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!

Reply
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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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
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