When my kids were little, my husband and I would often talk with each other about how and when to introduce big topics. How long to shelter them from death, when to explain to them that some people have same-sex relationships, how to confront issues of racism and inequality.
We turned down the radio when we knew swear words were coming up in song lyrics, we found babysitters so they wouldn’t have to attend our grandparents’ funerals, we cringed as we anticipated the inevitable questions about sex.
But, as all those topics (and more we didn’t anticipate) have come up over the years, we’ve realized that the questions, the explanations and the resulting conversations were much less scary than we worried about.
Our kids had naturally good questions and surprisingly perceptive insights, and now conversations about the “big questions” are part of our daily — sometimes hourly — lives.
And now I wonder — what were we so afraid of?
It’s a question tackled by philosophy of law professor Scott Hershovitz in his new book, “Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids” (Penguin Press).
Hershovitz’s argument is that kids are natural philosophers who naturally ask hard questions. More importantly, parents shouldn’t be afraid to engage those questions, even if we don’t feel like we have the answers.
And, according to Hershovitz — who recounts several conversations he’s had with his two kids who are now 12 and 9 years old — it goes further than that. We shouldn’t just encourage our kids to be philosophers. We should take our cues from them and be the philosophers we ourselves were as kids, back before we were afraid to ask questions that seemed too big to have satisfying answers.
“A lot of people are put off by questions they don’t know the answers to or because they don’t know where the conversation will go if they don’t have the answers,” said Hershovitz in a recent interview. “I heard from a dad who was overwhelmed with his daughter’s questions and said he tries to answer as many as he can. But I think that’s the wrong attitude. If you know the answer to a science or math question, sure, answer it. But if the question is about if God exists or the meaning of life, you’re putting too much pressure on yourself as a parent to know the answers.”
The fears parents have about being unable to answer their children’s questions often live alongside the fears they have of fielding uncomfortable questions — which feels particularly relevant as efforts to ban books, legislate what can be said about LGBTQ people in schools and silence lessons that acknowledge systemic racism are prevalent throughout the country, and are often premised on the claim that such lessons can make children feel discomfort.
A conversation about racism
Some people who have spoken out against school lessons that invoke systemic racism have voiced a fear that white children will feel ashamed of their race.
For Hershovitz, that seemingly scary situation happened when his son Rex was 4 years old — an anecdote he describes in his book.
Hershovitz had been reading books to his son about civil rights activists like Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson. At around the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement was growing in response to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Rex caught glimpses of protests in the paper on the news. So he learned that the heroes are not done yet. And that we need more.
All of which brings us to breakfast many months later, when Rex had a big announcement.
‘I wish I was Black,’ he said.
I asked why.
‘Because White people do lots of mean things to Black people. And it makes me sad.’
‘There’s a lot to be sad about,’ I said.
‘I wish we didn’t do those things.'”
When I interviewed Hershovitz, I asked him how he handled that moment with Rex.
“There was nothing to panic about when he said that,” said Hershovitz. “That was the opening of a conversation to have.”
Hershovitz was especially struck by the fact that Rex said ‘we’ when referring to white people doing bad things to Black people. The use of that word — which Hershovitz thinks a lot of white people wouldn’t use — set the framework for his conversation with Rex.
He explained that in some ways, “we” doesn’t make sense, as he felt it was important to reassure Rex that he was not to blame for racist policies and actions against Black people.
On the other hand, Hershovitz and his son talked about how “we” does fit — in the sense that white people should take responsibility for helping to make things better.
“It’s not that white people should feel individually responsible, it’s that we should recognize the ways the past is shaping the world we live in, and that we should want to change things and make the world more equal,” said Hershovitz.
In his book, he said, “I want my kids…to stand with people that are oppressed. I want them to stand up for people that have been wronged. Indeed, if you told me my kids would do that, I wouldn’t need to know anything else about them. I’d feel like I succeeded as a parent.”
‘I don’t want there to be things my kids think we can’t talk about’
Hershovitz also details his experience with his kids on other hard questions.
In our interview, he talked about a time when Rex was in kindergarten or first grade and overheard a radio story about a child who had been sexually abused.
Hershovitz said his first instinct was to turn the radio off and change the subject, as he was concerned that the topic was too disturbing to discuss with his young child.
“But, then I realized Rex had heard enough of the story that he would have questions,” said Hershovitz. He talked with Rex about what he had heard in a simple, age-appropriate manner. “I don’t want there to be things my kids think we can’t talk about.”
He also pointed out that answering kids’ questions is important even if it seems that they’re not taking in the information we give them.
“When Rex first asked where babies come from, I explained it to him in a straightforward manner, and his reaction was that our bodies are really weird,” Hershovitz said. “I said, ‘yeah, they are. Do you have anymore questions?’ He said, ‘yeah, when I turn my head like this, it kind of feels like there’s water in it.’ For him the whole conversation wasn’t necessarily about sex, but about how our bodies are weird. And that’s fine because he got the answers he’s going to need later.”
How to raise a philosopher
Hershovitz doesn’t expect his kids to follow in his footsteps to be a professional philosopher. In his book, he says his goal is “to raise a person who thinks for themself. It’s to raise a person who cares about what others think — and thinks with them.”
Here are Hershovitz’s suggestions for encouraging kids’ thoughtfulness.
- Every conversation, every question can be an opening to think more deeply. He suggests asking these questions:
- 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….?
- Keep the goal in mind when you talk to your kids, which is “to make the kid make an argument — and get them to see the other side. So let the kid do most of the talking. But don’t hesitate to help when they’re stuck.”
- “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.”
Hershovitz also said that storytime is one of the best times to have philosophical conversations. He points out that most picture books raise philosophical questions and that it can be fun to discuss those when reading books with children.
In his appendix, Hershovitz recommends “Teaching Children Philosophy” on the Prindle Institute for Ethics website, which “provides an overview of the philosophical questions” raised by hundreds of popular picture books and “suggests questions you can ask as you read.”
For example, the “Amelia Bedelia” books can spark discussions about the philosophy of language and “what it takes to understand and to be understood.”
And “Beauty and the Beast” raises questions about punishment, noting that the prince’s curse can seem “overbroad” and unfair, especially considering that it is applied to all his household servants.
“Reading stories, talking about the questions they raise and talking about how the characters are thinking and feeling, all that is great for empathy and for getting inside the minds of our kids for a while,” said Hershovitz.