Kids Say the Darnedest Things - and We Can Learn a Lot by Channeling Their Childish Ways

The following is excerpted with permission from the new book The Philosophy of Childing: Unlocking Creativity, Curiosity, and Reason through the Wisdom of Our Youngest by Christopher Phillips. Copyright 2016, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.


"Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

I’ve just posed this philosophical oldie but goodie to a group of third graders in Iowa. Elementary schools are a frequent stop in my sojourns around the world holding Socratic give-and-takes. The meet ings inspire those taking part to share an array of thought-provoking per spectives on questions we explore together. As I note in Socrates Café, my first book about my philosophical adventures, “I need children to phi losophize with. No one questions, no one wonders, no one examines, like children. It’s not simply that children love questions, but that they live questions.” My view is kindred to that of the influential German existen tialist philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), who held that “spontaneous philosophy”—the inescapable urge to ask profound questions and seek out answers, of a type that lead to a whole new host of questions, and answers—is in children’s DNA. For kids, this “Socratizing” is an existen tial thrill ride. The more unexpected twists and turns, the more surprising and novel the insights, the merrier they are.

I myself got the Socratic bug at age twelve, after my Greek grandmoth er, my yaya, Kalliope Casavarakis Philipou, gave me a handsome leather-bound English translation of Plato’s Socratic dialogues. She tweaked my cheek, as Greek grandmothers do, told me I had the blood of Socrates, and predicted that one day I would repeat his feat in modern contexts, engaging people anywhere and everywhere in philosophical inquiry. I read the book from cover to cover, again and again. Socrates rocked. His notion that each of us could and should become our own best questioners and thinkers spoke to me.

Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), the German philosopher who made a lasting name for himself with his existential explorations, considered Socrates the “purest thinker of the West,” because the Athenian believed that the questions posed were more important than the answers arrived at. My affinity with Socrates lies more in the fact that, to him, even the most convincing answers were never meant to be final, but merely a way station for using one’s imagination and experiences to develop a whole new host of questions. The long and short of it is that my yaya ruined my life. From that point forward, the idea of having normal career aspirations would not do. I wanted to be a Socratic seeker. Which is who I’ve become.

I started my first Socrates Café way back in 1996 in a cozy coffeehouse in Montclair, New Jersey. I shared the sensibility of the fifth century BC philosopher that continual close encounters with others of a philosophical kind, engaging in impassioned yet thoughtful exchanges of ideas and ide als, is a portal to sculpting what the Greeks of old called arete—all-around excellence of a sort that is an individual and collective pursuit rolled into one. Socrates Café went on to become something of a phenomenon, an oasis of reasonableness in a desert of rising intolerance and fundamental ism taking place around the world. Hundreds of groups now convene far and wide in public places and spaces, including cyberspace, but also in brick-and-mortar locales like schools, churches, community centers, nurs ing homes, prisons, shelters for homeless families, libraries, even daycare centers.

Socrates Café still has momentum after all this time. As motley people break philosophical bread together on a regular basis, close connections are often forged among the strangest bedfellows. If you were a fly on the wall at one of these gatherings, you’d see that Socrates Café-goers in action are an inquisitive, open, curious, and playful bunch—childlike, in a word.

I’m fond of saying that Socrates Café is for “children of all ages,” because these gatherings bring out our innate inquisitiveness and sense of wonder. Speaking of children, over the years I have held thousands of dialogues around the globe with our youngest, both inside and outside the hallowed halls of formal learning. Their beautiful minds think in a brilliant array of colors, and their often-jarring and mind-bending insights help me see old conundrums in new lights.

At this latest philosophical soiree, no sooner do I put forward the chicken-and-egg question than eight-year-old Eva says right back to me, “Look, I know we’re in Iowa, and this is farm country and all, but I don’t know the first thing about chickens and eggs. I do know something about how human babies are born. My mom is an obstetrician. If I can refer to Homo sapiens instead of chickens, then I can tell you something about who comes first.”

