Wednesday Wisdom

May 01, 2024

Meaningful Conversations

By Emma Leeson

Meaningful Conversations


This week, Wednesday Wisdom is written by Emma Leeson, Schools Co-ordinator at SAPERE (Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education), the UK’s national charity for Philosophy for Children. Emma will be joining us at Tooled Up on May 20th for an exciting live webinar, and here she shares thoughts on how we can have meaningful and connected conversations with our children, designed to deepen their thinking.

Our children are living in a world where information is fast and accessible, but there is also a need to slow down and have conversations about the stuff that matters to them. As parents, how do we find those moments for more meaningful conversations with our kids? What topics will be so compelling that they won’t be able to resist joining in and what questions can we ask to find out what they are thinking at a deeper level?

Recently, I’ve been reading a book by Nihal Arthanayake entitled Let’s Talk: How to Have Better Conversations, which discusses the importance of connecting rather than simply projecting. Can you think of the last time you had a really meaningful conversation? What made it good? Was it the person, the place, the topic, the listening ear, the connection? When I’ve had a great conversation with my children, we do feel more connected because although it might not have been long, it felt important and of value.

At home, it often feels like there is little space for us adults to converse with each other. Family chat is often led by my children’s questions and epic external monologues about everything they are currently doing, or thinking about doing. Added to that, when us adults do find a nanosecond of opportunity to use our voices, my daughter will inevitably announce that she never gets the chance to speak! Yet, there are also moments where something happens that I now realise I take for granted, when we all start talking and thinking collaboratively about BIG stuff that matters: friendship, relationships, fairness, democracy, equality, work and education, to name a few. Yes, we talk about life. These moments often happen at the dinner table or in the car, but they can also be unpredictable and opportunistic.

Just the other day, on the walk home, my daughter mentioned that her class is making a birthday card for the teaching assistant in Year 3, but they’d been told to pretend that they were doing French instead. I asked her, "So did you have to lie?" The next 5 to 10 minutes were spent pondering whether lying is ok if it is for a surprise. She commented that, "it was for a good reason because we were doing something nice and it wasn’t our surprise so it wasn’t our lie – and we didn’t lie as we were just told not to talk about it". Interesting! The problematic plot of lying and secrecy thickened - and became even more problematised as she talked and I listened, peppering our chat with questions.

This moment had not been planned for, but it was certainly helpful, as lies, secrecy and truth are essential concepts to explore, and children wonder about them. This small moment felt like it might become cumulatively advantageous as my relationship with my daughter develops and I find myself talking to my future teenage children about telling me the truth!


Now, do not be under any illusion that mine is a utopian family existence, because it is not! What is at play here, is a sensitivity to opportunity based on my experience of P4C - Philosophy for Children.

P4C began in the US in the late 1960s as the ‘trademark’ of a curriculum for 6-16 year olds, developed by Professor Matthew Lipman, Professor Ann Margaret Sharp and colleagues at the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State University. Lipman’s project, which began at Columbia University in the wake of the student unrest of the late 1960s, was to encourage young people to be more reasonable – that is, ready to reason and be reasoned with. Like the Ancient Greek philosophers, Lipman saw this as the path to the ultimate goal of education: ‘practical wisdom’, or good judgement. Surely, a reasonable child is every parent’s dream, isn’t it? A child that isn’t simply out to win an argument, but able to listen, consider others’ ideas, be more self-aware, articulate and thoughtful before coming to a conclusion. It definitely seems desirable! 

The Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE) is the charity that promotes P4C in the UK. Our vision is a future where everyone has the opportunity to engage philosophically in discussions that matter to them, which motivate them to listen and to learn from others, and which make a difference to how they think, feel, speak and act in the world. Philosophical discussions of this kind and quality deepen individuals’ understanding of themselves, others and the world around them, ultimately allowing people to flourish and contribute to a more equitable world.

Much of the research surrounding P4C is based on children and young people talking in the classroom, and whilst a parent and child (or more if siblings are around) is a much smaller community of thinkers, there are many opportunities for connection through meaningful, philosophical conversation at home. At the heart of P4C is dialogue and so practical philosophy means thoughts will be offered, considered and responded to, based on something which has stimulated a conversation.

