06/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Kids in Deep Conversation

The New York Times recently reported on a school where 8 year olds are being taught philosophy. That doesn't mean they're being grounded in the thought of Plato, or Descartes ("I think, therefore I am ... in third grade."), or that they're being trained to argue with their parents on the ethics of eating hamburgers. They're being invited to reflect together on some of the philosophical ideas and issues that are raised in great children's books, like Shel Silverstein's classic, The Giving Tree. What results, by way of thoughtful exploration and fairly deep conversation, sometimes surprises even the philosophers guiding the process.

Ancient thinkers understood that philosophy begins in wonder. And wonder is the world of the young child. Whether the philosophy that arises in this way will continue in life usually depends on how we adults respond to the questions and musings of our little companions.

When I taught at Notre Dame, I came home from class one day to find my young pre-school son standing in the living room of our house staring at our small black dog, Roo, who was sitting in front of him, looking up and nervously wagging his tail. I walked down the hall, put my teaching satchel in the kitchen, and returned to see the tableau unchanged. At that point, Matt noticed my presence and said, "Dad, does Roo know he's a dog?" I thought to myself, "This is spontaneous philosophy from a little child."

My son was wondering about the self-consciousness of an animal - did he know he was a dog, as distinct from a cat, or a human being? Did he realize he was a pet - that we owned him - or did he think he was just using us? Lots of philosophy is tied up in the simple question Matt raised.

Not long afterward, I tucked him into bed one night and asked if he wanted me to read him a book. He said, "Let's talk about important things."

I replied, "What would you like to talk about?"

He said, "God and President Reagan." The big issues of the day.

Then, one night we were playing some game that involved picking cards and asking questions printed on them. We took a break to go into the kitchen and get a snack.

Out of the blue, the little guy said, "They should make a game with questions so hard, no one can answer them."

I asked the obvious follow up, "What kind of questions?"

He thought for a second. "Questions like, 'Why was God not born?'"

His older sister, two years his senior, was in the next room. She overheard this exchange and immediately shot back, "Because he was always there, stupid!"

Little Matt looked intensely thoughtful for a moment and said, "Well, I mean, how did he GET there?"

His big sister, Sara, who was still hidden from view around the corner, decided to put a lid on further inquiry and said, "HE JUST SHOWED UP."

My son and my daughter were both very philosophical as young children. Matt asked questions. Sara usually thought something over in the quiet of her own mind, and was more prone to offer up answers than queries. The mode might have been different, but the meaning was the same. Kids think about basic and sometimes deep things that we adults often ignore.

All children are born into a world and a universe they don't understand. They want to get their bearings. They want to know. They launch themselves into each day with bursts of curiosity. If we adults recognize this as an expression of their natural wonderment, and as a nascent habit of mental grappling that will prepare them well for an endlessly surprising world, we can nurture them as the natural philosophers they are.

Too often, we busy grownups dismiss these sparks of fundamental curiosity and thought, and - whether intentionally or not - discourage the musings necessary for young people to grow into creative and intellectually flexible adults. Our current political discourse plentifully displays the consequences of extinguishing this small flame of philosophical curiosity. The world is too complex, dangerous, and wonderful in its abundant potential for us not to nurture and encourage the roots of inquisitiveness and creative thought whenever we can.

As I've written about here recently, the habit of having substantive conversations on things that matter is correlated with life happiness and richer levels of satisfaction in our relationships, as well as in our various adventures through life. The basic roots of deep conversation, which involve nothing more than a curious mind, an open heart, and an ability to explore ideas while respecting people with divergent perspectives, can be cultivated most powerfully in childhood, and yet also at other stages throughout life. But childhood is the most crucial period for the encouragement and growth of this skill.

If you're around young children of any age, engage them now and then in deep conversation about anything in their world. You'll help them stay on a path that can provide them with better lives, and you might find yourself getting a little more creative because of it as well. In fact, if you give the right encouragement and causes for reflection, like - in their own way, on their own scale, and in their own proper time - God and President Reagan, you may be amazed at what results.

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