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May 20, 2022 6:00 AM EDT
Hershovitz (@shershovitz) is a professor of law and a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan and the author of Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy With My Kids, from which this essay is adapted.

The world is a dark place right now, and kids have big questions about it. During the 2020 protests over police violence, our younger son, Hank (then seven), wanted help understanding why “good guys” sometimes do bad things. Lately, we’ve been talking about war. And that’s led to conversations about religion, as we’ve wondered whether the awfulness in the world provides grounds for doubt that God exists.

I’m a philosopher. My kids are still in grade school. But the conversations we have over dinner rival any I’ve had with the college students I teach.

One night, Hank and his older brother, Rex, got into an argument about the nature of truth.

“Donald Trump is a bad President,” Rex said.

“He’s a bad President to us,” Hank said. “But he’s a good President to the people that like him.”

“No, he’s a bad President,” Rex said.

“To us, he’s bad.” Hank insisted. “But he’s good to the people that like him.”

“Hank, do you mean that the people who like Donald Trump think he’s good—but they’re wrong?” I asked.

“No,” he said, emphatically. “They think he’s good, and we think he’s bad, and there’s nothing in the middle that says who’s right.”

From there, the boys debated whether judgments like Donald Trump is a bad president can be true or false—and whether we all have the same truth or each get our own.

I hope the kids continue to have those sorts of conversations. I want them to think deeply about the world, to ponder big ideas, like truth, justice, and God. But the research suggests that those conversations are likely to trail off as they age. Little kids (age 3-8) often raise philosophical questions on their own (“Why does the world exist?” “What is it like to be dead?” “Am I dreaming my entire life?”). They’re puzzled by the world—and they’re trying to puzzle it out.

But as they age, kids start to worry about what others think of them. They don’t want to seem silly or risk being wrong. And they notice that the adults in their lives don’t discuss questions like, “Why does the world exist?” or “Am I dreaming my entire life?” Over time, they lose some of their curiosity and courage as thinkers.

I think that’s a shame. The world could use more deep and discerning thinkers. We’re flooded with disinformation, and too many people are too easily duped by it. Our society values hot takes and tweets more than sustained thought.

The good news is: we can push back on that. If we support our kids’ philosophical adventures, they’re more likely to continue them. In fact, we can raise philosophers.

How? The simplest way is: talk to your kids and encourage them to think deeply, all throughout childhood. Ask them questions and question their answers. The questions don’t have to be complicated, and you don’t need to know any philosophy to ask them. In fact, a set of stock questions will get you through most situations.

  • What do you think?
  • Why do you think so?
  • What do you mean by . . .?
  • Can you think of a reason you might be wrong?
  • What is [punishment, justice, fairness—any idea will do]?

The aim is to make the kid make an argument—and get them to see the other side. So let the kid do most of the talking. But don’t hesitate to help when they’re stuck. And above all else: approach it as a conversation between equals. Take what your kid says seriously, even if you disagree—even if it strikes you as silly. Reason with your child—and resist telling them what to think.

You can plan philosophical conversations with your kids. The Prindle Institute for Ethics runs a website called Teaching Children Philosophy. It has pages for common picture books, like Knuffle Bunny and The Pout-Pout Fish. It provides background for parents on the philosophical questions the books raise. And it suggests questions to ask kids as you read.

But you don’t need books, or anything else, to get a conversation started. If you simply listen to your kids—their complaints and curiosities—philosophical questions will crop up often. When a kid says something’s not fair, ask what fairness is. Or whether it’s your job to make things fair. Or whether she ever benefits from unfairness. You don’t have to have answers in mind to ask questions. Just see where the conversation goes.

When I was a kid, I was constantly curious to know what the best of something was. My father would always answer.

“What’s the best music?”

“Rhapsody in Blue,” he said.

“What’s the best TV show?”

“The Lone Ranger.”

The answers were idiosyncratic to him. But also: a missed opportunity.

“What’s the best music?”

“That’s a good question,” I’d say. “What do you think makes music good?”

With that, we’d be off and running on a conversation about aesthetics. And no, you don’t need to know anything about aesthetics to have the conversation. I sure don’t. Just see what the kid says and share your thoughts about it. Above all, lean into the weird questions that kids ask. If your kid wonders whether he’s dreaming his entire life, don’t dismiss him. If she wants to know why the world exists, see what she thinks the answer is. If a kid asks a question that leaves you completely stumped, stop and wonder at the world together.

And don’t insist that the kid see the world your way. I was a bit bothered when Hank didn’t seem to believe in objective truth. And I kept trying to argue him into it.

He asked why I cared so much.

“I’m a philosopher,” I said. “We want to understand everything. But especially truth.”

“You’re not a very good philosopher,” Hank said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Your arguments aren’t persuasive.”

I laughed. Because persuading people isn’t really the aim of philosophy. Or at least, it’s not my aim in philosophy. And it was helpful to have Hank remind me of that.

I see philosophy the way Bertrand Russell did: “Philosophy, if it cannot answer so many questions as we could wish, has at least 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.”

Kids are alive to that strangeness and wonder. At least until we train them not to be. I hope you’ll help the kids in your life hold on to it. And I hope, just as much, that you’ll find it for yourself.

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