Without waiting for my permission, Eva continues in a schoolmarmish tone, “An adult male and female member of the species have to mate in order to fertilize the female’s egg—and by adults, I mean biological ones who can produce eggs and sperms that can make babies.” She looks at Ms. Bunn, her third-grade teacher, and asks, “Is it sperm or sperms?” She gets no immediate reply from her disconcerted teacher, so goes on, “In real life, it boils down to this: the male has to impregnate the female with one of his sperm. If the impregnation is by artificial insemination, it still requires a mature male sperm. Once that sperm fuses with one of the female’s eggs—whether in the uterine tube or the test tube—the process of fertilization begins. Eventually, if everything goes as planned, the fused cells form a zygote, or fertilized egg, which keeps dividing in more and more specialized ways. Then, about nine months later, a fully developed baby is born.”

She turns her attention back to me. “I have no idea where these first baby-makers—much less chick-makers—came from. But they had to have come first, because they are the possessors of the eggs and sperm, or sperms—unless there is something like . . .” Eva struggles with the word “parthenogenesis,” and settles on “asexual reproduction.” She then goes on to say, “As is the case with flatworms and sharks, where the begetter and begettee are one and the same.”

Seth sort of nods. He’s not sure he has altogether understood Eva, to whom he’s taken a shine, but nonetheless he’s determined to support her. “Adult chickens and adult humans must have come first, because babies or chicks wouldn’t last long without them. Once the baby human or chick enters the world, then at least one adult has to be ready to take on the role of parent and raise it. Human babies, every bit as much as baby chicks, are helpless and defenseless creatures. Someone has to nourish them, watch over them, fend for them, or they’re not long for this world. In the case of humans, sometimes the adult or adults who care for a baby aren’t the same ones who made the baby. Sometimes it isn’t even an adult, but an older kid. But usually, it’s one or more of the original parents.”

Katrina now says, “Seth is right. Human parents have a job to do: it’s called parenting—raising children from babyhood, so they can grow into happy and healthy adults. You don’t ever hear anyone talking about child ing, do you?”

“There should be a word like childing,” says Lauren. “Children give birth to parents. There wouldn’t be parents without children. Not only that, children raise parents. My mom and dad all the time tell me how they learn important lessons in life from me. They say I help them grow as human beings.”

“Children don’t just raise their own parents; they raise all of us of adult age who are privileged to be part of their lives,” says Ms. Bunn.

Then she says to me, “Earlier in the year, I’d shared the joyful news with my students that I was expecting a child. When I had a miscarriage, I tried to think of how to tell them. I kept putting it off. Then, one by one, each came to me in a private moment. They knew just what to say, and what not to say. Several told me that their moms had had miscar riages, but went on to have babies. I found strength and comfort in their gestures. They lifted me up from sorrow. I learned a great deal from how they reached out to me about how to reach out to others in their time of need.”

We sit in comfortable silence for a spell, until Eva says, “My parents aren’t the only ones who raise me. Ms. Bunn raises me too. So do other adults. There should be a word to describe that—adulting!” She thinks some more. “My friends raise me too. They stand up for me, protect me, call me on the carpet when I’m not being kind. They’re like an extended part of my family.”

To which Lauren says, “When it comes to raising one another, we’re all in this together, children and adults. We need one another to make sure we don’t shrivel like raisins.”

This inspires Seth to say, “Does that mean we all come first?” Are these kids onto something? Many adults speak in glowing terms about how their lives are incalculably enhanced by the youngest among us. But do we really consider our brethren at the other end of the age spectrum our peers in matters of raising one another? Do our actions often belie our words?

When I enter the word “adulting,” my spell-check software changes it to “adulating.” The nerve. As if all adults merit adulation. When I refuse to let spell-check have its way, it remonstrates me with fiery red squiggly underlining. The message: this word does not exist. Just to be sure, I do an extensive search in a variety of dictionaries. Sure enough, adulting is not in our lexicon.

