It is every parent’s secret wish that their children should grow up to be something great. Greater than them, in fact. Most parents want their children to pursue some sort of life that will fulfill them; financially, personally and socially. Something that gives their life reason and purpose and satisfaction.
Most parents – the greatest of parents – want their children to outshine them in every aspect of life and set them up to succeed in that way because it shows that the groundwork was laid. The heavy things lifted, the trenches dug and the sturdy foundation laid. And atop that foundation, we expect that our children will build structures that far surpass the ones that we have been able to build of our own lives.
To that ends, the more that I think about the sort of foundation that I want to provide for my son – the more I consider what sort of infrastructure I want to leave for him to build his life – the more I realize that it is a love of philosophical inquiry that I hope to put at the heart of his living. I want that he should begin his life as a philosopher and keep the spirit of philosophy close at hand in whatever he endeavors in life and if I am able to give him nothing else, I want to be able to give him that.
Now I am not expecting my son to pursue an academic philosophical life. If he wants to go that route I will fully support it, for probably a long time given what a degree in philosophy pays. But no. My wish for him is that when he grows up he will embody the behavior of an active, practical philosopher in spirit, mind, and body. A life characterized by curiosity, reason, agreeable skepticism, deep thought, and deeper living.
What is the life of a Philosopher?
The life of a philosopher is personified by a constant state of unbridled wonder, analysis, and critique – of yourself, of the world, and of your place in it.
It means never missing an opportunity to interrogate the universe out of sincere curiosity about the workings of the world.
It means exploring other ideas and beliefs and values with openness, earnest interest and a willingness to change what you believe when you find something that more closely aligns with what you want out of your life.
It means shrugging off old ideas that don’t fit, no matter where you got them from, and being confident and courageous enough to pursue your beliefs and values no matter what anyone else says.
It means asking the big questions of life and searching high and low for the answers that satisfy your soul. Those questions and answers that give your life meaning and color and beauty.
Children are already so naturally inclined to this sort of curiosity and exploration, and instead of providing my personal answers to these big personal questions, my hope is to teach my son the ways to find the answers for himself – from himself and from the world – and to give him the tools to reason and think well so that he will always be well equipped to find his way in this world.
Why a Philosopher?
A philosopher is not your average truth seeker looking for reason and reason alone. A true philosopher, a philosopher of life, is an extraordinary sort of explorer of all things big and small. They are the reckless trailblazers of big ideas. Men and women who blow the doors off of conventional thinking and are never satisfied with the status quo. And that is what I hope for my son.
I hope that my son never stops trying to prove the existence of magical things that he might believe in. That he never becomes so certain of the ideas and beliefs and values that he has been exposed to in this world that he stops looking for better and more honest ways to live that suit him.
I hope he never stops intellectually challenging me when I ask him to do certain things and he challenges the world in the same way when he is uncertain of the value or reason behind what is being asked of him.
I hope he maintains a healthy sense of intellectual and social rebellion, never being content to follow anything that does not agree with his common sense and reason. Never abandoning his integrity for the sake of comfort and never shying away from conflict when it is necessary for resolution.
All of these hopes I have for my son are things that define the life of a philosopher, and that is the life I would wish upon my son. Because a life lived with those guiding principles is a life that is always fulfilling, never dull and completely and honestly your own.
Good Doers and Good Thinkers
We teach our children how to do many things. We teach them how to tie their shoes and ride a bike and brush their teeth and to read and to write. But do we spend the meaningful time required to teach them how to think? Not how to think, as in what to believe, but how to think as in formulating well-reasoned positions and arguments for their beliefs that are founded on truth and understanding. And then teaching them how to follow through with those beliefs in a way that enhances their experience of the world.
Because being a philosopher is not only about thinking deeply. It is about living deeply. It is about taking all the contingent truths that you have come by and applying them to your life in a way that brings more beauty to how you love and live. It is about reasoning through the complexity of life, but when reason is not enough, being confident enough in your ideas and beliefs that you can come to a solution with your heart.
What we should want for our children is not to merely be good doers, but to be good thinkers. We should want them to dig deeply into the important questions of life, sooner rather than later. If they start thinking about them now, before their minds are contaminated with caustic conventions of average thought, they have the possibility of coming to deeper truths than are possible when you grow up.
