How Kids Can Help Us Rethink Philosophy

shutterstock_191437544At what point did philosophy become a luxury, rather than a necessity? We’ve never needed critical, rational thought more than we do now, and there are more reasons to embrace our inner philosopher than I can cover in a blog post. Yet it’s often a bit of a hard sell. I don’t get it.

Here’s something even more strange about our aversion to philosophy: while we moan and groan about it being too hard, or not necessary, our kids are doing it (and doing a pretty good job). Right under our collective, grown-up noses, there is philosophy going on amongst those who aren’t old enough to vote or even stay home alone. I know because I’ve seen it, and I’ve marveled at it.

How do we keep ourselves from being lapped by minors, when it comes to philosophical thought? Well, maybe we need to put on a pair of kid goggles and try seeing philosophy through their eyes. How does a child do philosophy, even before they know what it is?

For starters, children aren’t hung up on the notion that big questions belong solely to academics. They aren’t afraid to join in this very ancient, human pursuit. They don’t ask permission, and they don’t shy away from an argument. For them, asking these questions is just part of being a person. This isn’t to say that children (or anyone, really) can’t benefit from a little formal practice, a little structure, and some feedback, but kids seem to know that philosophy is still available to them, years before they’re ready for university. The fact that they’re so willing to ask us so many big questions seems to indicate that they know it’s available to the rest of us too.

To a child, philosophy doesn’t have to be written down or published. Some of us grow up and dive into the thousands of years of documented philosophy, and we find it inspiring and even life-changing. That’s all well and good, but as a child will demonstrate, there’s also philosophical content to be found in a crayon drawing, a puppet show, a discussion over an afternoon snack, a story, or an anecdote. It happens in many forms.

As little thinkers show us, the practice of asking big questions doesn’t always have to be serious. Philosophy does ask us to use reason and logic, to be objective and respectful of opposing viewpoints, and yes, philosophy does tend to take on some fairly heavy issues.  But why should this have to negate play and fun? Why shouldn’t there be humour in trying to find our place in the universe? Why shouldn’t playing with ideas be acceptable? We thrill when we see our children learning through play, including when they delight in asking big questions. Why do we deny adults the pleasure and joy of thinking big?

What’s more, children remind us that philosophy shouldn’t be a solitary practice. It can’t be. We insist that children learn to share, to be kind to one another, to cooperate, even when their ideas and those of their fellow humans don’t match. Somewhere along the line as we mature, we become unable to examine two sides of an issue without going at each other’s throats. All the lessons we learned while sharing a sandbox seem to disappear. Child philosophers teach us is that we’re in this together. Philosophy demands that we learn to talk to one another, learn from one another. There’s just too much to process, too much ground to cover for us to do it alone.

A final, and very important lesson that wee folk teach us is that the big questions asked by philosophy are applicable to real life. Talk to a child about a philosophical question, and they’ll tell you about an instance when they encountered it in their daily activities. They immediately see connections between the big questions they ask, and the way they live. That’s why they ask them in the first place. They need to talk about fairness so that they can play well in the school yard. They need to talk about beauty so that they can express themselves through art and appreciate nature. They need to know what makes a human because they have rapidly growing minds and bodies that beg to be understood. They need to understand the difference between true and false, real and imaginary, so that they can make decisions and keep themselves safe. Children see that philosophy questions are rooted in real life.

As I see it, we have two options. We could go on thinking of philosophy as an outdated practice stashed in an ivory tower somewhere, an amusing hobby, or a conversation starter at cocktail parties. We could continue to paint it as too abstract, too intellectual, too impractical. Or we could take cues from our children, and examine philosophy through a different lens. We could sharpen our minds and embolden our spirits to look difficult issues square-on, with the critical, yet curious eye of a kid. We can go back to a point in our lives when it was still cool and acceptable to see ourselves as relentless, unapologetic, and joyful, question-askers.

I’m for the latter. Who’s with me?

 

Growing a Voice

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A few months ago, I watched my kid get up in front of about 800 people, many of whom were strangers, and sing. By herself. A capella. She auditioned without telling us, and beamed when she was selected to perform. There were no sleepless nights, no mysterious stomach aches, no nails bitten down to the quick. She was suitably nervous beforehand and during, relieved when it was done, and unsure what her peers would think of her performance. She is, after all, a kid. At no point, however, did she doubt that she deserved to be there, to be heard. What’s more, there was never a moment when I thought she couldn’t do it. It was just another instance when I was left to wonder from whence this kid got her courage, because it certainly wasn’t inherited from me.

