Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Love, Z

Last week I read the story Love, Z by Jessie Sima with a group of 9-11 year olds. The story is about a young robot, Z, who finds a bottle with a message inside that is indecipherable except for two words: "Love, Beatrice."

Z wonders what love means. The robot asks all the other robots, but they do not know. So Z sets off to look for Beatrice, asking everyone the robot meets if they are Beatrice and whether they know the meaning of love. Everyone has a different answer. 

Z ends up at the house of a woman named Beatrice. Asked what love is, Beatrice responds that love is hard to explain, but it is "warm and cozy and safe. You'll know it when you feel it." The robot hopes she is right. 

That evening, the other robots show up at Beatrice's house because they were worried about Z. They have brought Z's favorite bedtime story, night-light, and a good night kiss. As Z is falling asleep, the feeling inside the young robot is familiar. But now "it had a name." 

Before I read the story to the children, I asked them what they think of when they hear the word "love." Their responses included: family, food, hearts, hugs, trust, caring, happiness, stuffs, and pets.

After reading the story, I asked the students to consider what they would say if Z asked them, "What is love?" They went into breakout rooms in small groups and came back after about 10 minutes for a larger group discussion.

One group said that they concluded that what love means differs for every person.

"You can't really define love as one thing because for one person it can be completely different than to another person. For example, one person might say 'love for me is family and friends' while for another person it might be 'love is trusting.' It's like a human trait that you can't really define, a feeling, sort of, and love falls into that."

"Love is not defined into a particular word or a sentence. It really depends on your personality and who you are and kind of what you believe in. For one person, it might be food, and for another it might be stories from your parents at night, or for another it might actually be the moments with your parents and the moments with your siblings. So it really depends on who you are."

Another student described love as involving what you like, so that you feel happy. "Love can be an upscaled like," suggested one child.

"Love is kind of like the whole entire world. Most of the time if anything in the world happens and there's something or someone you really love, even if something really bad happens, nothing will change in the relationship."

This led to a conversation about what events might lead love to change or end. If someone you love does something really terrible (starting a nuclear war, one student offered as an example), that might change how you feel about the person. 

One student noted, "We all have different definitions of love and what it means to us."

I observed that we had been talking about love in two different ways: examples of love or ways you can show or experience love, and how you define love. Is every definition of love equally good? Or are there some definitions of love that are not as good as others?

"I think there could be better definitions for love and worse definitions of love. For a definition of love, a bad example would be food. You might love food, but what really is love to you?"

This led to an exchange about whether you can love food, with one student stating, "It's not just eating things or tasting things, it's the experience that comes along with it. Eating with your family or talking with your friends. Also food tastes good, but there's more to it than just the actions, it's what happens with what you're doing."

"Food is a good example of love because people work hard to make the food that you're eating. If you're just talking about throw it in the microwave, turn it on, or something really super easy to make, it's not really that. It's the flavor, the flavor brings joy and you can love that flavor and then later you can crave more of it and it gives you a reason to come back. Kind of like when you miss your family, most of the time you know you can come back."

"Love is a question you can't be wrong or right about it. It's what you think about it. You can describe love in different ways, there's not just one answer like a math problem. There's multiple answers to it."

Jana Mohr Lone is the director of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, and her most recent book is Seen and Not Heard.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Seen and Not Heard

Last month saw the release of my new book Seen and Not Heard: Why Children's Voices MatterThe book describes and analyzes conversations I have had with children over the past 25 years about their philosophical questions and ideas. 

Here is an excerpt:


In the following conversation about the ethics of attending friends’ birthday parties, some ten-year-old children discuss whether friendship requires always “showing up” for the significant events in our friends’ lives.


Jade: "It’s okay to want to be alone. If your friend is having a birthday party, and it’s not like you don’t like them or anything, but you don't want to go. You’re not trying to hurt their feelings. You just don’t want to spend time at that and so you don’t.”

Noah: "I actually disagree with that. Having a birthday party isn’t a good example. You don't do that. If it's your friend and it's their birthday, you don't just say, 'Oh, I can’t go to your birthday party because I want to be alone.' You don't do that. It's your friend, so it's worth it. You don’t just miss something like that." 

