Question Time

“Why?” is the refrain of many curious children: “Why is the sky blue?”; “Why do I have to eat my broccoli?”; “Why can’t I stay up watching movies all night?” Rachel Poulton explores why getting philosophical with kids can be an illuminating insight into what they really think…

More often than not there is a clear-cut answer (after a quick search of Google): “The sky is blue because, according to NASA, blue light is scattered in all directions by the tiny molecules of air in Earth’s atmosphere. Blue is scattered more than other colours because it travels as shorter, smaller waves – simples”. Or, “So that you get lots of vitamins and have a healthy body” and “because you will be way too tired and grouchy tomorrow if you do.”

Sometimes the whys? we hear from kids are a bit deeper, a bit more philosophical and the answers might be a bit more complex: “Why do I always have to tell the truth?”;“Is it okay to lie sometimes?”; “Why am I here?”;“Why can’t I be free to just do what I want?”. Children love to ask these kinds of philosophical questions but rarely do we have the time, inclination or possibly the confidence to answer. But getting stuck into a dialogue with your child about the big meaty questions of life can be an enlightening and bonding experience. It can encourage you to explore your own ideas about life’s true meanings and gives you a better understanding about what your child thinks, believes and feels about the things that really matter.

Mention philosophy to most people and the image that springs immediately to mind is one of professors stroking long beards while pondering unanswerable questions. It’s often seen as a lofty discipline; a bit stuffy and inaccessible. But philosophy is simply the quest for wisdom and knowledge; philosophia in Ancient Greek literally means “love of wisdom”. The aim of philosophy is to ask and explore life’s big questions in order to help us work out how we can live our best possible lives and how we can flourish. Philosophical enquiry is all about wanting to understand something rather than just know it. Instead of passively consuming mounds of information, it’s about actively thinking and critically evaluating ideas – which feels essential in a world where information is being generated and disseminated at an alarming rate – almost 90 per cent of the world’s data was created in the last two years. Get your head around that! Most of us carry a portal to this information around in our pockets, addictively glued to a virtual world and gobbling up byte after byte. In this world of mass information available at the touch of a button, of fake ‘facts’, scrolling newsfeeds and distracting social media, taking time out to engage in philosophical discussions can be grounding, boost confidence and really help you and your child to think critically about the ideas we encounter.

“Taking time out to engage in philosophical discussions can be grounding, boost confidence and really help you and your child to think critically about the ideas they encounter.”

If we assume philosophical questioning results from a sense of bewilderment (Aristotle, the great Ancient Greek thinker, said that all philosophy begins in wonder) then children are predisposed to philosophy because of their innate sense of curiosity and wonder. You can get kids talking philosophically about pretty much anything; a painting, a song on the radio, a character in a movie, a quote from a book or even your child’s day-to-day life experiences. Listen out for the questions your child asks and start from there. There might be ethical dilemmas like: “Is it fair to keep animals in zoos?; “Why can’t I hit back if I get hit first?”. Or you might like René Descartes, the seventeenth-century philosopher, who famously said, “I think therefore I am”. Get talking metaphysically and start questioning the nature of reality; “What if my dreams are real?”. Or, “Does Heaven exist?”.

Thinking about aesthetics might have you wondering what is beauty? Or what is art? And if you want to get political and talk about the society we live in, you could stimulate your child’s imagination with questions like; “If you could start a brand-new country what would it be like?” You can agree or disagree with their ideas and tease out different viewpoints and you can encourage your child to back up their answers with good reasons by asking more questions like; “Can you give an example of that?” or “Can you give a good reason why that is so?” or “Why do you think…?”. Often there isn’t a clear-cut answer, you might come up with several different answers and it might all get a bit confusing. But that is the point, wrestling with the “whys” is what philosophical enquiry is all about.

Socrates, probably the most famous Ancient Greek philosopher of all, drove citizens of Athens crazy with his questioning. He would go down to the market place prodding and probing, never letting people get away with simple answers. He wanted people to explain why they thought what they did and give valid reasons, rather than just churning out general opinions. Chatting with your child about the things that matter gets them thinking for themselves, rather than simply agreeing with what everyone else thinks. Remember though, it isn’t about arguing, it’s about enquiring. Disagreeing with each other is a brilliant way to propel thinking forwards, develop ideas and get closer to the truth. But disagree with the idea – not the person, then no one takes it personally and you won’t end up with a whack like Socrates often did!

“Fire up their imaginations and wonder at the possibilities of everything.”

You may not always come up with a solid answer, like those questions I mentioned at the beginning, but it doesn’t really matter. Talking things through, exploring ideas around a question is as valuable as coming up with an answer – the journey is as important as the destination. As one child told me the other day: “I love it when we just talk, we just go to such interesting places in our mind. We can express ourselves and explore our ideas”. Another child butted in saying; “Yeah, sometimes our ideas are crazy and we talk about them and wonder if they could be possible, like when we talked about whether we are being controlled by someone who is playing a computer game, that was so cool”.

Most kids just love to talk, so fire up their imaginations and wonder at the possibilities of everything. The next time a child asks why something is so, prick up your ears and see if there’s an opportunity to get philosophical. You never know where your wondering will take you.

Rachel lives in West Sussex with her two curious and wonder-filled children. She teaches art and philosophy and runs creative workshops with kids that revolve around philosophy, photography and publishing. The Little Book of Philosophy by Rachel Poulton is published by Summersdale, out now in PB £6.99.

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