Philosophical Children

Updated: Aug 6, 2019

by Jana Mohr Lone, Director

Founder of the University of Washington

Center for Philosophy for Children

When I was a child, there were many nights that I stayed awake late, thinking about such things as death, identity (Who was the real me and what was the essential part of being me?), the purpose of life, and the nature of time, and wondering if anyone else worried very much about these issues. Having spent over two decades talking about these and many other philosophical questions with children, I know now that I was not alone.

I had the opportunity to take my first formal philosophy class at 17. It was offered as an elective in the large, public high school I attended, and for me led to a lifelong passion for philosophy. I eventually ended up in graduate school primarily because of that early excitement about philosophy.

In both my undergraduate and graduate philosophical education, however, I observed that much of the time, students were not really doing philosophy; instead, we were passive observers, studying the arguments of others. We typically did not see ourselves as genuine participants in these conversations. While the classes trained us to make philosophical arguments by absorbing the views of both classic and contemporary philosophers, and helped us develop important related skills – how to construct a coherent argument, spot fallacies and other mistakes of logic and reasoning, and anticipate and consider possible objections to a philosophical view – there was something missing.

As I neared the end of my work on my dissertation, my oldest son was around 4, and he was beginning to ask the kinds of questions preschool children ask: Are numbers real? Can you be happy and sad at the same time? Why are people mean to each other? These were philosophical questions, I realized. Until that time, I had never really thought at all about the philosophical capacities of children, assuming, I guess, that they didn’t really have any.

I found myself responding to my son’s questions with enthusiasm. It was so exciting to realize that he was a reliable partner for philosophical conversations, and it was obvious that he welcomed my eagerness to engage with him about his questions. Together we focused on reflecting on the questions themselves, without much or any reference to what the philosophical experts had to say.

Almost as soon as they can formulate them, children start asking what we call “big questions.” Young children’s “why” questions are not only seeking explanations about how ordinary things work; they can also be manifestations of curiosity and wonder about complex concepts such as friendship, love, identity, knowledge, beauty, and reality.

Yet we don’t associate children with philosophy. In part, I think, this is because we think of philosophy as an esoteric subject, reserved for specialists with advanced degrees working in academia. But philosophy is something all of us do, at least at some point. Whenever we ask ourselves questions like – “What is the purpose of my life?” “Is this the right thing to do? “Can I be sure I know this?” – we are doing philosophy.

We also don’t connect philosophy with children because we tend to underestimate children, and in no area is that more true than in their capacities for deep and sustained reflection about difficult subjects. Young children’s deeper comments are frequently responded to with amusement or skepticism, treated dismissively or condescendingly. As a result, the profoundly serious questions and thoughts that often underlie children’s remarks tend to be missed by the adults in their lives.

But many children are drawn to thinking about difficult philosophical questions. Every year at least one child says something to me like, “I think about these questions all the time.” And encouraging them to articulate and examine their own ideas helps them develop the tools they need to express those ideas confidently and well.

Moreover, children bring a special set of skills to philosophy. Relatively new to the world, they approach philosophical inquiry with fresh perspectives and creativity. What adults might sometimes characterize as children’s naïveté becomes a strength, as they tend to be unafraid to think about questions imaginatively. They worry little about making a mistake, sounding silly, or how smart or sophisticated they seem, and are willing straightforwardly to acknowledge uncertainty or confusion. Sharing their thoughts with relative unreservedness, they are comfortable playing with ideas out loud. Because children tend to be less bound to what they already think they know, they exhibit a capacious openness to exploring all possible views – an orientation that is essential for philosophical inquiry, but one that is often more challenging for adults.

As a ten-year-old student said to me: "I like hearing what other people think about these questions, because there are so many different ways people think about things. That's what's great about philosophy, you realize that everyone sees things so differently."

Thinking about philosophical issues with children involves taking them seriously as people with insights to offer to some of the deepest questions about the human condition. Childhood is its own unique experience, and children have particular points of view coming out of that experience, with which most adults have lost touch. Listening to children can give us access to their perspectives, which can expand our own thinking.

A third grade teacher once commented, after listening to a conversation her students had with me about possibility: “I have never thought about this before in the way the children talked about it. This conversation really made me think.”

I have this experience all the time.

Philosophy is often said to “begin in wonder.” Wondering about our experiences and the mysteries of life is at the core of being a human being, but we often lose this inclination as we grow up. We come to believe that our time is better spent on other things. I think this is a loss. Doing philosophy with children can help all of us, adults and children, to continue to wonder throughout our lives.

Jana Mohr Lone is the Director and founder of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children. Since 1995 she has taught philosophy in classrooms from preschool to college, as well as taught college students, precollege teachers, parents and others about ways to bring philosophy into the lives of young people. She is the author of The Philosophical Child, which explores ways that parents, grandparents, and other adults can stimulate philosophical conversations about children's questions, co-author of Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in Schools, a textbook that offers theoretical and practical resources for precollege philosophy educators, and co-editor of Philosophy and Education: Introducing Philosophy to Young People, which examines various issues involved in teaching philosophy to young people. Her newest book, Seen and Not Heard, will be published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2020. A frequent writer and speaker about pre-college philosophy, Jana is the founding president of PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Questions: Philosophy for Young People, and from 2009 to 2015 the chair of the American Philosophical Association Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy. She writes the blog Wondering Aloud: Philosophy with Young People. Follow her on Twitter: @JanaMohrLone

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