So, what should we be talking and thinking philosophically about with our children? It is helpful to reflect on what concerns our own children and young people today – and what concerns us as parents. This might include ideas around family, friends, ability, trust, anxiety, social media and body image, to name a few – and of course the world news that is a backdrop to all our lives. Obviously, the ideas and concepts that children connect with will differ depending on their age and experience, but leaning in and getting to know what our children are interested in, and what is relevant to their lives, is a great place to start.

A report by The Children's Society which looked at trends in children’s wellbeing found that school, friendships and appearance dominate the minds of our adolescent children. In addition, Nicola Morgan’s book, Blame My Brain: The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed, was updated last year to include a new chapter on ‘The Social Brain' which reflects on the importance of adolescents’ brains in their responses to social media. She starts the chapter with a teenager’s statement: “I want to fit in and stand out, be different and yet not noticed.” It's a contradictory statement ripe with opportunity for further discussion. Does your teen agree or disagree? And what about you as parents? We were all teenagers once, after all!

We often disagree with each other in our house as we navigate adult perspectives alongside those of an 8 and 10 year old. Conversations frequently find imaginative tangents, but the adults become more aware of what the children think and vice versa. Allowing children to find a voice to articulate what matters to them is a nurturing practice ground for the future that lies ahead. We have indeed encouraged our children to be thinking, creative, relentless talking beings, but I have grown to realise that I wouldn’t want it any other way. We want our children to have opinions, be curious, self-aware, empathetic and active listeners, who are adaptable and will enjoy lifelong learning – and these are some of the top skills for the future that the World Economic Forum Future Jobs Report (2023) lists, so P4C is on to something!

In 2022, Siddiqui and Gorard published research into SAPERE P4C following an Education Endowment Fund report in 2015, and the results showed that P4C benefits self-esteem, self-confidence, critical thinking, creativity, commitment, social-communication skills, socio-emotional attitudes and motivation to learn. There are opportunities at home to foster all of these benefits and to model being curious, resilient, flexible, creative, empathetic and active listeners too.

Philippa Perry has some timely advice in The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad that You Did), where she advocates between parent and child, a “steady rhythm of to and fro and turn-taking… each being an equal partner in the communication exchange”, and how important it is to leave a gap after speaking, to allow the other to respond. As parents, we must not be afraid of giving our children time to form a response and then speak, rather than jumping in and giving our view. Patience and keeping quiet are also vital for meaningful conversations.


As a parent, it can be challenging to fit the requirements of a day into 24-hours, so these meaningful conversational moments are about noticing and maximising the opportunities you already have. The walk or car journey home from school, sharing a book at bedtime, watching a television programme together or chatting during dinner can all offer chance openings.

Firstly, listen carefully and actively, looking out for moments where your child is talking about some of the big ideas or concepts already mentioned, such as friendship (which will be used as an example here). After listening, it can help to identify the main theme of the conversation. For example, “I think you’re talking about friendship here…” Then, encourage dialogue by asking some simple questions that help facilitate them to talk more. Can you tell me more about that? What do you think about…? Can you give me an example of when…? What might someone else do in your/that situation? Do you have any more questions? Think of these as your capsule wardrobe of useful questions that will help keep the conversation going so you can find out more about what your child is thinking.

If they go quiet, then wait. We all need time to think through our response when asked a more probing question. Try to refrain from telling them what you think the answer might be, or telling them what they think. Instead, model humility and acknowledge that we don’t always know or have the answer, but that thinking together as collaborators can help us understand and make progress with what we think.

If it feels right and your child seems talkative, choose a moment to slip in a more philosophical question about the main theme: Do we need a best friend? Should we be friends with people different to us? Do you think all our friendships can last a lifetime? Friendship is something we are connected to and compelled to think about, because we’re all affected by it: Is it a good friendship? Do all friendships survive? Has this friendship outlived itself?

Friendship is so central to our lives that there are many picture books and young adult fiction titles which explore it and act as a stimulus for further thinking. If you prefer, particularly with younger children, using a story or picture which portrays friendship can also be a good way to open up a conversation. The Girls by Lauren Ace is a favourite of mine and as the four friends grow together and find their own paths, it sets my philosophical sensitivity on overdrive, interweaving big contestable concepts such as friendship, adventure, ageing and difference. Books can act as a springboard to asking children thoughtful questions around the main themes and ideas hidden within it either before, during or after the reading.

