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I believe I've mentioned Luke's disconcerting obsession with death once or twice -- thanks very much to commenter Merle Harris (is this you, Merle?) who suggested Jan Thornhill's I Found a Dead Bird: The Kids' Guide to the Cycle of Life and Death. We borrowed it from the library and it promptly became required reading, at bedtime no less, until finally, to David's and my great relief, it was due back.
Questions about death are not the only difficult questions Luke has for us. A couple of months ago we had an increasingly frustrating conversation that started with Luke asking something like "How come I can see everyone else but I can't see myself?" I tried to satisfy him with science-y answers about the location of his eyes in his head and how the eye worked. He became increasingly annoyed, even to the point of tears, until, after a lot of back and forth it emerged that he was asking, essentially, "Why am I a separate person from everyone else?"
Perplexing question. After he'd asked repeatedly about this for a day or two, I emailed my friend Darren Bifford, the only working philosopher of my personal acquaintance (and, incidentally, an award-winning poet), who responded with this:
Wow. Well, a good old Neo-Platonic answer would be that your son, originally and eternally, is really one with the One (or "alone with the Alone") but obtained the distinctness he now questions when, as a necessary condition of Creation, the One became (or emanated) into the Many. Hence the separateness he feels is only a kind of illusion; like all other things, he too will return to the One. Indeed, his question tacitly expresses his deepest desire to make that return. I fear that your son may become a mystic or a monk or a philosopher. He therefore will not be able to support you in your old age. Don't blame him.
What do you tell him?
...dear lord, I can't wait to have kids. I really don't know what I'd say. There's that Buddhist answer: something about drops of rain and the ocean. Or the decent Christian answer: because if he wasn't separate, he wouldn't be able to experience the gift of being alive.
I ran all those past Luke and we talked about them. He wasn't satisfied; he wasn't not satisfied. He was kind of "Hmm." And "Hunh." I suppose you could say he was philosophical about it.
In preparation for similar lines of questioning, I googled philosophy and young children and found a book, unsurprisingly, called Philosophy and the Young Child by Gareth B. Matthews. This lovely book contains a lot of anecdotes about philosophical dialogues with young children, a lot of praise for children's books and their writers who are, in Matthew's opinion, "almost the only important adults to recognize that many children are naturally intrigued by philosophical questions" and the following encouragement for those adults, like me, who have little or no formal training in philosophy. (I didn't take even one philosophy course at university.)
The equipment needed to do philosophy is basically the understanding that anyone with a moderately good command of the language and the concepts it expresses already has -- plus great patience and the willingness to think about the (apparently) simplest and most fundamental questions there are.
To do philosophy successfully with children requires that one rid oneself of all defensiveness. I am embarrassed if I cannot tell my child how to spell "tonsillectomy" or how to convert degrees Fahrenheit to degrees Celsius. But I should not be embarrassed to admit that I don't have ready an analysis of the concept of lying or a good, helpful response to the question, "Where are dreams?" Instead I should simply enlist the child's help so that we can try together to work out a satisfactory answer.
The combination of assets and liabilities that an adult brings to a philosophical encounter with a child makes for a very special relationship. The adult has a better command of the language than the child and, latently at least, a surer command of the concepts expressed in the language. It is the child, however, who has fresh eyes and ears for perplexity and incongruity. Children also have, typically, a degree of candor and spontaneity that is hard for the adult to match. Because each party has something important to contribute, the inquiry can easily become a genuinely joint venture, something otherwise quite rare in encounters between adults and children.