– Mom, is this a dream?
– 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 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.
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.
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!
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? 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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