As our children get older and read independently, it can be interesting to read the book they are about to read or have just read, as they can provide useful reference points in the future. I have a number of books cued up that my son wants me to read, including The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Rauf. We’ve both read Wonder by R. J. Palacio and it helped us find a way into conversations about difference and acceptance that were rooted in a narrative. My son has not always been an avid or proficient reader, but he has always enjoyed talking about books and connecting them with his own experiences. I have always prioritised asking him, “What do you think about what’s just happened in the story?” Or, “Would you have done that or something different?”

There are many opportunities to think together even when watching TV or a film, as these will have themes and big concepts to discuss too. Bravery, risk, adventure, difference, good versus evil, luck, kindness and emotions are all themes in programmes I have recently watched with my children and are contestable due to being open to different interpretations and perspectives. Believe it or not, even Bing can become a philosophical provocation for a three or four year old, regarding whether it is good to try new food or more broadly new things.

As an example, I watched a nature programme with my son a few months ago, about a chameleon. It lay down at the end of its life and we witnessed its skin go through a ripple of colours as it died. It was an unexpected shared spiritual moment. I could have felt uncomfortable about this sudden unexpected presentation of death, but instead the philosophical dimension seemed to create a moment that allowed us to share what we thought about that end of life moment - and we agreed (on this occasion) that it was beautiful as well as sad. What a way to go, in a ripple of colour. Useful questions, such as: “I wonder what you thought about what happened there? Did anything surprise you? Do you have any further questions?”, helped me acknowledge the moment, rather than ignore it. It is worth having a go when a moment pops up, simply by asking, "What did you think?"

Finally, remember, it is ok to disagree. What better training ground than at home with your parent, to know it is ok to disagree agreeably, and that it’s ok to say “I think differently to you”. Dinnertime is a great opportunity to have a conversation together about the day, about stuff that matters and practise those skills of turn-taking, listening, disagreeing, agreeing and noticing what is important to our children. I actively find opportunities to rehearse these words in front of my children and encourage them to say them: “I agree with you because…” and “I disagree with you because…”.

Not all conversations will be meaningful in the philosophical sense. That would be exhausting! But it seems logical that the more meaningful ones we end up having, the more we are open to exchanging ideas, the more likely the channels of communication are alive and well. Indeed, we all hope that when something is really worrying our children they will feel they can come and talk to us and we will listen, and we may all become wiser for it.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

Come and experience P4C…

If you’d like to experience philosophising yourself and explore how us parents can notice opportunities for deeper and more meaningful talk, come and join SAPERE Trainer Emma Leeson for a Tooled Up parent webinar on 20th May at 7pm BST. There will be an opportunity to think collaboratively about what children feel compelled to talk about, to experience what it’s like to philosophise and introduce you to the ethos of P4C, including the versatile use of books, questions and statements to stimulate conversations with your own children, and the kinds of concepts that are ripe for philosophical investigation.

Within the Tooled Up platform, we also have tips on asking effective questions and a short video to share with younger children about the value of being inquisitive. You might also be interested in our list of books to encourage enquiring minds and in our interview with Peter Worley, CEO of The Philosophy Foundation on ‘doing philosophy’ with children. We also offer some useful thoughts on how to nudge children to embrace uncertainty in their thinking, and become more effective learners.

We’ve long promoted the value of dinnertime conversations. To find out more about the benefits, tune in to our interview with researcher Mishika Mehrotra, watch our video on dinnertime debriefs, or try out some of our conversation starters.

On a different note, at Tooled Up, we are really excited to announce a new project with the Department of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. With Dr Vilas Sawrikar, we are conducting a study utilising co-development workshops to explore best practice for the development of integrated care pathways for youth anxiety and depression. We’d love as many members of our community as possible to participate. The first step in the study is an online survey which can be filled out by young people (aged 16-30), parents or health, social or community care providers. Once you’ve filled out the survey, you’ll be offered access to group online workshops where you can discuss how best to improve care for young people with anxiety and depression. Anyone attending a workshop will receive a £20 Amazon voucher as a thank you.