Frog and Toad look in the mirror together and assess their bravery. “We look brave,” says Frog. “Yes, but are we?” responds Toad. The amphibian friends set out for a walk, which unravels into a harrowing excursion. Soon they are back home, huddled in fear, “feeling very brave together.”
Jana Mohr Lone started using Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad short stories to discuss philosophy with children toward the end of her doctoral work in that subject at the University of Washington in the mid-1990s, when her young son began asking deep questions. Why do we die? Can we be happy and sad at the same time? Mohr Lone brought “Dragons and Giants” to her son’s preschool. “We had this conversation about bravery and fear,” she says. “It was wonderful and clear to me that the children were thinking about these questions.”
Previously a lawyer who worked with cases of family violence, Mohr Lone began to put the pieces together: Philosophy could be a strategy to help children gain control over their life circumstances. “When you can trust your own judgment and feel confident in what you think, there’s probably no greater gift in life,” she says.
The director of the UW’s Center for Philosophy for Children and the author of The Philosophical Child (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), Mohr Lone is a pioneer in the field of pre-college philosophy — an area of learning still in its infancy in this country. Most adults don’t know where to start when it comes to discussing metaphysical concepts with other adults, let alone with small people who regularly put their shoes on the wrong feet. Why do we have to die?
The parental instinct may be to protect and reassure children, but we shouldn’t fear entering into a space of ambiguity. “Listening to children is undervalued,” she says. “Explore the question without worrying that you’re not doing your job.”
Philosophical thinking can come in handy during the winter holiday season, when Jews tend to feel marginalized, like the scraps of dough left outside Santa-shaped cookie cutters. Mohr Lone had many of these discussions with her three sons when they lived in the Methow Valley. “We would talk a lot about identity,” she recalls. “Who are you? What’s the relationship between who you are and the community?.... I’m OK if it means, sometimes, I feel like an outsider.”
The same goes for the rampant materialism that accompanies the holidays. “Philosophy started with the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living,” she says. “It’s all about having clarity of who you are, what you do, and why you do it.”
Childhood is filled with newness and wonder, and even if your children aren’t asking you about the meaning of life, chances are they’re thinking about it. Open-ended discussions allow kids to come up with their own answers, which in turn can nurture communication skills within families.
“Children are willing to explore such a wide range of possibilities,” she says. “They will come up with ideas that are different and new.”
Exploring those ideas together is definitely a very brave thing to do.