December 10, 2011
University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Child as Artist and Thinker

Yi-Fu Tuan

[Dr. Tuan is no longer writing regular Dear Colleague letters. This is a special essay written for his readers.]

Up to age seven or eight, the child is an artist, a philosophical thinker, and possibly both. As artist, she draws and paints, tells fantastic stories, and in her use of language quite often comes up with original metaphors, talents that if they continue to develop may mean that one day she will be a Mary Cassatt, a Charlotte Bronte, or an Emily Dickinson. Such artistic creativity is often noted. Less often noted is the child as philosophical thinker. A five-year-old boy says to his mother, “Isn’t it strange that if a zero comes at the end of the number it means a lot, but if it is at the beginning of a number it doesn’t mean anything at all?” Predictably, this boy grew up to be Hans Bethe, a distinguished physicist. Here are some other examples of precocity that I have selected from Gareth Matthew’s Philosophy and the Young Child (Harvard, 1980).

Tim (six years), while busily engaged in licking a pot, asks, “Papa, how can we be sure that everything is not a dream?” Note that he doesn’t ask, “Am I dreaming?” but rather whether everything is a dream, including the pot he is licking. What an extraordinary ability to disengage from context this question shows!

David (five years) worries about whether an apple is alive. He decides that it is when it’s on the ground but not when it has been brought into the house. His reasoning seems to be that, on the ground, the apple is still a part of its natural cycle of life, but in the house it is not. Not being a part of that natural cycle, it is dead and hence can be eaten without compunction.

Gareth Matthew is tucking his eight-year-son, John, in bed. The boy looks up and asks, quite without warning, “Daddy, why don’t I see you double, because I have two eyes and I can see you with each one by itself?”.

“Why do I have two names?” a young child asks. “Is it because I can lose one?” “Don’t be silly,” says another child, “your can’t lose a name.” “But why not? I can forget it, and isn’t that as good as losing?”

A little girl of nine asks, “Daddy, is there really God?” The father answers that it isn’t very certain, to which the child retorts, “There must be really, because he has a name!” [If God is not and cannot be named, as in Judaism, then the little girl might argue that he cannot exist].

Ian (six years) finds to his chagrin that the three children of his parents’ friends are monopolizing the television, preventing him from watching his favorite program. “Mother,” he asks in frustration, “why is it better for three people to be selfish than for one?”

[Here is an account that should appeal to geographers]. Seven-year-old Michael and his friends have just had a Narnia story by C. S. Lewis read to them. The discussion that follows, led by a grown-up, begins with the universe. Michael knows that his father has written a paper on finite models for the universe. He is pleased because he doesn’t like one that is unbounded. The idea of an infinite universe, he says, produces a funny feeling in his stomach. The discussion then turns to death. Michael says firmly, “It is more important to have maps and know where you are than what happens after you die.” To Michael, death seems to call up an image of unmarked and unbounded space.

Why does young children’s genius for art and thought begin to fade after a certain age? One reason is that by then they start to yearn for their peers’ social acceptance. To ensure it, they sacrifice their colorful vocabulary, their high imagination, and their penchant to ask difficult and impracticable questions. Sociality may be necessary to group formation and survival, but unfortunately it adversely affects imagination and intelligence. Conversation, even in the faculty lounge, almost always sinks to the lowest common denominator. Another reason for the dumbing down is acculturation. Adults impose their customs and beliefs on the young to make them more fully human. More fully human? No, rather more fully Navaho, Nigerian, Arab, Chinese, Indian, or American. Take the children’s queries and answers I have given above. True, they all come from young American boys and girls, but are we to believe that five-year-old Nigerians and Tahitians are incapable of thoughts of comparable abstraction and depth?

I now turn to a personal issue. Because I live alone and have done so all my adult life, friends try to persuade me to keep a pet to assuage my loneliness. I see their point. But a dog or a cat, endearing and intelligent as it can be, will not do. I put a pup in bed and it licks my hand. I put my young son (suppose that I have one) in bed and he gives me a hug. What’s difference? The difference is that only the human child will pop me the question, quite out of the blue, “Daddy, since I have two eyes, why don’t I see two of you?” The cure for my loneliness, then, cannot just be affection, it also has to offer me something more, which is the mystery that the universe–this dark, hulking, and irrational immensity–can produce a being so tender and vulnerable who is yet able to introduce, on the verge of sleep and oblivion itself, a shaft of light in the form of a baffling question. 

Yi-Fu Tuan


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