone else warns them to stop nonsense and just go to sleep. They may catch the missed opportunity at school, or they may stop questioning altogether once they enter the school system. The lucky few overcome all obstacles and continue to question life philosophically.

I asked my friend Ozge to complete the following statement:

“Every child is a philosopher until…”

The answer came from Kaan’s grandmother instead, a philosophy teacher.

“Karl Jaspers’s thinking completes this statement very well. Every child is a philosopher until we lock them up in the prison of non-questioning.”

When you have a philosophy teacher for a grandmother, you end up having a mom who thinks. Then you most probably become a child who grows up questioning the world around. And if you have an ambitious name like Kaan Maximilianus Kaiser, odds are high that you will become a great philosopher one day!

If you fail to meet these conditions, you start life thinking like Schopenhaur and at some point you find yourself thinking about the “shopping hour”!

A life that is not questioned: Is it worth living?

It was Socrates who said, “A life that is not questioned is not worth living”. And it is not a big deal to achieve that with our children.

When they ask such questions, we may simply respond, “I don’t know, what do you think?”

Instead of a definitive judgment such as “You are wrong” or “This is nonsense”, hesitation is a better and honest answer.

We may not always have an answer. In that case, “Let’s think together” is a decent approach.

We may ask their thoughts on a given issue without waiting for them to ask about something. Every book we read, every daily occurrence, every casual conversation may be an opportunity to ask why and how questions.

Soon, questioning may grow into a habit.

Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.

Similarly, every child is a philosopher. The problem is how to remain a philosopher once we grow up.


About the Author:  Dr. Bahar Eriş

Dr Bahar Eris

Dr. Bahar Eriş is an academician and author specialized on gifted education and talent development in children. She has an M.A. degree (2000) and an Ed.D. degree (2005) on gifted education from Teachers College, Columbia University, NY. She taught classes on talent development and pedagogy at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, between 2005-2014. Currently she is an Associate Professor at the School of Education at Bahcesehir International University in Istanbul, Turkey. 

Eris is an education columnist and the author of a book on talent development in children (Her Çocuk Üstün Yeteneklidir, 2014, Alfa Publications, 7th ed.). Find out more about Dr Bahar Eris here. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

7 Comments

Muhammad Mubashir Ullah Durrani

I remember at dinner time my little sister asking how we knew what words meant?
Seniors can be very tired of all these questions. Parents know how often children ask questions so I don’t blame them 🙂
It will take patience not to dismiss questions. Although I’m not a fan of uncertainty and hesitation, its much better than shutting the door with a bang.
Thank you for the article.

Reply
Tessa Sitorini

I love this article! I recognized everything you have said, having a 4 years old son who questioned EVERYTHING, sometime i took a seemingly easy path of “lets’s just go to bed”. Reading this writing of yours makes me realize that i want to contribute to nurture his beautiful potential within. Thank you Dr. Eris!

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James Findlayson

Isn’t the idea that, “Our future improves our past”, the modus operandi and raison d’être of any form of humanistic/cognitive/behavioural therapy? 🙂

Reply
Rechelle Rozwadowski

A lovely read and such a beautiful little personal anecdote that highlights the openness of children’s minds. Adults (often unconsciously) are quick to close off children’s virgin perspectives on life and yet we commonly yearn to be a child again and shake off the shackles of responsibility, ‘common sense’ and commitment to solid ideas.

Reply
Megan

This is so lovely. In insidious ways we can undermine children’s natural curiosity and point of view. But when we can hold our tongues, magic happens.

Reply
Derek Sheppard

I have long known that children are naturally curious, and that curiosity, along with an innate intelligence drives so much learning. This article focuses on the interaction within family, but it does not take the question of the young philosopher into mainstreamed schooling, which is so crammed full of stuff that it is believed by curriculum designers must be taught and known by young people, that there is no room for the philosopher to continue to contribute through free ranging questions and dialogue. Then, too often that part of children which is the natural philosopher withers for lack of nourishment.

Reply
bahar eriş

Thank you for your comment. I slightly touch upon that when I say “They may catch the missed opportunity at school, or they may stop questioning altogether once they enter the school system. The lucky few overcome all obstacles and continue to question life philosophically.” As you point out, the school system may definitely be a hindrance to thinking. The focus here is family, but the school system must be addressed too. Maybe in a future article :). Kind regards, Bahar Eriş

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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