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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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