Want to raise the next Socrates? How to teach children philosophy—and why you should

Does your kid ask “Why” all the time? Do you want to help them search for answers to the big questions but don't know how? Here are a few ways to encourage your little philosopher.

Every parent knows that children like to ask “Why?” at every possible moment. Such inquiries as "Why do I have to be nice?" can be irritating, but they are the exact sort of questions that philosophers ask as adults.

Children are new to the world, and they have lots of questions about it. This natural curiosity lends itself to the study of philosophy, and there is no reason why we can’t harness that curiosity to teach it to children both in school and at home. You only need to have a starting point.

Why should we teach children philosophy?

We’ve discussed before how studying the humanities is all but required for good citizenship, can lead to a high wage, and helps to make life worth living. The skills needed to practice philosophy include some of the most vital skills for the modern age: critical thinking, tolerance for opposing viewpoints, and public speaking are just the tip of the iceberg of what can be cultivated by learning philosophy.

To learn philosophy is to learn these skills and to start young is to get a head start. If you're seeking a more immediate payoff, it has also been shown that children who study philosophy have higher scores on tests of verbal and computational intelligence than those who do not

The School of Athens by Raphael. We can presume the test scores there were very high. (Public Domain)

However, we mustn’t just look at it as a means to an end. Philosophy is a vital part of a life well lived. Indeed, it allows us to ask the question of what a well-lived life even is. Socrates told us that “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and his axiom is as true today as it was when he said it. 

Teaching children philosophy makes a life of learning more accessible, helps them to ask how they might better themselves and the world around them, and opens up new worlds to explore that they might never have known existed otherwise. These details are harder to quantify or put on a resume, but they are no less critical.

How do you teach children philosophy?

It can be as simple as discussing philosophic questions. Programs that teach philosophy to children often start with a story—The Emperors’ New Clothes for example—and then discuss questions related to it. 

Almost all books have some profound questions in them, and children’s books frequently venture into some profound territory. The legendary Dr. Seuss tackled problems of racism, environmentalism, the cold war's ideological divide and arms race, fascism, equality, the nature of knowledge and the atomic bombing of Japan

A reasonably in-depth discussion can be sparked just by asking questions about a book that was just read. Teaching Children Philosophy has a list of popular children’s stories and guides on how to discuss them.

At home, you can do something as simple as responding to a question with a clarifying question. If a child asks you, “Are numbers real?” you might respond, “What do you think it means for something to be real?” and then go from there. More ideas and resources can be found here.

Does anybody teach philosophy to children regularly?

Yes, lots of schools do. Most other countries require some form of it at the high school level. France has a particularly strong system for teaching it to teenagers, and my European friends were shocked to hear that I didn’t have to learn it in high school.

To be fair, the French have had a slew of very socially engaged philosophers in the last century, such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. American philosophers tend to keep a lower profile. (Getty Images)

Programs that teach philosophy to American children are few and far between, but there is a growing interest in the concept. At the University of Washington, The Center for Philosophy for Children works to engage kids in discussions around ethics, freedom, and other ideas that we often think are too complex for kids. As their website shows, kids can do more than you think.

It is often thought that the people of the United States are averse to philosophy. Our limited effort to teach it in the public school system is undoubtedly a major cause of this sentiment. However, given the relative ease of introducing children to thinking like a philosopher, the benefits of doing so, and the costs of not trying, perhaps it is the time that we make a strong go of it. 

After all, if your kid is going to ask “Why?” every ten seconds shouldn’t they at least be getting some critical thinking skills out of the deal? 

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

4 reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for universal basic income

In his final years, Martin Luther King, Jr. become increasingly focused on the problem of poverty in America.

(Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Despite being widely known for his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. also played a central role in organizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.
  • The campaign was one of the first to demand a guaranteed income for all poor families in America.
  • Today, the idea of a universal basic income is increasingly popular, and King's arguments in support of the policy still make a good case some 50 years later.
Keep reading Show less

A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

Strange Maps
  • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
  • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
  • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
Keep reading Show less

Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."
Keep reading Show less