– Mom, is this a dream?

– No.

– Why? How do you know?

– ……………………. 

My friend Ozge told me that she had this brief and interesting dialogue with her 3-year-old son, Kaan.

I told her that the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes, who famously said “I think, therefore I am”, asked the same question as Kaan, only at a much later age: “How could one be sure that he is not dreaming? Is the world really the way it appears to us?”

My friend joked. “I found a name for your next book: Every Child is a Philosopher”, alluding to my book “Every Child is Talented”.

I do believe that every child is a philosopher. The original meaning of the word philosophy comes from the Greek word philo, meaning love, and sophos, meaning wisdom. Children are small-sized philosophers who love to question anything and everything about the world around them. They are naturally curious.

There is really no topic or concept that you could not discuss with a child. The big concepts and swanky names we use to describe the world around us create the questionable perception that the growing brains inside those little bodies are incapable of thinking on those things.

Yet, this is totally wrong: “Does God exist?” “If God created everything then who created God?” “How was I born to this world?” “What is the most precious thing in life?” “Where did my grandma go after she died?” “Mom, is this a dream?”

Children keep asking questions about metaphysics, language, values, existence. Most of the time we do not have a real answer. We either pretend we have an answer, or we think we really do have one, or we simply bypass the question, as in a famous Turkish song that goes, “Don’t think at all, do not bother to understand why”.

When I was little, a weird thought used to pop in my mind every time my parents left my room: Do they cease to exist as they leave? Do they evaporate once out of sight? When I asked this question, they used to answer, “Stop thinking on such nonsense things, just go to sleep”. I stopped questioning after a few attempts.

Much later in life I came across a school of thinking that echoed my childhood musings. Irish philosopher George Berkeley asked a similar question; “Can something exist without being perceived? If no one is around to see, hear, touch or smell a tree, how could it be said to exist?” It looks like he was not told to “just go to sleep”. It looks like my question was not that nonsense after all.

A few days ago, my 5-year-old nephew Ali, my 9-year-old niece Zeynep, and I were playing together at home. Our next door neighbor, Aunt Ayten, was also there with us, quietly knitting in a corner. Ali said out of nowhere, “It is our future that makes our past more beautiful”. I thought it was an interesting perspective, since the more common line of thinking is that it is our past that makes our future more beautiful.

Aunt Ayten was quick to intervene and correct my nephew: “Son, that is incorrect. The correct sentence is, it is our past that makes our future more beautiful”. Aunt Ayten is not a philosopher who has her name written in golden letters on the pages of history. Yet she seemed determined to plant her own thinking in my nephew’s young brain.   

Thankfully, Ali’s sister, Zeynep jumped in. At the age of 9, her still “un-adult-erated” brain was in a great position to act as an arbitrator. Left in limbo between the questioning world of childhood, and the adult world that tries to stop one from such questioning, she defended her brother the philosopher:

– Auntie, I think Ali means something else: I will do something good today. This will make my tomorrow better. So, by tomorrow, I will have done something good in the past by thinking about my future. Therefore, it is my future that makes my past beautiful”.  

As I was watching this brilliant brain gym, the great philosopher, Aunt Ayten, who seemed unimpressed, repeated once again:

– No, that is wrong. It is our past that makes our future more beautiful; that is the correct version.

My niece and I passed each other a secret smile; a smile that meant “no hope”.

Aunt Ayten absolutely meant well. She was trying to teach the right thing with all the best intentions. Yet, to be frank, I was extremely proud to see that my niece was on my side. Ali had already gone back to play, trying to “beautify his moment” by crafting imaginary characters.

Children are little philosophers who constantly question life. They keep thinking about questions that may sound strange to the adults around them. Then you know what happens: Either an Aunt Ayten comes and tells them they are wrong, or someone else warns them to stop nonsense and just go to sleep.

They may catch the missed opportunity after they start school, or they may stop questioning altogether once they enter the factory-style school system. The lucky few overcome all obstacles and continue to question life philosophically.

I wrote to my friend Özge, asking her to complete the following statement:

“Every child is a philosopher until…”

The answer came from Kaan’s grandmother instead, a philosophy teacher.

“Karl Jaspers’s thinking completes this statement very well. Every child is a philosopher until we lock them up in the prison of non-questioning.”

When you have a philosophy teacher for a grandmother, you end up having a mom who thinks and questions. Then you most probably become a child who thinks and questions, and who grows up questioning the world around. And if you have a powerful name like Kaan Maximilianus Kaiser, then odds are high that you will grow up to become a great philosopher one day!  

If you fail to meet these conditions, you start life thinking like Schopenhaur and at some point you find yourself thinking about the “shopping hour” instead!

It was Socrates who said “A life that is not questioned is not worth living”. One has to keep questioning, so that born as philosophers, we do not end up as sheep.

And it is not a big deal to achieve that with your children. You could get started with a few simple yet effective methods.

  • Don’t tell your child “Your thinking is wrong”. Never follow in the footsteps of Aunt Ayten. If your child tells something that does not sound logical to you, or asks a “strange” question, do not block his thinking and questioning channels by putting a “wrong” stamp on the question. Even shutting up would help your child much more than judging him wrong!
  • Pass the ball to the child. “Mom, is this a dream?” When your child asks such a questions, you may simply respond, “I don’t know, what do you think?”. This will prevent you from putting the child’s thought in a given mold, and it will clear the path for further thinking. If you engage in Socratic dialogue with your child, you do not only ensure that she thinks, but you also benefit from reevaluating your own thoughts from the perspective of an unadulterated mind.
  • “No answer” is not a bad answer: It is totally natural for my friend to be stuck in response to her son’s question. Instead of a definitive judgment such as “You are wrong” or “This is nonsense”, hesitation is a better and honest answer. You may not always have an answer for your child’s questions. In response to the questions, you can say things like “Let’s think together”, “let’s research together”, or “let’s read together”.
  • A proactive “What do you think?”. You may ask your child’s thoughts on a given issue without waiting for him to ask you something. This is a simple yet effective method to raise him as a “thinking and questioning” individual.
  • Get support from philosophy books for children. Such books may provide support where you feel inadequate to answer. Plus, when you read those books together, you will see that there are notable similarities between the thoughts of great philosophers and your home-brewed little philosopher!
  • Let your home and classroom brim with the why and how questions. You do not have to read a philosophy book; every book you read, every daily occurrence, every casual conversation may be an opportunity to ask why and how questions. Soon, questioning will turn into a habit for your child.

If you think curiosity killed the cat, then this whole discussion is pointless of course!

Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
Similarly, every child is a philosopher. The problem is how to remain a philosopher once we grow up.