How to avoid children's questions

by Oscar Brenifier,
First published in Thinking, volume 16, Number 4, 2003 – IAPC, Montclair State University, NJ (USA)

Philosophy with children, like all human activities suffers from a certain number of tics. To start with, one can wonder why a grown up would in general prefer working with children than with adults. Of course there can be and there are all kinds of good, generous, noble and necessary reasons justifying and explaining such professional choices, but like always in a philosophical analysis, it seems necessary to point at the natural pathologies which both are the cause and the result of those very same choices. And since questioning seems to be at the heart of philosophizing, let's analyze in particular how adults relate to questions raised by the children.

Adults with children

We do not pretend to propose an extensive study of the question, but only to throw in a few hints that would bear consequences on the philosophizing itself. Intuitively or consciously, a person which has difficulties establishing relationship with adults will go toward children. First, because in many ways they do not challenge as much the identity of the adult, since he feels big and powerful in their presence. Second, because authority and power is generally given of the bat to the adult over the children. Third, because the adult has the impression of knowing a lot, compared to the children. Fourth, because the adult can live his childhood again and for this he will feel happy with his little companions. Now, of course, none of this is totally clear cut and especially conscious. As Friedrich Schiller mentions, there is always certain ambiguity in the relation between the adult and the child. When the grown up sees the little guy stumbling along, he certainly feels very competent, strong and powerful compared to him, but at the same time he experiences a little touch of jealousy, at the idea that this young being still has all his possibilities, that his life still lay ahead of him, in the future, which has for consequences to induce some regrets in the adult mind over a foreclosed past. Although all the good souls there again will protest energetically that never such a jealousy against a poor defenseless and innocent child could enter their bosom.

Children are natural philosophers in the sense that questions easily come to their minds. At an age where they still discover so much of the world and themselves, wonder and amazement, those key features of the philosophizing mind, still operate quite fully. But like with anything having to do with human nature, it can be curbed or enhanced, it can be grounded to a quasi halt or developed. In fact, even at the early age of seven or eight, we see how a certain principle of reality, which we can call as well a principle of certitude, as legitimate as it might be, invades the mind of the child, which has the effect of choking the metaphysical interrogation which until then constituted a major part of the intellectual life of the child. He enters a "scientific" age, which comprises as well its own domain of established questions and answers, but tends to restrict its activity to the realm of the physical and the possible, more commonly acceptable. Our point is that occurs here a certain conditioning of the mind, quite expectable and acceptable since this process constitutes the major part of learning how to live in society, in order to conform to socially acquired knowledge and behavior, but a process which of course operates a major reduction and constraint upon the mental field of the child. Now, of course, the nature and modalities of this transformation will largely depend upon the cultural and familial context which surrounds the child.

Too busy

We seem to have identified three major ways by which child questioning and amazement is dampened and slowly extinguished. We will present them in order of increasing subtlety and sophistication, although it is not so mechanical as this, and often operates a certain mixture of parental and adult behavior. The first one, most common and cruder is the straightforward inattention to the questioning and the astonishment. It either takes the lighter and indirect form of not listening, or the more brutal injunction to remain silent or go elsewhere. It seems important to us to classify these two types of reaction in the same category, for even if one bears a softer and more civilized appearance, on the long run it has exactly the same effect. And how many parents, who never or rarely deprive their child of the right to speech, and would even be horrified at such an idea, will with the best conscience in the world busily attend one's business, whatever the utility or the necessity of those affairs, be it working, shopping, watching television, or going places, without taking a real time to listen to their child. By acting in such a manner, the parent establishes a clear-cut hierarchy in the mind of his rearing, determining for him, his present or future, what is primary and what is secondary. Immediate necessity definitely overrides the gratuity of intellectual examination and the beauty of contemplation. When this is the case, the adult should not afterwards exclaim himself, then or later, that his child does not reflect before acting and merely follows his first impulses.

