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The Informed Parent

Kids and Philosophy

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Feb. 04, 2002

Philosophy is the rational study of the truths and principles of being, knowledge or conduct. Philosophy requires the willingness to ask good questions and to be satisfied with the unanswerable. It also requires the willingness to question answers.

While philosophy can be esoteric and the asked questions difficult to understand, philosophy is also practical. Philosophy gives people a framework for understanding the world in which they live. It gives a structure to hang their life on.

Twentieth Century philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answer can, as a rule, be known to be true but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation;...”

Kids as Philosophers

Children are born philosophers. From infancy they explore their world through sight, hearing, and touch. Two-year-olds begin exploring their world through language, and as they enter their third year, their most often asked question is “Why?“ When the parent provides an answer, they are not satisfied. Their next utterance is also, “Why?”

As infants and toddlers enter childhood, they begin examining how things work. They explore their own bodies and what goes into and comes out of them. They disassemble their toys to see what is inside of them or how the parts fit together. They dissect flowers and insects to unravel their mystery.

Older children look to their parents and others that they hold in esteem, to determine how life should be lived. Adolescents look to respected adult role models and admired peers for clues.

What children and adolescents are doing is forming a philosophy of life and of how the world works. Sometimes they verbalize their findings. Once, when my younger daughter was about seven years old, she said, “Do you know why I don’t worry? It’s because if I do, then I have to go through what I’m worrying about twice. Once when I’m worrying and once when I have to do the thing.” When parents listen, they can learn a lot from their kids.

Growing Philosophers

While children who ask lots of questions, who question the answers that adults give, and who continually explore their environment are not particularly easy to raise, they often maintain a high interest in life. They don’t become bored easily. They are interesting.

Parents play a major role in determining whether their children will retain their innate curiosity and natural questioning. Incorporating the ten steps for growing philosophers into your current parenting will provide the opportunity for nurturing your children’s curiosity and developing their thinking skills. It will assist children to develop and continually question and revise their philosophy of life.

  1. Encourage questions.
  2. Instead of providing an answer to each question asked, sometimes respond with “What do you think?”
  3. When children question an answer you give or ask you for a further explanation, be as open as you can. Defensiveness closes the door to future verbal exploration.
  4. Discuss moral issues. During the discussion, don’t hesitate to state your beliefs. Listen openly while your child or adolescent expresses his.
  5. Encourage children to read a wide range of books.
  6. Read and discuss with your child about different cultures and different belief systems.
  7. Ask your child both answerable and unanswerable questions. For example, on a cold day asking a little one, “Why do you think that person is wearing a coat today?” encourages a logical answer. Asking the question, “I wonder, why did that person chose a red coat?” leads to exploratory thinking. The skill of being satisfied with possible answers or discussing the unanswerable needs to be learned and practiced.
  8. Have old toys or items available that children can take apart and explore. If/when the items cannot be put back together, encourage them to find different ways to assemble the pieces or to find other things the pieces can be used for.
  9. Visit exploratory museums. Many museums have children’s sections where the purpose is to manipulate the materials to see how they work.
  10. Keep an open mind yourself. Be curious. Ask questions. Share some of your philosophical thinking with your youngsters.

It’s Not Easy

Parenting that encourages children to think is not easy. It can feel threatening when children question parents’ basic values or ask for an explanation for what parents may not understand themselves.

Encouraging children to be philosophers in developing their lives requires that parents question their own beliefs. It demands that they be open to new ideas. It means that parents must be willing to grow themselves.

When parents and teachers value curiosity, questioning, thinking and exploring the unanswerable, children have an opportunity to grow into adulthood with continued awe for and a vibrant interest in life.

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