How can parents and grandparents inspire philosophical conversations with your children and grandchildren?

Typically in parent/grandparent-child interactions, or any adult-child interaction for that matter, the adult is the expert, responding to the child’s questions by providing answers that the child then takes to be settled. Young children are in need of guidance on many levels, and it is our job to help them to develop the skills they need to make their way in the world. It’s natural to take on the role with young children of being a source of information and even wisdom, helping children to navigate the complex and frequently confusing social standards and practical aspects of our society. Accordingly, the role of adult advisor and teacher often becomes the dominant paradigm for our exchanges with children.

Philosophical inquiry provides an opportunity for a different kind of interaction with children because these are not the kinds of questions for which the questioner is expecting a definitive answer. Indeed, they are not the kinds of questions that have any clearly agreed-upon answers (that’s what makes them philosophical). And so in order to respond to children’s questions in ways that make a space for a philosophical conversation, our role must shift.

Because philosophical inquiry involves questions without settled and final answers, these discussions do not require adults to be the “repositories of wisdom.” Indeed, that role is counterproductive in a philosophical conversation; what we are after is a wide-ranging and open exchange of ideas.

This requires that we listen to our children’s questions, acknowledge their difficulty, and respond with open minds. We are no longer the experts, but rather co-inquirers with our children, seeking with them to better understand the philosophical dimension of human experience.

Read director Jana Mohr Lone’s book The Philosophical Child and listen to her speak about Raising a Philosophical Child!

What does it mean to be a co-inquirer with your child? Fundamentally, it means that instead of reacting to a child’s question with an answer or advice, responding by reflecting about it. What is my child asking? Listen for questions that invite philosophical inquiry (“Are numbers real?”), and then respond not by immediately attempting to answer the question, but by eliciting from your child what prompted the question. (“I was just thinking about numbers-you can’t see or touch them, but are they real?”) Think about the question yourself. You might respond with something like, “Why do you think we have numbers?” or “What do you think it means for something to be real?”

Ask yourself, when your child asks you a question, whether she is searching for meaning, trying to understand a concept or idea in some deep way, or seeking a practical answer (i.e. “How do you tell time?” is probably not an invitation to discuss the nature of time, but “What is time?” might be). Try not to prejudge whether what your child says is “philosophical” or not. The question asked often doesn’t, on first hearing, indicate to what kind of inquiry it might lead.

Take advantage of the philosophical suggestiveness of many children’s books. Our site offers many ideas for using children’s books to inspire philosophical conversations. Have fun!

And check out our blog posts on ParentMap