Ready made answers

The second way to turn off child questioning is by answering the question, no matter what the sophistication and the appropriateness and the answers are. Although the time which is taken and the way in which this answering is accomplished will obviously make a difference. The reason of our critic on the parental or teacher answering is first that it induces a warped relationship to questioning and second that it encourages a tendency to depend upon outside authority, developing heteronomy rather than autonomy. What we qualify "warped", is the fact that questions are not valued in themselves, as a precious gift our own mind offers us, to be transformed in a mere want, as a lack, as something missing, an unpleasant situation which the benevolent parent is willfully ready to correct by providing ready made answers, of for that matter half-baked answers, certainly less innovative and creative as the question itself. The idea is that a question has value in itself, it is an opening upon the world and being, it has necessarily produced a concept or an idea, in a negative form which is no less valuable than its mirror image: the answer. A question has an esthetic value, its form is mind provoking, similar in this aspect to a painting or sculpture which the spectator contemplates without back thoughts and emergency preoccupations about the utility, the truth or the resolution of the problem offered to his senses and reason. This perspective does not prohibit any tentative of answering, but the answer is de-emphasized, de-idolized, loosing therefore its status as the final and ultimate step of mind activity and process. Good and profound questions cannot be answered, and should not be answered. They can only be problematized, which for us means that we can initially analyze their content and appreciate them for what they bring, and in a second step start producing ideas as hints that can shed a light on different paths it can embark us upon. Questioning is a mind experiment, a tool allowing to explore the limits of knowledge and understanding. For this reason, it remains crucial that the adult, parent or teacher, admits to the child that a question cannot be answered, either because he does not know, or because he postulates and explains there is no definite answer to it. And for the fear that this kind of comment would generate anxiety in the child's mind, who needs values in which he can anchor his own spiritual self, just like he needs food to fulfill the wants of his biological self, let's just say that, hopefully, a child does not eat as soon as he wants, and that he is taught to defer and delay the satisfaction of his needs, in order to free himself from immediacy and impulse. Desire is healthy and productive to the extent we allow it to play its role in time, and not "resolve" instantly the imbalance it produces in the self. After all, one might as well get used to it, since disequilibrium and unsteadiness are fundamental characteristics of life.

Autonomy

For the problem of autonomy, like in any other kind of activity the child is involved in, it is useful and indispensable that he learns to manage by himself. The teaching provided implies then that the adults withholds in himself the natural "mothering" tendency which compulsively incite us to spoon-feeding, in order to invite the child to come to grip with himself and develop his own capacities. Teach a man to fish, rather than give him fishes, tells the Chinese proverb, signifying that giving fishes is a hindrance to learning the art of fishing. But of course, and there lays the reality of this issue, it is more practical to provide actual fishes, mere objects that can be easily handled, since teaching fishing implies a lengthier and subtler procedure, where the teacher has to consciously deepen the understanding of his own art and simultaneously be more perceptive to the global functioning of the child. Long path, says Plato, rather than the short one where the master provides ready made answers to the pupil. The student has to do the work by himself, otherwise he will forever look for answers among established authorities, looking up to them, rather than searching in himself. The education to autonomy has definitely to start at an early age, and it is not through later and immediate injunctions of self determination that the young adult initiates himself to this crucial facet of his existence – like many parents do, once they are suddenly facing what they consider a negative and pervasive influence of the outside world upon their child - but through the process of building confidence in his own capacities to think, produce ideas, deliberate and judge through his own capacities, by himself, and this can only be accomplished through an early initiation and a constant practice.

There are two current objections to such a pedagogical attitude, which are interconnected. The first one is the value argument, the second one is the doubt argument, its mirror image. The point made with the value argument is that children need values to construct themselves, landmarks without which they cannot grow and establish themselves as a mature and responsible adult, as a full human being. So parents, or teachers, in order to educate, have to vehicle a number of guidelines on the fundamental issues: right and wrong, good and evil, true and false, beautiful and ugly, forbidden and obligatory, etc. Let us say that adults generally view themselves as the guardians, of certain acquired and inherited principles, composing a rough axiology, of which the fundamentals are not so clear and often scattered with contradictions. But they believe these are necessary to the children they are responsible for, for a mixture of practical, authority and ideological reasons, a difference mostly disregarded. If we insist on the arbitrariness of those child rearing schemes, it is because reason only plays a minor if not absent role. Although it is evidently useful and necessary to instill into children a given set of general statements about the global reality, in order that his actions and decisions not be reduced to a case by case mere instinctive and reactive impulse, let us not forget that all this is designed to give meaning to the world and his own life. So if we do not allow him a space for creating such a meaning, he will become, like many human beings the product of a reductive conditioning, rigid and thoughtless, unless he revolts against such a dogmatic perspective with an equally dogmatic counter-perspective. In this sense, he has both to be introduced to the practice of knowing and using general principles, for existential, moral and intellectual reasons, with a given degree of imposition without which those principles loose their strength, but the child needs as well to learn how to analyze, compare, criticize, question and create such general principles. This educational wager, wager on reason and autonomy, represents of course more time and work on the parts of the adults, a profound involvement that too many parents and teachers are not willing to commit themselves to, for a number of different motives: lack of energy, lack of education, fear, etc.

