Book Review: Jana Mohr Lone, Seen and not heard: Why Children’s Voices Matter (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021)*

By Baptiste Roucau

A written interview with author Jana Mohr Lone is available here.

 

What might we learn from children if we genuinely listened to them? How could they benefit if we did? Such are the key questions that Jana Mohr Lone addresses in her recent book, Seen and not heard. In this work, she shares children’s perspectives on fundamental philosophical concepts, from friendship to fairness to death, juxtaposing them with the thoughts of scholars from a range of disciplines. Recognising the depth and originality of children’s thinking, this book not only provides valuable insights into the worlds of children, it also constitutes a powerful call to take young voices seriously.

Lone begins with the observation that, despite a historical trend moving toward greater respect for children and their needs, adults rarely regard children as legitimate knowers. Children’s intellectual opinions and concerns are frequently discounted on the basis of their age—a form of discrimination called ageism that Lone bemoans. Yet children wonder about fundamental questions and are able to express nuanced ideas about them. Often, therefore, their desire to explore the issues that matter to them and their ability to do so are underestimated, with damaging effects on their agency. At the same time, Lone argues that society deprives itself of valuable perspectives when it overlooks children’s contributions. By showcasing the depth and originality of children’s philosophical thinking, she invites us to rethink our conception of childhood—an especially timely proposition as young people around the world increasingly mobilise to combat climate change, denounce gun violence or protest racial injustice.

As a philosopher at the University of Washington and as the co-founder and director of PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), Lone has been facilitating philosophical dialogues in schools for 25 years. The excerpts that constitute the heart of the book are drawn from these conversations, allowing readers to discover and appreciate anew children’s perspectives on a wide range of philosophical issues. Given the diversity of topics explored and Lone’s choice to include many young voices, her work constitutes an “impressionistic account” (p. 28) of children’s thinking. To highlight the philosophical implications of their ideas, she offers her own interpretations, taking great care not to misconstrue these in the process. Lone also connects children’s views to those of novelists, philosophers, psychologists and sociologists who have investigated the same perennial questions, noting convergences as well as original contributions.

The book comprises seven chapters. The first chapter lays the groundwork for the rest of the book by providing an analysis of children’s place in society. Lone examines prevalent conceptions of childhood and identifies the prejudices limiting children’s agency in educational, legal and political contexts. According to her, the underestimation of children is primarily rooted in their lack of autonomy: “because they depend on others to take care of them, they are not considered moral and social agents” (p. 24). However, while she acknowledges the special nature of children’s needs, Lone emphasises the continuity between childhood and adulthood: like children, adults depend on others, are vulnerable and change constantly. Consequently, she argues, there is little reason to dismiss children’s opinions on the basis of age and much to gain from developing more egalitarian child-adult relationships.

The next five chapters all follow the same structure. Each chapter focuses on an overarching concept—childhood, friendship, politics, happiness and death—whose main dimensions are explored in different sections. Sections open with quotes from children offering various perspectives on the philosophical issue at hand, which Lone interprets to highlight key ideas. She then discusses children’s insights in relation to existing theories in literature, philosophy, psychology or sociology. Throughout the book, the tone is warm, humble and, most importantly, appreciative of children’s thinking. 

Chapter two explores the concept of childhood. Given its close connection to Lone’s argument, this chapter can be considered part of the conceptual backbone of the book. Yet it is grounded in children’s own opinions on the nature, boundaries and possibilities of childhood. Most children with whom Lone speaks report valuing this first stage of life despite its challenges, notably because they associate being a child with heightened authenticity, creativity and an openness to what the world could be—a characterisation supported by the empirical findings discussed in the chapter. For example, children have been shown to learn more rapidly and more flexibly than adults in many contexts (e.g., Claxton, 2014; Gopnik, Griffiths, & Lucas, 2015).

