One of the most important ways children begin to understand the world is by asking questions. Why is the sky blue? Why does water freeze? Why do they have to do chores? Thinking and asking come naturally to children, and encouraging them to think deeply and seriously about big questions can help make them become independent and critical thinkers.
In his new book, Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy With My Kids, author and philosopher Scott Hershovitz gives parents anecdotes and ideas about how to encourage children to think philosophically and have fun pondering life's big questions. Hershovitz, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Michigan and a father of two sons, describes his book as a "fact-based introduction to philosophy and a plea to take kids for the serious thinkers they are."
Nasty, Brutish, and Short, which is a double entendre reference to British philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ description of what life for humans would be like outside of organized society, as well as a wink to a description of kids, is a lively book full of humorous and interesting anecdotes about how Hershovitz uses philosophy to communicate with his kids about everyday occurrences. From how to understand the difference between right and wrong to how to deal with a bully at school, Hershovitz shows how parents can get their children to think through problems and have a better understanding and appreciation for why the world is the way it is.
In an interview with Thrive, Hershovitz said he wrote the book to show parents and teachers to appreciate that children are already asking and wondering about big questions and to encourage them to talk about and explore those ideas. He also hopes that adults will share the philosophical experience with their children.
“We were all little kids once with deep questions and were willing to think them through and wonder about the world,” Hershovitz said. “I hope these stories will help adults reconnect with that childhood wonder so they can connect to their kids who are doing the same thing.”
How to Raise a Philosopher
In Ancient Greece, often considered the birthplace of Western Philosophy, philosophy was conducted through conversation. By debating and asking questions, people dug into various matters, searching for the answers. And Hershovits recommends doing the same thing with your children.
"How do you raise a philosopher? The simplest way is to talk to your kids," Hershovitz writes in the final chapter of his book. "Ask them questions and question their answers. The questions don't have to be complicated, and you don't need to know any philosophy to ask them. In fact, a set of stock questions will get you through most situations."
Some of those stock questions include:
- What do you think?
- Why do you think so?
- Can you think of reasons you might be wrong?
- What do you mean by..?
- What is..?
The point of doing this is to make your child construct an argument on their own and try to see the other side.
"So let the kid do the talking," Hershovitz writes. "But don't hesitate to help when they're stuck. And above all else, approach it as a conversation between equals. Take what your kid says seriously, even if you disagree – even if it strikes you as silly. Reason with your child and resist telling them what to think."
Some parents might balk at the idea that they should philosophize with their children if they don't have formal training. But the good news is you don't need formal training to ponder big questions, and Hershovitz says doing so with your children is an excellent opportunity to connect with your child intellectually.
“Sometimes parents are hesitant because kids are asking questions they don’t know the answer to, such as, ‘Why does the world exist? Does god exist? Am I dreaming my entire life?’ These are hard, challenging questions and it’s pretty easy to extend beyond our own knowledge,” Hershovitz said. “Most conversations we have with our kids are hierarchical - adults telling kids what to do or an adult teaching a kid something. But I think conversations about these deep questions - what’s the meaning of life, why are we here - these are conversations that can be collaborative. Because you don’t know the answers, you can participate as equals and take your kids’ ideas seriously, share your ideas and see where the conversation goes. One thing I’d say is it’s absolutely an opportunity if you don’t have all the answers.”
Hershovitz adds that having these conversations with your children can help them become better thinkers, which will reap benefits for the rest of their lives.
"We should be aiming to raise kids that think for themselves and do think deeply about the important decisions they have to make," he explained. "So if the alternative is to simply teach a kid what's right or wrong without thinking it through, then the worry is they will always look for an authority figure to settle a question. And I think signaling that you're interested in your kid's thoughts and willing to engage them and take them seriously is a way to sustain them as thinkers."
In the United Kingdom, a program titled “Philosophy for Children” teaches philosophical concepts to children at the elementary school level. According to a 2017 study by Durham University, that program has shown positive results for "improving children's social and communication skills, teamwork, resilience and ability to empathize with others."
The study also found that the positive effects were greater in children from disadvantaged groups.
Beneficial, But Also Fun
Nasty, Brutish, and Short is a fun, highly readable book that looks at big questions through the eyes of children and examines them from a child philosopher's outlook. But as the book tackles big questions, a common theme throughout is a father having fun interacting with his two sons on an intellectual level.
"I want to emphasize that I think parents will just have more fun with their kids by engaging them in philosophical discussions," Hershovitz said. "Some of the best conversations I ever had with my kids were about philosophical questions. In the book, I talk about how my 4-year-old questioned whether he was dreaming his entire life, and that was an idea we returned to over and over again for several years. And he had really interesting, creative, and surprising things to say in the end about that idea. So I think it will be a source of joy for your engagement with your kids."
And while parents are engaging in philosophical debates with their children, they might end up reaping a few intellectual benefits, as well.
"Learning about the different answers people have given throughout history to what a good life looks like can be clarifying for the most challenging decisions people confront," Hershovitz said. We live in a world of hot takes and tweets, not a world with much depth in thought and genuine debate in which people are really listening to one another. So I always find it refreshing when I'm struggling or confused with something or when people are intensely disagreeing about something - not just read tweets about it, but search for understanding and start reading philosophy about those difficult topics."
For more information about Nasty, Brutish, and Short, as well as where to buy it, check out the book’s webpage.