More or less the same arguments can be used with the argument that doubt is a generator of anguish. Just like protecting a child from any physical challenge won't allow him to develop his physical strength, so goes it for his psychic strength. Now, if one conceives responsibility toward the youth primarily as protection against themselves and the outside world, we shall not be surprised that he develops a paranoid world outlook, a world which will never resemble what is supposes to, a world upon which the adult will never be able to intervene, since he has not been introduced to his own potency. How can one be generous and free if he has not undergone the anguish of doubt, and worked on his capacity to deal with it, to accept it, to resolve it and even to love it as the imbalance that maintains his mind and himself alive? Is not the prime symptom of a consumer society the fact that adults are more concerned about satisfying their private little needs than any other great and enthusiastic challenge, an attitude which demands to develop trust and confidence, throughout time, in spite of the apparent obstacles and difficulties? Our last point on this issue is that children have more a sense of gratuity than adults: they know how to play, how to act, to pretend "as if", so they probably feel less threatened than their older fellow beings by the free examination of ideas. The latter have more to lose and to prove: they fear death and absurdity more than they love authenticity, mental life and spiritual endeavor. This is probably the main reason why they feel they have to answer children's questions, why they refuse to admit their ignorance on fundamental issues, why they enforce thoughtless authority. All this, at least in appearance, with the best of all conscience and for the greater good of the children.

Complacency

The third major way by which child questioning and wonder is extinguished is what can be qualified as a complacent or condescending attitude. The most frequent occurrence of it comes as a response to the child's words that will express itself as something like "Oh! Look at this! It's so cute!". When we say complacent, we mean it both toward the child and toward the adult himself, as a witness of the words and author of the comment. Complacent toward the child, since we do not allow him or encourage him to really listen to himself, to go on with his speech, to come to grasp with what he said, to envisage the consequences and implications of his words. He is mainly incited to perform, to please the adult, to be cute, to just throw words around with the hope of some success, a success which takes the form of a gratifying exclamation coming from authority. It is complacent for the adult, since he does not really think through what he has heard. Maybe the child's desire was to express something deep and powerful, that is being ridiculed in a certain way, since it is reduced to sweetness and daintiness. And even though he was maybe surprised or caught off guard by the laugh, the smile or the exclamation of the adult, in a second moment he will be happy about it and will next time around try to obtain a similar success, rather than attempt to express something profound again. When the work and challenge of the adult was here to dwelve the intent of the child, maybe a quite mind provoking insight like children can have, of the type "But the king is naked !", or one of those basic long forgotten questions we are so embarrassed with, like "Why are we here?". Further more, his responsibility was to invite the child to go further, a responsibility that implies openness, receptivity, alertness, patience and a minimal dose of rigor. How many teachers discard too easily child talk precisely for those very lacks, when listening attentively could have provided them with clarifications of certain difficulties, or insights on the interpretation of some piece of knowledge. And let us not forget that the "being cute" reaction is the reverse equivalent of the "it's all gibberish". True meaning is overlooked in both cases.

Condescension is a tricky feeling. Why be upset about one who is being nice? For if you feel he has no respect for you in the way he is addressing you, he will oppose his kindness and good intentions toward your person. And what can you answer, if not something like "But you treat me like a child!". So how goes it with a child? Teen-agers just angrily rebel against this attitude, since words and ideas are failing them, since the feeling of frustration and the ire are overbearing. But the child still operates in a very depending mode of relationship. He mainly wants to obtain signs of love and appreciation, he is not so worried yet about his own autonomy, at least not on the question of thoughts and ideas. So he will too easily sacrifice a desire to express profound, subtle and impassioned thoughts, an intention which he does not really master yet, in favor of just pleasing established authority. He feels in a more immediate fashion valorized by these condescending reactions than by some further questioning or discussion with the adult, unless he has become conscious of his capacities to think and learned to appreciate them and be confident in them. If we observe attentively the constant grin that some adults bear as an indication of welcoming a child talk, any other adult would really feel insulted by it. The frequent smile which for a newborn is a strong and crucial mean of expression, can become a hindrance as the child grows older, when he has to be taken seriously.