We should want our children to grow rebellious in their minds. Not teaching them to be contrarian or undisciplined or rude, but to maintain a healthy dose of agreeable skepticism in the things that they learn and to never be afraid to ask why and how until they are satisfied with the answers.
We should want for them to not do what we say, “because we said so”, but to do what we say because we have given them strong arguments for it and they have come to respect the power and might of strong arguments. And if they do not want to do something that we ask of them, then they should be tasked with producing even stronger arguments against our arguments. Give us reasons for their dissent. And if those reasons are compelling or creative enough we should be willing to reward them with an extended bedtime or the treat that they asked for or some other compensation for respectfully and intelligently arguing their position.
What does it take to raise future philosophers?
It doesn’t take much. Children are natural philosophers, to begin with. They are open, inquiring, skeptical, irrational, whiny, stubborn, prone to overly complex explanations for simple things and fond of naps. That basically describes every philosopher you will ever meet.
Children just need some freedom and guidance and to be given a long leash for their intellectual roaming. They need to be able to learn by doing as much as by thinking because worldly experience is a philosopher’s prized tool for the deeper discovery of the truths of life. Children need healthy boundaries of course, but those boundaries should be wide and far enough that they can explore untethered. They will need direction sometimes, but what they really require is a patient, playful, and present parent that can help them explore everything that life has to offer.
As parents, we also need to create an intellectually safe and civil learning environment for our children. We need to help them to engage in difficult topics in fun, logical and secure ways so that they learn the value and joyful inspiration of sharing ideas, cultivating understanding and listening and learning from others. This means promoting a space where respect, consideration and active listening are the underlying foundations of discourse. We need to make our children feel comfortable in expressing their thoughts so that they have the confidence to explore them deeply.
You will be surprised at how receptive children are towards deep philosophical questions if they are gently and safely guided towards them in a fun, playful way. The key is to stress that there are no wrong answers, there are only arguments of proof for what you believe and these should be explored to find how soundly they hold up. Half the point of philosophical exploration is to get them to see that beliefs can come from anywhere and the best beliefs, those that we can come to rely upon most, are usually those that are closest to reason and that hold up under the most sincere scrutiny.
All you have to do is take a little time with your children during captive moments of attention, when there is nothing else to do, and ask them some leading questions. Car rides are usually when I do the most brilliant philosophizing with my son. We are like Socrates and Plato driving around in a KIA. It’s a perfect opportunity to turn down the music and open up to some fun, intellectual discussion. He has nowhere he can go and I have nowhere I would rather be.
Here are some great example questions I have explored with my son that may help you to get you started in diving into philosophy with your own children:
What do you think the world is made out of?
Where do you think your thoughts come from?
What does it mean to be a friend?
What is real? What is fake?
How is real life different than a dream?
What is time?
Is it ever ok to tell a lie?
Where do stars come from?
Why do cats purr?
Is the computer world different from this one?
Why are there colors in the world?
What are shadows?
Do cats have nine lives?
Why are there animals?
The point is not that some of these questions have obvious, explainable scientific answers. The point is to get children to think deeply, critically and fondly of life and all the questions that living produces. It is to get them to pull answers from experience and reason and try to defend those answers with logical arguments and sound reasoning.
Your role as a parent who wants to raise future philosophers is not so much in guiding your child’s thoughts or experiences, but in setting them up with the foundational tools of a deep, philosophical life. Teaching them the value of questioning the world, of questioning ideas and of questioning the things that they believe. You should try to teach them the value of intellectual rebellion; to be able to maintain deep, challenging, but respectful conversations with the world and to have the courage and capacity to remain flexible in their beliefs.
This means creating an environment of safe, but challenging, intellectual exploration. An environment of mutual respect, honesty, and sincere engagement. It means giving your children the freedom to run wild in their minds and building their confidence to express and pursue those thoughts and ideas to see how they fit into the world. Most of all, it means embracing the childlike sense of wonder in yourself and letting your children involve you in their silly, magical meanderings.
I know not every parent wants to raise the kind of child I am talking about here. I don’t expect that they should. Each and every parent should decide for themselves what sort of people they want to try and help their children become. But for those of us that have lived, breathed and bathed in the potential and beauty of a philosophical life, giving the gift of it to our children is one of the greatest things that we can try to do.