Kids With Big Questions

Dear Jo,

I have to stretch my mind a lot to respond to my son’s questions about the world. For example, how do I explain to him that adults do things that they know are bad? He cannot fathom how there can be things like racism and Donald Trump when they’re so clearly wrong. I teach my child to be kind, gentle, eat healthy food etc… he takes this advice to heart and is then mystified to find out that adults (who ought to have learned these same things) do not abide by them. He has always had a very black and white view of things and does not like nuance.



Dear Mind-Bent,

Children do tend to see the world in more rigid categories, simply because experience has not yet taught them that real life always manages to spill out of the neat boxes we use to simplify our lives. If your son is a little more rigid in his thinking than most children, he might need some guidance that involves helping him process what happens by constantly widening his perspective. So the first thing I would suggest is that you absolutely do not need to have the answers to these philosophically complicated questions of his. Feeding him answers will only reinforce his sense that there just is right and wrong and either you know it or you don’t. Our aim should be to guide our children towards using their own intellectual capacities well, and that means showing them how to ask good questions and be open to considering many different ways of addressing them.

It sounds like your son is a very curious person and so you have an excellent opportunity to model for him what it means to think both open-mindedly and critically. Start by resisting the common parental temptation to be the authority on everything. We often confuse showing our kids that we are in control, which is crucial to their sense of security, with showing them that we know everything – which we don’t and shouldn’t pretend to. Since you are asking how to address his mystification, I’m assuming that you are mystified by these same things. So why hide that from him? Let him see that you ask these questions too: “yeah, why do people like Donald Trump do such awful things? I have been struggling with this one too.” And then together you can come up with and consider various possible explanations for the behavior. That would be a parenting job well done, I think.

It’s also worth noting that not everybody does teach their children to be kind and gentle above all. Some kids are taught how to stand up for themselves and never be taken advantage of. Some kids are taught primarily that life is about reaping as much enjoyment as possible, or making money so you never have to depend on anyone. Some are taught to respect their elders above all, or to put their community above their individual interests. Most parents have their values and worldview and they pass these on to their children either explicitly or by example, and it turns out that these are not all variations of the same ‘be kind and eat your broccoli’ sort of message.

What most worldviews do share, however, is the conviction that they have right on their side. We tend to teach our children that our own versions of what is true and good are absolutes, and yet a lot if not all of that is historically and culturally conditioned. In his book The Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche offers a brilliant analysis of the very specific historical origins of values like humility, for example, which we now have trouble questioning because it seems so obviously good to us. And we similarly assume, without questioning, that the values that others have are just wrong, always and everywhere.

You could have a very thoughtful discussion with your son just on this point. What makes him (or you, for that matter) so sure that being kind and gentle and eating healthy is better than not doing so, or that there isn’t a more important set of values to focus on? Even if you have reflected on and are committed to these particular ones, I think the best gift you could give your son is the opportunity to articulate his own endorsement of these values, by considering counter-arguments and unfamiliar perspectives. You will of course have to take the chance that one day these tools you give him will lead him to values that may conflict with yours. The great paradox of parenting!

This of course was not your son’s question. He was asking not exactly about what is right or how we know what is right, but about specific motivations for human behavior. I think that deep confusion on this question often comes from the fact that we tend to believe in some quasi-religious notion of free will in which a person chooses evil over good because that person has an evil soul, or some such view that  we would not likely endorse if we thought it through. Even if one did believe this, it doesn’t solve the problem but only raises all kinds of thorny questions that your son won’t easily get a handle on because he is not a theologian. By contrast, there are many intriguing and well-supported theories from psychologists, neurologists, social scientists, economists and philosophers, that attempt to account for human behaviour in very different ways. Some posit theories of the human psyche, some examine any number of different kinds of social conditions, and others investigate the workings of our brains.

Now what all of these views share is the understanding that when we do wrong there is not actually any individual self at the evil controls, just various mechanisms or plays of forces that we can try to influence in various ways, but which are larger and far more complex than any single act of human will. Robert Sapolsky’s highly entertaining book Behave: The Science of Humans at Our Best and Worst provides a peek into our actions from the viewpoint of several different scientific disciplines, from the brain chemistry of a few seconds before the act to the evolutionary processes millennia before, and even that may be just the tip of the explanatory iceberg.

Just asking the questions in an open-minded way remains among the most important human activities we can engage in. All of the work that has been done in various disciplines on the question of human behavior, while it hasn’t yielded a definitive explanation for every possible action, continues nonetheless to help us build up a more nuanced picture of the processes and contexts and mechanisms involved in people doing what they do. And the more we know about what is going on, the more influence we can have over our own behaviours and those of others.

So I think the very best thing you can do for your son is to shift the focus in your discussions with him towards the questions themselves, and away from the need to find firm answers to justify them. Open-mindedness, curiosity and careful reflection will be his best tools not only in getting a better picture of why humans do what they do, but in contributing towards a world where they do better.