How to Answer Your Kids’ Existential Questions

Geek Culture

"Mommy, Daddy…Are we real?" my daughter asked from the back seat of the car, as we made our way home.  She’s nearly six, and she asked this as if it were a perfectly ordinary question.

"Um…" My wife and I glanced at each other and shrugged. "What do you mean, sweetheart?" I asked.

She clarified: "Could we just be characters in a story?"  My son, seven-and-a-half, piped up and reiterated the original question: "Yeah, are we real?"

And so began a deep philosophical discussion, the first I’ve ever been in with participants under the age of eight.  My wife and I patiently explained that yes, as far as we could tell, we were real, but that it was possible that the world as we perceived it was all an illusion.  Since there was no way of knowing whether the world was real, we said, we might as well accept that it is, because we really don’t have a lot of choice.  As for whether we could be characters in a story, we said, that’s impossible because we have free will.  It took some explaining that yes, kids have free will too, even though their parents make a lot of choices for them.  But they really seemed to get it, to internalize the reasoning we discussed to the point where I could tell they were processing it over and over in their minds.

Now, I think that, for being caught completely flat-footed, my wife and I did a pretty good job.  But I wondered how many other parents encounter questions in the same genre from kids that young, and how they deal with it when they do.  I know more, similar, questions will be coming from my kids any day now, and I want to be prepared the next time it happens. 

I went looking for books, and found several that look promising: Philosophy for Kids : 40 Fun Questions That Help You Wonder About Everything! and its sequel The Examined Life: Advanced Philosophy for Kids; Little Big Minds; and The Philosophers’ Club.  I haven’t read any of them, yet, but I may just have to buy a few for my kids.  I just love the fact that they’re already thinking critically about the world around them, and I want to nurture that as much as possible. I also came across the website of the Kids Philosophy Slam, an academic competition open to kids from Kindergarten through 12th Grade.

So, what kind of philosophical questions have your kids dropped on you when you weren’t ready for them?  How did you handle it, and do you think you did a good job?

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