I was the runty kid who cried if anyone looked at her the wrong way. The very last thing I wanted to do when I was little was speak up or ask for an audience. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot to say…when I was by myself. I had monkey brain from a very early age, and there was no shortage of ideas and opinions, but I was out-and-out terrified of other people listening. There were guarded monologues, performed in front of my toys and secret thoughts, stories and poems scribbled in journals.

I didn’t find my voice until I was an adolescent, when a part in my favourite musical came up at school, and I knew I’d spend eternity giving myself face-palms if I didn’t at least try out for it. In addition to my persistent childhood timidness, I was at the tail end of a freakish growth spurt, and I was all bad perm, gangly limbs, and a unibrow. It took everything I had (and a fair bit of coaxing from my friends) to sing an audition piece in front of my teachers. When opening night came, I managed to catch a horrible chest cold, and I sounded like Harvey Fierstein after a month of chain smoking. But I still went on, and it was good. I was in front of hundreds of people, and they were listening. Being heard didn’t cause me to implode. In fact, it triggered a lot of growth. I probably had a fat head for a while after that, but the seal was broken, and I started making up for more than a decade of keeping to myself.

The quiet, shy kid is still part of me. I still get sweaty palms and rapid heartbeat before I have to give a talk or appear on camera. If I know there’s a meeting coming, I rehearse what I’m going to say the day before, in the car, in the shower, in front of my dogs. I worry a lot about screwing up, about being misunderstood. Despite my best efforts, I still have a wobbly, little-kid squeak in my voice, which I’m convinced is my shy inner child speaking her mind through my grown-up body. But what used to terrify me is now a rush, and I relish the opportunity to speak the contents of my jittery little mind. I now make my living screaming into the void.

There’s still room for improvement, mind you. I have not, as of yet, done a solo in front of 800 people in a school talent show.

 

A Letter To My Daughter, On Mother’s Day

Hey Kiddo,

I hope it won’t offend you to hear that I never wore rose-coloured glasses when it came to having children. At eighteen, I was convinced I would have three of you, immediately after finishing university. At 25, I thought maybe two, and not for a while. By the time I hit thirty, I was leaving the number and time frame blank. Life kept getting more interesting, and the task of being someone’s mother got progressively more daunting. Once in a while, some brave older woman would confess to her shortcomings as a mother, tell me that she had no idea what she was doing, and that she wasn’t sure she’d done anything right. I wasn’t disappointed to hear any of this, I was just relieved. I didn’t think I’d do it right either. For me, motherhood always seemed really interesting, but hard.

But you knew that when you picked me, didn’t you? You were prepared to love me, warts and all, at every stage of the game. There’s never been an off-handed comment about how I don’t wear make-up, or a snide remark about me spending too much time on my laptop. You leave me sweetly-doodled notes on my messy desk, and when you come in to our room in the wee hours of morning, you wake your father first. You introduce me to your friends as someone who does cool things and knows cool stuff. You’ve been happily letting us drag you all over the world since you were smaller than my carry-on. I think you actually dig all of my quirks and weirdness.

I have to admit, I still feel like I’m screwing things up in not living up to some “Leave It To Beaver” standard (look it up on YouTube). There will inevitably come a time when you wish I had done a few things differently, and if you choose to have children one day, they’ll do the same for you. I still wish for more sleep, maybe a little more quiet, certainly more hours in the day. But believe me when I say that when I tell you to always be yourself, it’s partially because you’ve always let me be myself. You’ve more than let me, you’ve insisted on it. The only way to really screw up would be to not recognize this as a gift, to not take it in stride.

Five Mother’s Days from now, I will still be me (even more so) , and you will still be you (even more so), and I will still be grateful that we two strange creatures bumped into one another. We work, don’t we?

With love,

Mom

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This Is Doubt, And It Is Your Friend

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I have a warm, fuzzy relationship with Doubt. No, I’m not one of those annoying naysayers who jumps on every opportunity to pull things apart. I take only a little bit of joy in proving people wrong. I just tend to be a big picture kind of thinker, and as such, I get swept away in enormous clouds of ideas. Getting down to the details and execution part of things isn’t exactly second nature to me.  I have to be dragged out of the stratosphere on a regular basis. And that’s where Doubt tends to do me a solid.

For me, Doubt is kind of like Jiminy Cricket (maybe a less naggy, whiny version of him). Somewhere in the mush that is my consciousness, there is a firm, but friendly little voice that reminds me that I’m missing something, that I’m being goofy and irrational, that I need to settle down and give things another look. Doubt keeps me grounded and honest. Doubt reminds me to do something productive with these big ideas I have. Doubt is always there, watching carefully and taking notes, and I’m grateful for it. I’d be a terrible flake if I hadn’t made friends with Doubt long ago.