Then I type “childing.” Spell-check again tells me I’m barking up the wrong etymological tree. This time, I’m inclined to accept the verdict. Still, I double-check. Lo and behold, an enormous Merriam-Webster dic tionary, a childhood Christmas gift, reveals that this word does indeed exist. It turns out that “childing” has been around for centuries, even if it did fall out of favor long ago.

Childing first arrived on the scene around 1250 AD. According to Merriam-Webster, the word denotes “being pregnant” or “bearing a child.”

Robert Southey made use of the word in his stirring poem “The Battle of Blenheim,” published just before the turn of the nineteenth century. In it two children “with wonder-waiting eyes” ask a man named Old Kaspar what the 1704 war—in which allied troops under the Duke of Marlborough defeated the French and Bavarians under the French Marshal Camille d’Hostun, duc de Tallard—was all about. He tells them:

With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

About a century before Southey, William Shakespeare made matchless use of the term in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies, are engaged in a torrential tiff over whether a little boy from India whom Titania has taken under her wing and moth ered since infancy belongs to her or to Oberon, who refers to the boy as his “charm,” as if a mere trifle. The acrimonious barbs the immortals hurl at one another reach such a crescendo that Mother Nature herself is thrown out of kilter. When Titania takes a moment to catch her breath, she surveys the aftermath.

The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

Just when autumn is aborning, winter muscles its discontented way into the picture. Not only have Titania and Oberon managed to upend the order of the seasons, but they’ve stirred autumn and winter into such a frenzy that it’s impossible to pry the two apart. Titania acknowledges that she and Oberon have “childed” this mayhem. The cautionary tale: be mindful of your actions, lest you “child” in unintended if not disastrousways. If Titania subscribes to the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that all the world’s creations, inorganic and organic alike, are intimately interlocked, then she must have been dismayed that their immortal ability to throw the seasons into disarray confounded all the world’s creations.

I do some more digging. I unearth an old edition of Collins American Dictionary and find another definition of childing: “bearing a cluster of newer blossoms around an older blossom.” Such a rendering, if applied to the human condition, would indicate that there is no shedding of the old as we add the new, but a continual super-adding of the new to the old.

How can we best see to it that we blossom like flowers rather than shrivel like raisins? Is a philosophy of childing in order, as Lauren of the Iowa elementary school put it?

Never before has our culture been as child-centric as it is today, and yet, never before has childhood been as strained and pinched. Its serendipity and spontaneity is fast disappearing in our heavily vocationalized, over-scheduled culture. Kids are expected to be adults-in-training and to be thinking about college by the time they’re in third grade. To the extent that we’ve bought into this hyper-utilitarian notion of childhood, we not only do tremendous damage to kids, but to ourselves, severely constricting our possibilities for being all that we can be.

Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), one of the most important scientists of all time, singled out for praise René Descartes (1596–1650), dubbed the father of modern philosophy, for deepening and expanding his hori zons for knowing both the inner and outer cosmos. “If I have seen a little further,” Newton claims in a February 6, 1675, letter to a friend, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

What if in order to see further in matters of human prospering, we must stand on the shoulders of our youngest? What if kids are giants when it comes to being paragons who chart groundbreaking paths of seeing and being and doing?

A “philosophy of childing” is called for, a systematic philosophical take grounded in powerful evidence from the human sciences about how we should treat children and what we can learn from the way young people process the world. Because in matters of human flourishing, we at times must take our cue from those with the least number of physical years under their belts. This is based on the perhaps-unsettling assertion that, without the able assistance and guidance of kids, we are apt to shrink mentally, emotionally, and cognitively with the passage of time. If we’re not vigilant, our sense of who we are can become fuzzier over time, diminishing our prospects for further development. Indeed, if we persist in denaturing our original nature, we’ll mistake rottenness for ripeness.

But all is far from lost; kids can show us the way out of this pitfall. By tapping into their unique talents and capacities, we can continue on an upward path of growth and development our whole lives. And we can return the favor in spades by ensuring that our youngest also have full and ample opportunity to flourish from a healthy core.