Loving kids

Definitely, adults can learn by discussing with children, who in reason of their nave attitude, still unconditioned, close to the origin, less frightened by general truths and their implications, less constrained by social acceptance, less calculating and cynical, can produce those pearls of wisdom and truth which we adults enjoy so much to hear. To the extent that here and there some theorists will tentatively erect the child as a true master, and like often when a master is set on a pedestal and glorified, the idolaters surrender their own capacity to think; in this case they will give up on their own possibility to confront themselves to the radicality of childhood. They forget too easily that the child himself ignores his childhood: one has to have traveled to know himself and know his own people. The human mind is tricky: it is sufficiently acquainted with itself to be able to feed and flatter its own devious tendencies. Our cunning mind has been trained for so long to interpret the world, give it meaning, adapt its language and its truth in order to feel more comfortable, feel at ease, feel better, and forget its own infirmity and mortality. Be it by crudely not listening to the child, by shutting him up with answers, by smiling or laughing at his childish words, by contemplating and admiring the glossy little self, by falling in the cozy trap of nostalgia: a bare twist of mind stands between utilitarianism, dogmatism, cynicism and romanticism. In all cases, some attitude that will protect our old and weary experimented being from the sparks of primitive genius inadvertently springing from our unconscious youngsters. It is too easy to use those little beings and their ejaculations just to offer our anxious and timorous self a supplement of soul. Don't we resemble those pitiful old Chinese emperors that used to bathe with dozens of adolescent girls in order to gain some youth and longevity.

We can love children the way the "lady do rightly" loved her poor ones. She would visit their slums every Sunday afternoon, after lunch and before tea, in order to hand out old worn out clothes and install some lace curtains on the battered windows. She would feel good, so good, and this intense feeling of warmth and good conscience would carry her all week long, as she engaged in her mundane, frivolous and meaningless activities. Children can be very mind provoking, to the extent we provoke their minds. The adult that presents himself as the "facilitator" of a philosophical discussion with children, that does not confront them with their own thinking will most likely not confront himself: if he does not engage himself in a philosophical activity, he will not ensure that children philosophize, if only because children ignore what philosophy is, and its requirements. If he does not find a way to get profoundly involved, an involvement which of course will not necessarily take the same immediate form as the one of the children, the children will most likely not get profoundly involved. After all, he is the teacher, and if the teacher is some kind of spectator, so will the children, who will only formally participate to the exercise.

Adults are generally satisfied with children, like with any other being or object, when they obtain from them what they expect. This affirmation will sound very harsh to all those adults of "good will". But no matter how good is the will, it is still a will. And this will is diverse. The most classical scheme is the will to see in the child what we have put in, the return on the investment, and be satisfied with hearing the echo of our own words, of our own mental mechanics. Be it by listening with a sort of paternalistic nodding of the head, which implies "Go on little boy, go on little girl, participate, express yourself, it's nice to hear you talk, even though I know better and I will tell you at the first occasion." Or be it the straightforward imposition of the right and the wrong, without any patience for anything deviant. Or again, be it by not leaving any space for questioning. The result is the same: the adult does not take the opportunity to philosophize, to problematize his own thinking, and therefore, how can he induce or encourage a philosophical process in the child's mind? But, just like in order to start philosophizing, the adult has to be conscious of his own reasons to philosophize, even more so when he wants to philosophize with children. So his pupils do not become some alibi for his own feeling better. Weirdly enough, becoming conscious of the true nature of philosophizing with children probably goes through the avowal of a selfish desire on the part of the teacher, which can only be fulfilled by confronting one's thinking with children thinking, since they provide some natural genius, mixed with the utmost banality, a combination adults cannot provide. We at the same time discover some pearls, if we are able to hear them, and feel so potent with our own "accomplished" knowledge and competencies. Why not, there are worse ways and conditions to philosophize!

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