Kayla: “I respectfully disagree with that. Sometimes you feel alone and you can really wish them a happy birthday but say you’re not feeling quite up to it right now. Just say that you don’t want to come because you’re going through something or you really feel like you need some time alone. Some people feel like that. It’s not really disrespectful in most cases if you don’t go. If you just don’t go, maybe they’ll think you don’t care, but if you say, ‘Today I just want some time alone, I wish you a happy birthday, and I will talk to you tomorrow or maybe next week or something.’" 

Beth: “If you just feel kind of lonely and down, and it’s a birthday party with a lot of people or even not a lot of people, but you just don’t feel like working yourself up to it. If you want to be alone, then if they’re a really good friend, they’ll probably understand.”

Avery: “I think it depends on how old you are. If you’re older, it’s different. If you’re younger, you need to go to things now because you might not be able to go to things as frequently when you’re older. When you’re older, sometimes you can’t show up, but now you don’t have anything else to do. When you’re older you’ll have things you need to focus on.”

Scarlett: "I would feel disappointed and sad if a friend didn’t come to my party, but I would think they probably had a good reason. It might not be as much fun without them, but I should respect them.”

Holly: “If it was my best friend, I would feel upset. Why would you not come to my party just because you want to be alone? But if it was a friend that I just met, I wouldn’t be as disappointed. If the reason was that a good friend just wanted to be alone, that would make me feel sad.”


Scarlett says that she would trust that her friend had a good reason for failing to appear as promised. In her view, on the one hand, not showing up for an important event is less likely to damage a close friendship because you assume the absence is for a good reason; on the other hand, several of the children seem to agree that the closer the friend, the greater the obligation to attend. Kayla, however, disagrees. She believes in honesty – if you don’t want to go, you don’t, and you candidly tell your friend you prefer to be alone.


Kayla’s view implies that a friend wouldn’t want you to do something you don’t want to do and would appreciate hearing the truth. But Holly maintains that wanting to be alone is a weak reason for not going; the closer the friendship, the greater our disappointment and hurt when a weak reason leads to a friend’s non-attendance. You might be more likely to accept, or simply care less about, a weak reason from a distant acquaintance who fails to show up. From a good friend, however, you expect a good reason.  


Avery says that your obligations to attend your friends’ events depend on your age. “If you’re older, it’s different.”  In some ways, then, perhaps children have fewer excuses for failing to show up at important events for their friends, as most (though certainly not all) children do not tend to be shouldering multiple other significant obligations. Adults generally have to juggle attending a particular event with other competing demands on our time, so arguably having less time for our friends’ occasions seems more justifiable. Nevertheless, dedicating some time to showing up for our friends does seem essential, no matter our age.


This conversation made me think about my own expectations of friendship. I try to go to all of my friends’ big events and expect that they will be there for mine, if feasible. I tend to agree with Noah: “You don’t just miss something like that.” But then I reflect about the question that Kayla’s point raises: Do we want our friends to come to our events solely out of feelings of obligation if they have no desire to be there? I wonder: if a friend really preferred to stay home, should I want that for them too, rather than letting my desire take precedence? The conversation led me to reexamine my belief that people should always show up for the events that matter to their friends. As I think about it, I come to see that asking a friend to do something that they really don’t want to do, not because they don’t love me, but because it is uncomfortable for them for some reason, is not an act of friendship.


Scarlett comments that although she would feel disappointed, she would respect the choice her friend is making, and Beth contends that if you are “feeling lonely and down” and just not up to attending, your friend “will probably understand.” We don’t expect our friends to be just like us. One friend might be very social and extroverted, and the other more introverted and less social. If friendship involves being able to “be yourself” and be understood and supported, should we expect our friends to attend our events if we know that they will not enjoy them? Part of friendship might be that we understand that our friends are different from us and will be more or less comfortable than we are in various situations.


The children assess whether different reasons for an action can determine whether the action is acceptable. Holly claims that the closer the friend, the better the reason should be to justify not showing up. On the one hand, if I threw a big party for a significant birthday and a close friend did not attend due to an important competing obligation, I would understand. On the other hand, if the friend’s non-attendance was because the evening of the party was a night that the friend wanted to stay home and watch a movie, I think I would feel hurt. My disappointment would stem from my hope that someone close to me would want to be at the party, and it would change my view of the friendship to discover that attending didn’t matter very much to them. By contrast, if someone I barely knew didn’t show up in order to stay home and watch television, I think Scarlett is right – this would seem much less important. 

Jana Mohr Lone is the director of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, and her most recent book is Seen and Not Heard.