Chapter three investigates friendship, a concept that Lone contends is vital to many children. The children featured in the chapter display a nuanced understanding of friendship through their rigorous analysis of the necessary criteria to be a friend and their subtle distinctions between different kinds of friends. Children appear to greatly value friendship, but they are cognisant of the demanding obligations it entails, such as loyalty or telling the truth. Especially interesting is Lone’s juxtaposition of Aristotle’s and Marcus Aurelius’s timeless ideas about friendship with children’s opinions about such modern phenomena as online friendships and the pressure to be popular at school.

Chapter four is more eclectic, bringing together children’s perspectives on multiple political issues, ranging from climate change to political participation to sexism. The concept of fairness occupies a special place, given its centrality to children’s lives and to many political issues. Children consider fairness in the abstract, for example wondering whether life is fair, as well as in concrete situations, such as examining the fairness of a classmate’s violent response to incessant bullying. Lone’s description of a tense discussion about racism is particularly instructive in terms of children’s thoughtfulness and the best ways to help them navigate political conversations: thanks in part to her willingness to trust the children in that group, they were able to challenge a problematic idea while respecting the child who had offered it.

Chapter five delves into the concept of happiness. The excerpts selected by Lone reveal the sophisticated thinking of her young participants about this concept, which they distinguish from the related notions of contentment and pleasure. After exploring the relationship between choice and happiness, the children interrogate the possibility—and the desirability—of being happy all the time. We learn that many of them consider pain and sadness to be part of a full life. Lone usefully complements their insights by contextualising them within the philosophical and psychological literature on happiness. For example, several children point out that genuine happiness involves an intellectual component, whether thinking about what you need to do to be happy or reflecting on your feelings of happiness to ensure they are justified by good reasons. These views align with those of philosophers like Democritus or Martha Nussbaum, who consider that happiness requires self-examination.  

Chapter six examines the notion of death. Lone argues that, despite adults’ tendency to shelter children from harsh realities, the young thinkers in her study often think about death and dying. Accordingly, she recommends openly addressing these topics with children, instead of treating them as taboo. In the excerpts she shares, children explore the fear of death, speculate about what happens after we die and consider the meaning of a mortal life. The chapter also includes a fascinating discussion about immortality: some children seem tempted by the prospect of living forever, but most disagree, raising concerns about the boredom, grief and loss of meaning that they think would eventually afflict an immortal being.

Chapter 7 closes the book by considering what it means to listen. When children and listening are invoked together, it is generally to tell children to listen to adults. Yet Lone’s work can be understood as a call to listen to children—“at its heart, [this book] is about listening” (p. 157). Drawing on literature and philosophical work, she analyses the act of listening, which she sees as involving curiosity, openheartedness and an ease with silence. The book concludes with an invitation to reconstruct child-adult relationships in light of an ethics of listening.      

Three features make Lone’s work especially significant. First is the foregrounding of children’s perspectives. Their words open and close the five core chapters, ensuring that the structure of the book reflects its message to take young voices seriously. Throughout, Lone considers children’s ideas with the same respect she does those of novelists, philosophers and scientists. This equal footing is as bold as it is necessary for young people to be recognised as legitimate thinkers. Second is Lone’s decision to dedicate two chapters to death and politics. The inclusion of such sensitive topics enriches the book because they are often elided in discussions with children, ostensibly to protect them from stark realities (Goering, 2014; Payne & Journell, 2019), including in Lone’s field, Philosophy for/with Children (Chetty & Suissa, 2017; Zanetti, 2020). And yet, as Haynes and Murris (2008) argue, adults’ efforts to steer children away from certain topics, no matter how well-intentioned, amount to a form of “censorship” that denies children the right to explore the questions that matter to them. Third, psychological and sociological research features prominently in the book and bibliography. This interdisciplinary empirical foundation, often lacking in Philosophy for/with Children, bolsters Lone’s claims and illuminates many of the children’s insights.

