Author interview: Jana Mohr Lone, Seen and Not Heard: Why Children’s Voices Matter

By Jana Mohr Lone

 

Why did you decide to write Seen and Not Heard?

My motivation for writing Seen and Not Heard came from thinking about all I’ve learned from children in 25 years of conversations about their philosophical questions and ideas. Although I believe our homes and schools have become more child-centered than in the past, I’ve observed that nevertheless children’s insights, especially on complex or controversial topics, continue to be discounted and dismissed simply due to age. So often when children make intellectually provocative remarks or ask philosophical questions, adults react by noting how cute or amusing they are and don’t take them seriously.

In The Philosophical Child (2012), I described the value for young people of engaging in philosophical inquiry and suggested ways that parents, grandparents, and other adults can inspire philosophical exchanges with children. I wrote Seen and Not Heard to demonstrate the ways that philosophical inquiry with children is also valuable for adults. Children’s original, perceptive observations and ideas can enlarge our thinking about important questions and expand our philosophical universe. If adults really listen to children, without preconceptions or prejudice, it can remind us that we too can be unafraid to try out ideas that might seem farfetched or naïve, and that possibility is alive in the world.

 

What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now?

The book aims to encourage adults to listen to what children have to say, without prejudice or diminished expectations. Perhaps because being alive is a more novel experience for children than for adults, they see the world with a freshness and openness. This gives them a unique perspective about some of life’s larger questions. Yet adults seldom acknowledge children as valuable and capable thinkers. Our education systems don’t prioritize listening to children or helping them to think critically and independently. Encouraging children to explore and discuss their philosophical questions helps them acquire what, in my view, are among the most important qualities needed in today’s world: confidence in the value of their own judgments and perceptions, the skills to express their own perspectives clearly and compellingly, an openness to changing their minds, and a willingness to listen with generosity to different points of view.

 

What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?

I hope that reading Seen and Not Heard encourages adults to take more seriously children’s ideas and questions, to be more willing to think with children about difficult topics, and to see children as people who might have something to teach us. Acknowledging children as possessing important perspectives gives them a real opportunity to regard themselves differently, to develop confidence that their voices matter. Children’s dependence on adults does not make them mediocre thinkers. If children were regarded not as “defective adults,” in the words of cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik, but as people from whom we can learn, I think children would be more likely to grow up seeing themselves as full and valuable members of society.

 

What’s your current project? What’s next?

Hatchette Children’s Books contacted me last spring to inquire about my interest in writing a series of six ethics books for children. The first three – on Friendship, Fairness, and Honesty – are now written and with the illustrator. I am working on the fourth, on Community and the Environment.

I am also starting to develop a book comparing the life experience of childhood with that of life’s final decades. This emerged from my observation that many children think a lot about death, which led me to wonder if it’s at the beginning and end of life that we are most attuned to mortality as at the heart of human existence. I then began thinking about the additional parallels between the experiences of people at the beginning and end of life. Some of the characteristic features of these two life stages are similar: the experience of being on the periphery of the larger society, a sense of vulnerability and dependence, rapid internal change, the need to figure out how things work and a resulting deliberateness in making one’s way through the world, and a particular appreciation for each moment. At the same time, of course, these two periods of life are very different, as childhood involves growing agility and power, with most of life ahead, while the last years of life often entail declining abilities, and most of life is past.

 

What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

Philosophy of education is an inquiry into the purposes of education, the meaning of learning and teaching, and the relationship between education, childhood and adolescence, and adulthood. It matters because these issues are central to how we live and how are communities and societies are organized.

As a member of a philosophy department, it has always been curious to me that philosophers of education, at least in the United States, are generally connected to colleges of education and rarely to philosophy departments. For most of philosophy’s history, questions about education engaged the thinking of most of the world’s great philosophers. But in more recent years in the United States, philosophy of education is not seen as part of the field of philosophy.

Many people have noted the negative effects on philosophy of education of this neglect by the general philosophy community. But it is also detrimental to philosophy itself, as this turning away from some of the most important issues in our society serves, in my judgment, to further isolate and narrow the field of philosophy, and to create artificial barriers between scholars that ultimately diminish all our work.

About the Author

Jana Mohr Lone

Jana Mohr Lone is the director and co-founder of PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) and for many years was the director of the Center for Philosophy for Children, which merged with PLATO in 2022. She is based in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Washington.


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