Psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik has a theory: before we’re ever able to speak (or walk, or eat solid foods), we’re already asking big questions. Even when we’re decades away from being able to write a thesis or engage in debate, we’re wondering about who (and what) we are, where we end and the rest of the world begins, and how the universe works. Some of the most amazing philosophical inquiry any of us ever do goes unheard and undocumented, but it does happen.
So, if our houses are populated by budding philosophers, how early in life should we, as parents, start stepping in and engaging them? What can we do to help a little thinker who’s too young to read and write, and whose attention span hasn’t quite caught up yet? Is there an age that’s too young for big questions?
As far as we’re concerned, if your child has started asking philosophical questions out loud, then it isn’t too early to start a conversation about them. Basically, when the “why” comes out, it’s time.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when doing philosophy with a very little thinker:
- Philosophical conversations with toddlers and preschoolers are short. Really short. And that’s fine. Even if you’re only able to send the message that you’re listening, and that their ideas and questions are interesting, you’re still setting the stage for longer, more in-depth discussion later on.
- With very young thinkers, philosophy often arises from play. They may be inspired by a story, or a song or a toy. They may do their wondering while looking at bugs or splashing in the bath. Again, it’s all good.
- Even with wee philosophers, you can still establish rules for effective critical thinking. You can still insist that they wait their turn, and allow others a chance to speak and contribute ideas. You can still ask them to clarify their ideas with explanation. You can teach them to ask effective questions, and to try to not lose their temper.
- Your small child will probably surprise you with the depth of their questions. Thinkers as young as three or four are capable of asking about the meaning of life, the nature of the universe, fairness and justice, as well as art and beauty.
- Try responding to their questions with phrases like “What do you think?” and “That’s a really amazing question. How many answers can we think of together?” As long as you aren’t telling them what to think, it might be okay to give gentle prompts here and there like “What about this?”
- If you’re worried about bringing up difficult or disturbing issues with your child, then don’t. Take your cues from them and answer the ones that interest them. If the thinking skills are there, they’ll be able to handle difficult subject matter better when they’re older.
Will your philosophical chats with your small human yield answers to life’s most pressing questions? Probably not, and that’s okay. Philosophy with a thinker of any age should be seen as a journey, and not a destination. What you’re really doing with a small child is establishing that you’re there, you’re listening, and that you value what they have to say. Knowing all of these things will help your child to grow as a thinker, and will likely bring the two of you closer together.
And what great stories you’ll have about all the amazing ideas they had when they were too little to tie their shoes or fix themselves a sandwich!