One quibble with the book is methodological. Lone gives the reader little information about the children who share their perspectives or about the process of selecting the excerpts that compose the book. All we know about the children quoted are their age and (based on pseudonyms) their gender, while Lone remains somewhat vague when she indicates that “some of the book’s quoted conversations, taken from recordings, transcripts, or verbatim notes, are consolidations of several separate discussions that occurred at various times” (p. 3). More information about children’s cultural, racial and socio-economic background would have been valuable to contextualise their insights because these are necessarily shaped by children’s position in society.1 Similarly, knowing how typical the selected excerpts were relative to children’s overall discussions and how the excerpts were edited (if at all) would have helped the reader interpret children’s contributions. However, while this falls short of the standards required for an empirical study of children’s perspectives, it may be sufficient for Lone’s stated goal of providing an “impressionistic account” of their philosophical thinking aimed at a general audience. Further, Lone is very clear that she does not make “any conclusions about what most children think or any final claims about what the children quoted really believe” (p. 28).

At once a testament to children’s thoughtfulness and a passionate argument for honouring their agency as knowers, Lone’s book promises to appeal to a large audience. Educators should be inspired by children’s ability to tackle complex issues and may decide to integrate more intellectual discussions in their teaching as a result. The book can help parents notice the philosophical depth of their children’s comments, thus encouraging them to collectively explore big questions as a family. Psychologists and sociologists have the opportunity to discover what children think about concepts that are seldom investigated in empirical studies, while philosophers of childhood and education can build on the connections drawn by Lone to develop their theories in light of children’s ideas. Although many of the exchanges featured in the book will sound familiar to seasoned practitioners and theorists of Philosophy for/with Children, they can still learn from Lone’s approach to facilitation, notably from her discussion in chapter 7 of the delicate balance between welcoming children’s ideas and helping them strengthen their thinking. Most importantly, Lone’s compelling exploration of children’s philosophical insights reminds adults that children are capable thinkers who deserve to “be both seen and heard” (p. 174).

 

Endnotes

1 It should be noted that, in chapter 4 on political issues, Lone does provide more information about her students (e.g., “in this third-grade class, a significant percentage of the students live in low-income households, many of the students are African American, and a substantial number are new to the United States” p. 107). Such descriptions would be valuable throughout the book to give readers a better sense of the children speaking.

 

References

Chetty, D., & Suissa, J. (2017). ‘No go areas’: Racism and discomfort in the community of inquiry. In M. Gregory, J. Haynes, & K. Murris (Eds.), The Routledge international handbook of Philosophy for Children (pp. 43-50). Routledge.

Claxton, G. (2014). The development of learning power: A new perspective on child development and early education. In S. Robson & Q. S. Flannery (Eds.), The Routledge international handbook of young children’s thinking and understanding (pp. 367-376). Taylor & Francis Group.

Goering, S. (2014). Using children’s literature as a spark for ethical discussion: Stories that deal with death. In C. Mills (Ed.), Ethics and children’s literature (pp. 233-246). Routledge.

Gopnik, A., Griffiths, T. L., & Lucas, C. G. (2015). When younger learners can be better (or at least more open-minded) than older ones. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(2), 87-92.

Haynes, J., & Murris, K. (2008). The wrong message: Risk, censorship and the struggle for democracy in the primary school. Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children, 19(1), 2-11. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.5840/thinking20081912

Payne, K. A., & Journell, W. (2019). “We have those kinds of conversations here …”: Addressing contentious politics with elementary students. Teaching and Teacher Education, 79, 73-82. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2018.12.008

Zanetti, L. (2020). Why am I here? The challenges of exploring children’s existential questions in the community of inquiry. Childhood & Philosophy, 16, 01-26. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.12957/childphilo.2020.47050

 

****

 

Jana Mohr Lone’s Seen and not heard: Why Children’s Voices Matter is published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Jana Mohr Lone’s written interview is available here.

About the Author

Baptiste Roucau

Baptiste Roucau is based in the Faculty of Education, Victoria University of Wellington.


By this Author