UW News

June 23, 2021

Jana Mohr Lone advocates for children’s voices in new book, ‘Seen and Not Heard’

UW News

In her new book, Jana Mohr Lone asks, how would the world benefit if children were recognized as independent thinkers? How would their lives change "if what they said was not often ignored or patronized?"In her new book, Jana Mohr Lone asks, how would the world benefit if children were recognized as independent thinkers? How would their lives change “if what they said was not often ignored or patronized?”

Seen and Not Heard: Why Children’s Voices Matter” was published in April by Rowman & Littlefield. Lone is an affiliate associate professor of philosophy and director of the University of Washington-based Center for Philosophy for Children.

Lone said the book is intended for “anyone who has children in their lives, personally or professionally.” As with her 2013 book, “The Philosophical Child,” she based her writing in part on a series of conversations with school children about life’s most important questions.

“For most people, childhood is the time of perhaps the most sustained and persistent wondering about our lives,” Lone writes in her introduction. “Yet it is also the period of life in which one’s reflections and ideas are least appreciated. Influenced by our beliefs that children’s lack of life experience and dependence on adults renders their judgments and reflections of little value, we often ignore the interesting and creative ideas that they attempt to express.”

Jonathon Kozol, author of “Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation,” praised “Seen and Not Heard” as “a stirring and important book” that explores “the ways that children think and speak of important matters such as friendship, justice, happiness, childhood, and death.”

And the UW’s own Charles Johnson, author and professor emeritus of English, said Lone’s interactions with children “reveal not only themes of timeless importance but often wisdom from their youthful experiences.”

UW Notebook caught up with Lone over email for a few questions about her book and her work.

What was the motivation for writing this book?  

Jana Morh Lone

Jana Mohr Lone

Jana Mohr Lone: “Seen and Not Heard” came from a growing recognition of how much I’ve learned from children in 25 years of talking with them about their philosophical questions and ideas. Despite the fact that our homes and schools have become more child-centered than in the past, I think that children’s thoughts and insights continue to be discounted and dismissed simply due to age.

I wanted to describe many of the deep and thoughtful conversations I’ve had with children to illustrate the unique and profound insights that can emerge from childhood and the ways that children’s perspectives can expand our philosophical universe.

“Genuine listening,” you write, “requires both openheartedness and receptivity.” What do you mean by openhearted listening, and why do you feel children naturally excel at it? 

Openhearted listening involves attempting to take in what another person says with as few assumptions, as little prejudice, and as much generosity as possible. I think children are particularly good at it because they are curious about what other people think and are less inclined to assume that they already understand what someone else means to say or that they already know what someone should think.

“Silence plays a part in the collective acts of listening,” you write. What is the value of silence in communication with and among children? 

In my experience, an explicit acknowledgement of the importance of silence in exchanges with and among children fosters a quieter and slower conversational pace. The development of a collective comfort with silence also makes space for students who need more time for reflection before being ready to speak, who are not the first to jump into a discussion.

Additionally, silence encourages attentiveness to the nonverbal: facial expressions, body language, and the physical presence and location of a conversation’s participants. All of this enhances the quality of listening.

What sorts of things have you learned from children in your talks?

I’ve noticed that children’s thoughts regarding friendship are particularly insightful. This is because, I think, friendship is so central in their lives. Especially once they begin school, learning how to develop and sustain friendships is one of childhood’s principal tasks.

Most philosophers and most psychological and sociological research considers a relationship a friendship only if it is reciprocal, if each person defines the other as a friend. But I had a conversation about friendship with a group of 11-year-olds who disagreed, and it led me to think differently about this topic.

The children observed that sometimes one person wouldn’t call a relationship a friendship and the other person would, but the two might just have different ideas of what it means to be a friend. Sometimes we are friends without knowing it, they said.

You ask how society might be different if children were in fact recognized as independent thinkers, capable of valuable contributions to the world. What’s your view?

I think society would be different both for children and for adults. When they try to express serious thoughts, children often have the experience of being ignored or treated condescendingly. Acknowledging children as possessing important perspectives gives them a real opportunity to regard themselves differently, to develop confidence that their voices matter. If this were the case, I think children would be more likely to grow up seeing themselves as full and valuable members of society.

Children are relatively unburdened by expectations about the way things should be and assumptions about what they think they already know, and they’re less concerned about making mistakes or sounding silly. As a result, they are more fearless than adults about exploring new ideas and more open to considering imaginative possibilities. As one 10-year-old put it: “Because adults know so much about what is real and what isn’t, they have less imagination about the possibilities.”

Taking what children say seriously would allow adults greater access to the special capacities present in childhood — wonder and curiosity, vibrant awareness and imagination, openness and a fresh way of looking at the world. I often think about a comment a child once made, “So much more is possible than we think.” If adults really listen to children, it can remind us that we can be unafraid to try out ideas that might seem far-fetched or naïve, and that possibility is alive in the world.

For more information, contact Lone at mohrlone@uw.edu.