We can greatly expand our horizons regarding our development by tak ing a radically different approach to the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, paying far more attention to the former. By doing so, we can sustain our development along the meteoric lines with which it began, rather than let it lapse, as it too frequently does, into apathy, bitterness, and dullness as we become adults.

As I set about challenging and debunking much of the received “wis dom” about children, I draw on the gripping observations and arguments of a band of mostly modern philosophers who make a convincing case for the indispensable role that kids play in helping us become all we can be at every age and stage of our lives. These philosophers have the pluck to take on three of the most lionized philosophical and humanistic luminar ies of all time—Plato (427/488–347/348 BC), Aristotle (384–322 BC), and Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592)—whose perspectives on themes central to human flowering—on human ages and stages, growth and shrinkage, play and work, identity and spiritedness—continue to play an outsized role. Leading developmental specialists across the disciplines (not to mention self-help gurus) have long been hoodwinked by their persua sive but unsupported prejudices about the youngest (and also, at times, the oldest) among us and what they have to offer if we are to thrive singly and together.

My principal aim, though, isn’t to “deconstruct” and just dismantle flimsy philosophical perspectives on children formulated by idolized ancients; rather, it’s to construct something more compelling and substan tial in their place. To that end, I don’t just radically reassess long-dominant notions of what optimal “human being-ing” can be; instead, I attempt to do so in ways that present new possibilities to be considered. In doing so, I draw on the thinking of an alternative coterie of philosophers, many revered in their own right, whose philosophical thinking on the unique capacities of kids has received lamentably short shrift. Their iconoclastic if not heretical perspectives presage many of the groundbreaking findings today by researchers in cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience, among other human sciences disciplines, who are confirming empirically some of their more disconcerting and exhilarating insights. Far from set tling matters, this opens up new lines of inquiry for how we optimally can grow one another.

Why “grow” rather than “raise”? The verb “to raise” fits the bill in many ways: to lift up, to elevate, to set upright. The verb “to grow” incorporates various meanings of “to raise,” but it also offers additional avenues for evolution in the human sphere. The definition of “to grow” that is most profitable for my purposes is this one offered by Merriam-Webster: “to develop from a parent source.” A parent source that “childs.”

To better understand our potential for childing, I convene hither and yon with people of many ages and at many stations of life with an unquenchable love of asking “Why? Why? Why?” It’s my experience that it’s in a certain kind of group setting, with a method of inquiry that requires the sustained and thoughtful consideration of a variety of objec tions and alternatives to any given point of view, that we can most effec tively hash out our highest ideas, our values, our visions for ourselves and one another, in this case about how we best unfold. And as I assert in Six Questions of Socrates, in crafting the dialogues for my books, I take my cue from Plato, and “use some license in fashioning the dialogues adapted here from the dialogues in which I took part, in order to reflect more faithfully the tone and tenor and substance of what took place. To this end, the actual dialogues best serve as a template from which to cull and structure and compose.”

As always, my objective as a speculative philosopher in the Socratic mold is not to come up with the last word, much less have the pretense to be all-encompassing. Rather, it’s to present promising new vantage points for consideration.

In the acclaimed journals of author Anaïs Nin (1903–1977), which she began writing at age eleven, she observes that “some people remind me of sharp dazzling diamonds. Valuable but lifeless and loveless. Others, of the simplest field flowers, with hearts full of dew and with all the tints of celestial beauty reflected in their modest petals.” She makes clear her preference for the latter, who have “a warmth and softness” that is lack ing in those with “mere brilliancy and coldness” who are both the willful parents and originators of a host of ills. By all outward appearances, they may have grown up and out in brilliant fashion, but as we know, appear ances are deceiving.

How can we child one another so that we are not crushed into dia monds, but able to flourish? As I set off in search of promising answers, I do so as a husband and a father of a young family who hopes to build on his modest efforts to help make this uncertain world a bit more livable and loveable, so that those “with hearts full of dew and with all the tints of celestial beauty reflected in their modest petals” can shine.

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