It hurts me when my friend Doubt gets a bad rap. At times, I see Doubt trying to interject itself into heated conversations, or speeches given from atop soap boxes. It asks (politely) things like “Are you sure that’s true?” and “Have you considered this side of things?” It’s not trying to be a jerk about it, it’s just trying to help. But on many occasions, people seem to feel personally attacked by it. They think to Doubt or to be Doubted, is to have their voices and their views negated entirely. Maybe they’ve chummied up with Status Quo and Everybody Knows, and don’t want to offend them by making friends with Doubt.

Here’s the thing about my friend Doubt: it tends to show up when and where it’s needed. It’s not vindictive or pedantic, and it doesn’t have an ax to grind with us. It doesn’t pop in because it was bored or it was in the neighbourhood. Doubt calls attention to the gaps that would otherwise go unnoticed, and gives us the opportunity to fill them in before we fall into them. That niggling feeling we get in our stomach when Doubt pops up is a good thing. The nights we spend awake, staring at the ceiling, that’s a good thing too. We’re in a time and place where there’s more to doubt than there has ever been before. Maybe it’s time we let Doubt do all of us a solid.

 

 

More Accolades. I’ll Take ‘Em!

“Zoom In, Zoom Out” is the little book that could. What started out as a fun project I did with some very cool people at work has taken on a life of its own. In the past few weeks, we’ve been awarded a bronze medal from IPPY and a Nautilus silver medal.

Being a writer can be a lonely business, producing interactive media even more so. You spend a lot of time shouting into the void and sometimes the only response you get to your shouting is trolls telling you that they don’t like your shoes, or critics who make comments like “This book is too bookish.” I can’t tell you how amazing it is to have three separate entities tell me that the thing I pour myself into is useful, and good. I’m feeling lucky to have a voice, to have an amazing team that helps me shape it into something presentable, and now, readers responding from the other side of the void.

From this humble word nerd, a heartfelt thank you.

Feeling Very Zoom-Y

Now, this is how you start off a week! I opened my email this morning to find that “Zoom In, Zoom Out”, my latest book for kids, is on the winner’s list for the Reader Views Reviewers Choice Awards! I just wanted to say thank you to the wonderful team that helped me make this wee book, and to all the readers who’ve loaned us their eyes.

If you haven’t yet, definitely check it out. Here’s a peek:

It’s the (Really) Little Things That Matter

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I spend a non-trivial amount of time worrying about losing my ring. I have a whole whack of them (I’m a die-hard magpie), but there’s one I wear every day, the one that was given to mark a milestone, the one I wear on my left hand and whose twin lives on someone else’s left hand. Once in a while, I take it off and put it somewhere it shouldn’t be, and then there are moments of panic when it isn’t in its usual spot. It has its own designated zippered pocket when I travel, and its own special drawer beside my bed. I’m fickle about the rest of my jewelry, but I have anxiety about losing this particular ring.

I have a theory about rings, be they friendship, promise, engagement, wedding or anniversary, and the anxiety they cause us (I can’t be the only one who worries about losing mine). We could say that humans chose the ring as a symbol of love and commitment because it is an unending circle, an infinite loop to represent that which must not be torn asunder. We can talk about wearing rings on specific fingers, the fingers whose veins have the most direct route to our heart. There’s something to be said for them being forged of elements as precious as our bonds with others, or that they’re adorned with jewels that have been around for thousands of years. It could be the people who give them to us, or the words that are spoken over them. There’s a whole lot of  metaphor tied up in these little bands of metal, but I don’t think that’s what makes them mean what they’re meant to mean.

I think we put so much stock in rings because they’re little- really, really little, and really little things get lost really easily. Think about it. How many other things that are the size of a nickel get so much attention from us? Why on Earth would we pin our romantic hopes and dreams on something small enough to fall down an air vent, get eaten by the dog, or slide unceremoniously off our fingers and down the drain as we do dishes? I think it’s because of their tiny size, because of the likelihood that they can be misplaced, that rings are so important to us.

When someone gives us a ring, whether it’s 24 karat gold or a twisted up gum wrapper covered in glitter glue, they’re asking if we’re capable of and willing to take care of something that will slip away if not properly tended to. They want to know that we’ll periodically, if not regularly, twist it on our finger to make sure that it’s still there, that we’ll be a little nervous when our hands get sweaty or slippery. They want assurance that we’ll freak out a little when we can’t find it. They want us to recognize that something small, something whose value (let’s be honest here) is almost entirely symbolic, can still be a priority. A ring isn’t just pretty and sparkly, it reminds us of how fleeting and fragile important things (like love) can be.

