I have a strange and wonderful job: I teach philosophy to children. It sounds like a daunting task, but it’s surprisingly straightforward. Children thrive on big ideas, and aren’t afraid to consider new points of view. As I’ve learned, the harder lessons lie with the adults they run with.
At age two, my own little sage can’t tie her shoes or write her name, but she’s already exploring the universe and her place within it. She questions who and what she is. She contemplates how she is different from others. She’s also realizing (begrudgingly) that there is a difference between right and wrong. We’re bombarded with machine gun rounds of “What’s that?” as she tests and retests the limits of both her and our understanding. Still a toddler, my daughter is already a philosopher, and has been for some time now.
Despite having taught philosophy for years, I’m still a little anxious about what’s to come. Soon, “What’s that?” will turn into “Why?” That, in turn, will lead to “Where do things go when I stop looking at them?” and “What’s the difference between a good person and a bad person?” and “Where does my imagination live?” I’m going to have to admit that I don’t have clear answers.
“I don’t know” is hard for any parent. It’s part of our job, if not part of our essence as caregivers, to know stuff. We’re not supposed to get stumped, especially by people who stuff peas up their nose and plug the toilet with action figures. Who wants to admit to their kid that they too are in the dark?
The beauty (and the agony) of philosophy is that there is no one definite answer to questions about our existence, our nature, and our destiny. I could go on and on about how philosophy builds curious students, discerning professionals, and well-informed citizens. However, I think it’s more important that this kind of questioning, and the incredible conversations that follow, are all part of a human legacy that’s been growing since we climbed down from the trees.
When “Why?” comes, and brings with it all the delicious unknowns in the universe, I’ll embrace it, even if I do so nervously. In opening myself up to uncertainty, I’m helping my daughter to take her place in the great line of questions, and reminding myself that I too am still learning.