Philosophize like a child

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“Our society values hot takes and tweets more than sustained thought,” claims Scott Hershovitz. In his book, “Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids,” he suggests a different understanding of the ancient command “to change and become like little children” (Matthew 18:1). This teaching is often interpreted as adults having the faith or trust of a child, perhaps a similar innocence or playfulness.

But Hershovitz believes children are natural philosophers: “Little kids (age 3-8) often raise philosophical questions on their own. They’re puzzled by the world — and they’re trying to puzzle it out.”

As I drove my three young children to school the other day, my 9-year-old piped up from the back of the minivan: “Sometimes telling the truth is not a good idea.”

“Tell me more,” I replied.

“If someone is wearing a stupid hat and he asks you what you think about it, it’s better not to hurt his feelings.”

“But you shouldn’t lie,” interjected his 6-year-old brother. “That would be bad.”

“Why is lying bad?” I prompted.

“You could hurt someone’s feelings,” he answered.

“So, in your brother’s example, you could hurt someone’s feelings with the truth, but you could also hurt someone by lying. What should you do?”

This philosophy lesson in the carpool wasn’t scripted or planned in advance. Kids think about the world around them all the time. Adults can listen and ask follow up questions rather than impose ready-made answers. We can even encourage them to argue!

My 9-year-old switched tactics: “I don’t see how George Washington ever became president.”

“How come?” I asked.

“My teacher said that he never told a lie.”

“So, you’re saying you have to lie to become president? Why is that?”

“Dad, sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth,” he explained.

“But you should still tell it!” the 6-year-old maintained.

This was a good argument regarding the absolute truth versus the relative nature of truth. Both boys puzzled over larger ideas through the lenses of what they’d been taught and their own experience. Rather than simply swallow one perspective, they modeled the importance of wrestling with the view from the other side.

It was time for my 4-year-old daughter to weigh in with a story about snatching a classmate’s stuffed animal and sticking it in her backpack. Not only did she take the toy home overnight, but she told her mom and me that her teacher had made it for her. (Not the most believable lie; it had a “Made in China” tag.)

When she finished recounting her story, I asked, “What did that teach you about lying?”

“Lying can make you feel bad.”

A common drive to school can turn into a fascinating inquiry into truth because children are willing to wonder and be open to other views. Hershovitz claims that philosophy is not about winning or losing an argument. Rather, quoting Bertrand Russell, philosophy has “the power of asking questions, which increase the interest of the world and show the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.”

As we pulled into the school parking lot, my 9-year-old wrapped up our conversation by concluding, “It’s more complicated than you think when you actually think about it.”

Now, that’s the truth!


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