So my anxiety over this wee sparkle slipping into oblivion without my notice (come on, you have it too) isn’t just me being weird and obsessive. It’s me being devoted and loyal, attentive, and caring. I’m head over heels for the person who wears its twin. We designed these together, we wear them together, and we rest in the notion that we, like our rings, will be on each other’s minds at least a little bit at all times. That’s how it’s done, and it’s good.

Here’s to the little things, and to the lovely people who trust us with them. May we take good care of them.

Appy New Year!

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I’m going to play the role of old Luddite lady for a moment and wax nostalgic. 20 years ago, I wrote with a pen and paper, and then I typed it all up on my crummy computer, and then, if the occasion called for it, I printed it out. That was about as digital as my writing got.

These days, words I write usually make it onto a screen first, and the page second. What’s more, readers get to play with them, in addition to reading them. My characters aren’t just drawings, they walk and talk, and explore. I still use a pen and paper for initial drafts, but that’s about it, and to be honest, I don’t miss the paper-only days at all. I love this brave new world, in which people hang out with language and ideas in amazing ways. I’m the luckiest writer in the world, having smart people around me who know how to conjure this sort of magic.

And on that note, here’s my latest project, twenty-plus years in the making, and currently the digital apple of my eye (no, that’s not a nod to iOS fans). Please enjoy playing it with your kids as much as I enjoyed writing for it.

 

On the Importance of Why

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Remember that burning question you had as a kid, the one that drove your parents nuts, the one that made your teachers make “the face”? It wouldn’t go away, would it? It flew out of your drooly little mouth as fast as your mind could think it. It applied to just about everything you saw, everything you touched and everything you felt. You were are a tiny, overall-wearing, fact-finding machine, and although a definite answer would have been nice, an ongoing conversation would have also suited you just fine. You just needed to know. Something. And you just wanted to be part of the finding out of this something.

Why?

It was a hard one to answer, even for a big person. The big people around you probably felt like prize idiots when they didn’t have something to clever to say about it, and they didn’t want to look stupid. Fear of looking stupid is something of a disease with big people. They probably also didn’t want to admit that someone the size of a foot stool might have better ideas than they did.

So, at some point, someone probably tried to put a lid on your Why. They shushed it and told you to go hide it somewhere, that it was icky and weird and annoying. Your Why probably reminded them of their own long-lost Why, the one they’d starved out a long time ago, the one they still missed. Maybe their lid worked, and you lost your Why too. Maybe, years later, when your own drooly, overall-wearing kid showed you theirs, you got a little scared too, and told them to go stash it somewhere unobtrusive.

Or maybe you didn’t listen. Maybe you kept your Why fed, and it grew. Maybe you welcomed it back, again and again, as you grew older. Maybe you didn’t let anyone tell you that it was stupid, or pointless, or annoying, and it became a constant companion. Maybe, after a while, it started feeding you too. Your Why may have made your world a little richer, other people a little more interesting, and your own self a little more understandable. Maybe you passed your Why on to your kid and watched as it grew with each iteration.

Today is World Philosophy Day, and it’s when we celebrate Why. We celebrate the people who never let their Why be squashed, but also those who lost theirs, and who found it again. We invite people to come back to their Why, and to share it with others.

Why do we do this? Because Why is the most important thing a person, big or little, can ask. Why helps things to change. Why helps people to feel smart, and that they’re in charge of themselves. Why makes the world a little less scary. It’s not the most convenient question, for sure. It takes time, and it takes patience, and it takes a lot of listening and reflecting, but a lot of great things have been done, and can still be done, because of it. Why makes us human, and as luck would have it, there’s an unlimited supply of it.

It’s never too early and it’s never too late. Cheers to all of the thinkers out there!

 

 

My New Little Book

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Humble brag…nah, just regular brag. I’m really proud of this newest creation. I partnered up with a wonderful photographer, a super-cool illustrator, and for the first time, I wrote something for little kids, and I wrote it in verse. It was something a little bit different for all of us, and the process of bringing it to life was a joyful one.

“Zoom In, Zoom Out” is a guessing game that challenges wee kids to question what they see, which I think is a pretty important skill to develop as early as possible. It’s light and fun, but also visually rich and thought-provoking. I’m hoping it finds its way into bedtime routines, cuddles on the couch, classroom discussions, and family vacations.

Authors don’t generally go into projects with the expectation of becoming rich, but we do rely on book sales to help pay the bills. This one’s really good, and I think you’ll like it. You can find it here in print form, and also on Google Play and iTunes.

Now, I’m off to dream up my next one…