In her new book The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life, Alison Gopnik reminds us that adults are stubbornly incurious (thank you, Richard Rorty, for that term) when it comes to children. “We raise children, and live with them every day,” she said. “It always seemed to me, even growing up, that we should talk about babies with the same seriousness and importance as any other topic. I’m always surprised at parties that the conversation around babies is how to get them to sleep, and that’s it. Then it’s, oh, no, let’s talk about real estate or something grown up.”
She got that right. When my children were young, conversations with other parents often turned on sleep deprivation and on strategies for getting your children to bed before sunset and making sure that they slept well past dawn. Gopnik sees in parenting an opportunity to observe the mind at work. The child is not only a philosopher, but also an explorer, investigator, and, scientist. But the child’s curiosity and desire to make connection rarely finds its match in the adults around it.
Anthony Gottlieb writes in the NYT that our absorption in our children (or those related to us) is a “flimsily disguised form of narcissism.” He ends his review of Gopnik’s book with a deflating sentence, one that worries me about the adult capacity to recognize that The Philosophical Baby can make a direct cultural hit: “The notion that children’s minds have much to tell us about the meaning of life seems rather a fond exaggeration.” Sentences like that only strengthen Gopnik’s argument that we live in a culture that shows astonishingly little curiosity about the complexities of childhood and growing up.
P.S. Maybe I’m all wrong about adult curiosity. Alison Gopnik’s op-ed in today’s NYT was the most e-mailed article of the day.
Here’s my favorite part of the op-ed:
When we say that preschoolers can’t pay attention, we really mean that they can’t not pay attention: they have trouble focusing on just one event and shutting out all the rest. This has led us to underestimate babies in the past. But the new research tells us that babies can be rational without being goal-oriented.