Adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy

I realize how malleable our memories can be; how a passion in our later life can be attributed to a precocious childhood; how we can bend the past like origamied paper. But, short of recognizably dated diary passages, or a still-living family member (whose memory could be equally suspect), there can be no reliable verification of our recollections. There is only my word that I have always been interested in Philosophy.

I think most children are philosophers, though: they ask questions; they wonder about the world and analyse the answers they receive as carefully as adults would the change they get after paying for something. So, it’s a shame that we often underestimate the thought processes in the young; that we tend to think of them as human ‘becomings’, not human beings.

Their questions are still questions, however, and if their curiosity, like ours, is about a better understanding of the world, then we are all becomings as we continue to learn from our experience and profit from our mistakes.

Surely it is not the child’s motives that we question; it is their naïveté. We often assume they are unable to properly process our answers; are unable to use our explanations as autonomous agents; don’t really understand. But, perhaps it’s us who don’t understand.

What if their inexperience actually enables them to analyse problems unconstrained by adult conventions? Unhindered by thinking that things just don’t work that way? What if they use their imaginations and approach problems uninhibited by prior exposures? Prior expectations?

Not everything in childhood revolves around adults, though. I remember when my daughter was quite young -Grade 1, I think- and rather than heading outside, she went up to her room directly after supper one evening. It was a typical late Canadian September: the weather was warm, the birds were singing in the trees, and I could see her friends playing in an empty lot across the street, so I thought I’d better check to see if she was feeling unwell.

When I opened the door to her bedroom, I saw her sitting by the open window and staring at a nearby tree that was starting to shed its leaves in the breeze. She seemed fascinated by the drifting colours, and when she turned to look at me, her eyes were sparkling.

“Watcha doing, Cath?” I said, walking over to the window to see if there was something happening on the grass below. But I couldn’t see anything other than a few leaves, and our cat eyeing them suspiciously.

“I’m just thinking, Daddy,” she replied and turned to stare at the tree again.

“I wondered if you were feeling sick.”

She shook her head and smiled at me. “Nope, I think better when I’m by myself sometimes.”

I pulled over a chair and sat beside her. We both looked out the window for a while without saying anything. “What are you thinking about, sweetheart?” I finally said, wondering if it was something that had happened at school that day.

“I was thinking about something Miss Thompson said about trees dropping their leaves in the fall.”

“Oh…? And what did she say?”

“Uhmm, that they do it to save energy or something… The leaves don’t work in the winter.” Her forehead wrinkled for a moment. “So, she says the trees store all the food the leaves made in the summer… sort of like hibernating bears.”

“I hadn’t thought about it like that before, Cath…” I said, smiling at the analogy. “Miss Thompson must be a clever teacher.”

She gave me a brief but tentative nod, and then stared at the tree for a moment. “But trees don’t get fat like bears do when they eat. Bears carry their food around their tummies, or wherever -I mean it’s right there, easy to get at…”

“What did Miss Thompson say about that?”

“The trees store their food in the ground -it would freeze on the branches,” Catherine explained with a puzzled look at me. “Anyway, the trees just go to sleep in the winter, she says.”

“That’s interesting,” I said, and started to rise from my chair.

“But,” she continued, so I stopped, and sat down again. “I’ve been wondering why the part of the tree above ground doesn’t freeze.” She stared at the tree again. “I snuggle under my blankets to stay warm, and I put on extra clothes to play in the snow… The tree doesn’t put on anything extra.”

I shrugged, hoping she wouldn’t expect me to know the answers to things like that.

She smiled at the tree with mischievous eyes and scanned me secretly through her eyelashes. “And then I figured it out. It’s sort of like me keeping my hands in my pockets when it’s really cold.”

I was a little confused at that. “But, the tree doesn’t have pockets, Cath…”

She giggled and looked at me as if I were a slow pupil in her class. “Silly,” she said after touching my arm like a concerned teacher. “Bark is like clothes for a tree.” She paused to see if I was following her reasoning. “So the tree moves way inside its trunk to stay warm.” She glanced at me and sighed at my continuing confusion. “Bark is just like the outside of the pretend pocket…” she explained and then leaned over and hugged me when I finally conceded the point. My philosophical child.

A delightful essay I happened across years later, awakened that long-ago memory. It was in an article written by Jana Mohr Lone, director of the Center for Philosophy for Children, and affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington entitled, helpfully, ‘Philosophy for Children’:

As she sees it, ‘The point is not to educate children about the history of philosophy, nor to instruct them in the arguments made by professional philosophers… the aim is to discover what topics the children want to think about, and to foster discussions and reflection about these subjects… Children’s questioning can constitute the most primary of philosophical activities: reflecting on the meaning of ordinary experiences and concepts in order to develop an understanding of the world, others and themselves.’

 I was struck by her observation that ‘Although adults know that young children are inclined to ask a lot of questions, we tend to believe that they’re too immature and unsophisticated to reflect seriously on complex topics. We characterise children as curious and full of wonder, but we assume that they don’t really understand the philosophical dimensions of the larger questions they pose.’

But many adult don’t understand, either. ‘Philosophy is an unfamiliar subject for many people… [and] has the unfortunate reputation of being a difficult and esoteric subject, inaccessible to most adults, let alone children… Studying philosophy as a college student customarily involves… how to construct a coherent argument, spot fallacies and other mistakes of logic and reasoning, and anticipate and consider possible objections to a philosophical view.’ But children don’t have to delve into that morass to be asking philosophical questions, or analyzing the answers they get. ‘What college philosophy students don’t tend to do, though, is engage in open discussion about the questions themselves, without reference to philosophical experts.’ Children avail themselves of that opportunity.

‘For children, philosophy is a profoundly imaginative and playful endeavour.’ Indeed, ‘children are open to considering creative options; viewing the world from a perspective of wonder and openness, they seem less burdened by assumptions about what they already know. Children tend to be willing to entertain a wide range of ideas, some of which most adults would rule out as farfetched and unworthy of attention. In fact, research confirms that because children are less burdened by expectations about the way things should be, they are, in some settings, more flexible thinkers and better problem-solvers than adults… Examining philosophical problems requires an openness to new ways of thinking, imaginative examples, and a willingness to play with ideas.’

It’s an interesting essay, to be sure, but actually, it was nothing new to any parents who actually listen to their kids. It made me realize I should have listened more, though…

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