January 8, 2013

‘The Philosophical Child’: A book for when your child asks, ‘Why are we here?’

News and Information

Philosophy for Children - book coverChildren are natural philosophers, says Jana Mohr Lone of the University of Washington Department of Philosophy.

Lone, an affiliate faculty member and director of the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children, says she wrote her new book, “The Philosophical Child,” to help parents, teachers and other adults conduct conversations with children about life’s mysteries.

The center was founded in 1996 and became affiliated with the UW in 1999. In 2008, Lone started writing a blog titled “Wondering Aloud: Philosophy with Young People,” that she still maintains, often analyzing children’s books for their philosophical content.

The blog attracted emails from parents asking how to engage their children in such conversations. “Often, parents try to lecture their children about the subject or they ask a question that seems to the child to come out of nowhere and doesn’t really go anywhere,” Lone said.

Lone at Town Hall Jan. 17
Lone will discuss her new book in “Raising a Philosophical Child” at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5. To learn more, call 206-652-4255 or email info@townhallseattle.org.

The book is, in a sense, a reply to those questions. Lone said she strove to write it in a readable, nonacademic style, and along the way relates some conversations she had with her own three boys over the years.

Jana Morh Lone

Jana Mohr Lone

“The point I try to make is that we should be following the child’s lead. Let their ideas influence your thinking as much as your ideas might influence their thinking,” Lone said. “It’s really being sensitive to the child’s questions and to have the philosophical inquiry come out of those questions, and not some pre-packaged plan.”

Such an approach, Lone said, nurtures the child’s “philosophical self,” described in the book as “the part of us that understands that many aspects of our existence are profoundly mysterious.” Cultivating that self, she said, is important to “the kind of people we might become.”

Children’s literature is often deeply philosophical and a good resource for starting such conversations, she said. It can draw out the sorts of questions young thinkers might already quietly have: What makes us love? Are thoughts real? Why am I here? (Lone has lately been posting philosophical quotes and questions from children on the philosophy center’s Facebook page.)

Lone thinks of the book as part of the overall outreach efforts of the center, which is co-administered with philosophy department colleague Sara Goering and David Shapiro of Cascadia Community College. The center offers a “Philosophers in the Schools” program, where UW undergraduate and graduate students go to public schools to engage students in philosophical discussions — they visited a dozen schools in autumn quarter alone.

The students at both levels benefit, Lone said. “In some ways it really is about being ambassadors for the humanities in general.” She added, “There’s some real worry about students graduating without basic skills — but there’s also a worry that some of them are not getting the real, deep, important learning that makes people lifelong learners.”

Lone’s work and that of the center draws praise from Michael Rosenthal, professor of philosophy and chairman of the UW department.

“It really would be wonderful if philosophical conversations began before a student enters college,” Rosenthal wrote in an email. “We now have faculty and graduate students making connections to local primary and secondary schools to make this happen. Jana’s work really adds a new and exciting dimension to the Department of Philosophy. We want to support the center and expand its activities.”

Such conversations, are empowering and can build the child’s self-esteem as well as the bond with her parent, Lone said, adding, “I don’t think parents need Ph.D.s or even undergraduate degrees in philosophy in order to do this.”

Of course, part of being sensitive to your child’s questions — being the “co-inquirer,” so to speak — does not mean ceding the role of parent. Lone smiled remembering a philosophical talk with her sons, deeply exploring the nature and meaning of childhood.

“But then I would still be able to say, no you’re not staying out until 2 o’clock in the morning!”