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

Reply

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Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.
When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

This can also happen because they can’t always articulate the fear. Emotional ‘experiences’ don’t lay in the brain as words, they lay down as images and sensory experiences. This is why smells and sounds can trigger anxiety, even if they aren’t connected to a scary experience. The ‘experiences’ also don’t need to be theirs. Hearing ‘about’ is enough.

The content of the fear might seem irrational but the feeling will be valid. Think of it as the feeling being the part that needs you. Their anxiety, sadness, anger (which happens to hold down other more vulnerable emotions) needs to be seen, held, contained and soothed, so they can feel safe again - and you have so much power to make that happen. 

‘I can see how worried you are. There are some big things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. You are so safe.’ 

If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’
I love being a parent. I love it with every part of my being and more than I ever thought I could love anything. Honestly though, nothing has brought out my insecurities or vulnerabilities as much. This is so normal. Confusing, and normal. 

However many children we have, and whatever age they are, each child and each new stage will bring something new for us to learn. It will always be this way. Our children will each do life differently, and along the way we will need to adapt and bend ourselves around their path to light their way as best we can. But we won't do this perfectly, because we can't always know what mountains they'll need to climb, or what dragons they'll need to slay. We won't always know what they’ll need, and we won't always be able to give it. We don't need to. But we'll want to. Sometimes we’ll ache because of this and we’ll blame ourselves for not being ‘enough’. Sometimes we won't. This is the vulnerability that comes with parenting. 

We love them so much, and that never changes, but the way we feel about parenting might change a thousand times before breakfast. Parenting is tough. It's worth every second - every second - but it's tough. Great parents can feel everything, and sometimes it can turn from moment to moment - loving, furious, resentful, compassionate, gentle, tough, joyful, selfish, confused and wise - all of it. Great parents can feel all of it.

Because parenting is pure joy, but not always. We are strong, nurturing, selfless, loving, but not always. Parents aren't perfect. Love isn't perfect. And it was meant to be. We’re raising humans - real ones, with feelings, who don't need to be perfect, and wont  need others to be perfect. Humans who can be kind to others, and to themselves first. But they will learn this from us. Parenting is the role which needs us to be our most human, beautifully imperfect, flawed, vulnerable selves. Let's not judge ourselves for our shortcomings and the imperfections, and the necessary human-ness of us.❤️
The behaviour that comes with separation anxiety is the symptom not the problem. To strengthen children against separation anxiety, we have to respond at the source – the felt sense of separation from you.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person, there will be always be anxiety unless there is at least one of 2 things: attachment with another trusted, adult; or a felt sense of you holding on to them, even when you aren’t beside them. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it needs more than an adult being present. Just because there is another adult in the room, doesn’t mean your child will experience a deep sense of safety with that adult. This doesn’t mean the adult isn’t safe - it’s about what the brain perceives, and that brain is looking for a deep, felt sense of safety. This will come from the presence of an adult who, through their strong, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for them, and their joy in doing so. The joy in caretaking is important. It lets the child rest from seeking the adult’s care because there will be a sense that the adult wants it enough for both.

This can be helped along by showing your young one that you trust the adult to love and care for your child and keep him or her safe in your absence: ‘I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.’ This doesn’t mean children will instantly feel the attachment, but the path towards that will be more illuminated.

To help them feel you holding on even when you aren’t with them, let them know you’ll be thinking of them and can’t wait to be with them again. I used to tell my daughter that every 15 seconds, my mind makes sure it knows where she is. Think of this as ‘taking over’ their worry. ‘You don’t have to worry about you or me because I’m taking care of both of us – every 15 seconds.’ This might also look like giving them something of yours to hold on to while you’re gone – a scarf, a note. You will always be their favourite way to safety, but you can’t be everywhere. Another loving adult or the felt presence of you will help them rest.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say or whether to say anything at all. It doesn’t matter if the ‘right’ words aren’t there, because often there no right words. There are also no wrong ones. Often it’s not even about the words. Your presence, your attention, the sound of your voice - they all help to soften the hard edges of the world. Humans have been talking for as long as we’ve had heartbeats and there’s a reason for this. Talking heals. 

It helps to connect the emotional right brain with the logical left. This gives context and shape to feelings and helps them feel contained, which lets those feelings soften. 

You don’t need to fix anything and you don’t need to have all the answers. Even if the words land differently to the way you expected, you can clean it up once it’s out there. What’s important is opening the space for conversation, which opens the way to you. Try, ‘I’m wondering how you’re doing with everything. Would you like to talk?’ 

And let them take the lead. Some days they’ll want to talk about ‘it’ and some days they’ll want to talk about anything but. Whether it’s to distract from the mess of it all or to go deeper into it so they can carve their way through the feeling to the calm on the other side, healing will come. So ask, ‘Do you want to talk about ‘it’ or do you want to talk about something else? Because I’m here for both.’ ♥️
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