What is real?

Allison Tait blog
Posted on February 1, 2011

Always good with a difficult question, Mr4 surpassed himself yesterday.

“How do you know something is real?” he asked.

Immediately, I was transported back to Philosophy 101 at Sydney University during my much-briefer-than-it-should-have-been flirtation with an Arts degree. A dark, institutional-green room. Cold. Full of mature-age students (I went to uni at 20, after I’d started my cadetship).

I wanted to read the texts, have a quick chat, go home. Everyone else wanted to debate the nature of a chair ad nauseum, working on the theory that if they spoke the loudest, they’d win the argument.

My mind flicked back and forth through remembered snippets of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle. How does ‘I think therefore I am’ relate to reality? Perception versus reality? I remember doing something on beauty. What makes us beautiful? Is something innately beautiful, or do we make it so?

None of this proves helpful. Mr4 is still looking at me, questioning, wondering. I think some more.

He is four.

“If you can touch it, it’s real,” I finally say.

“Oh, okay,” he says, turning back to LazyTown.

Conversation over. And I didn’t even have to bring up Alla Hoo Hoo. If only everything in life were so simple.


  1. Posie Patchwork

    OMG, my son has this replica 1960’s Woody chair in his bedroom, made for children’s sizes. Brilliant. I went to Sydney Uni too, i was science so no classes in the main quad lectures theatres, love Posie

  2. allison tait

    Tis true @Anonymous. But I have a cunning plan for that one. Mr7 is in grade two at a Catholic school. I plan to hand that particular question over to him.

  3. Anonymous

    this is just the warm up for “who is God”?, let me know how you go with that

  4. Brenda @ Mira Narnie

    i love what little boys ask! although what happens when he can’t touch it and it’s still real – he can’t touch the sun or the sky or Santa Claus (exception on real!) and he can’t touch love and hurt and angry and happy and all those emotions but they are certainly real – perhaps, if he believes it, he can know it’s real….

    now i’ll wait till my 4 year old asks the same thing xx

  5. x0xJ

    If it were me? I would have said the exact same thing!

  6. Trish@Show and Tell

    I tried to explain some concept of heaven to my daughter after my mum died in 2005.
    But I think I “oversold” it a tad….because my daughter asked, “Well, if it’s so great, why don’t we all just move there?”
    My answer in the heat of the moment was, “Because it’s a one way trip.”

  7. Jacki

    Ahhhh! I would have had no idea what to say to that! I love how kids’ minds work though…. I’m looking forward to pondering the big questions of the universe with my little ones as they get older!

  8. Katie

    My stock answer is “what do YOU think…______ “insert question back in.

    I can usually gauge what kind of answer the little one is looking for that way.

  9. Cate P

    I’m with Thea, plus “if you feel it”. But that may get too complicated for a 4 year old. Hell, it’s complicated for a 46 year old.
    BTW my daughter is doing philosophy in Year 11 this year.
    I’m scared.
    And I’m removing all chairs from the house.

  10. Salamander

    I think your Mr.4 and my Mr.4 have been in cahoots – the other day I got “Who is God?” and “Why can’t I see him?” and “If he lives in the sky, why doesn’t he fall down?”

    I think you answered your son marvellously – I, on the other hand, failed a theological debate with a four year old. *sigh*

  11. Cate Bolt

    *Shouts* So love is not real???

    (I knew it!)

  12. Life In A Pink Fibro

    I sincerely wish that all of you had been in my Philosophy 101 class… I might have stuck with it. 🙂

  13. John Lacey

    It’s curious, but I really can spot philosophy students from a mile away. Even from things as seemingly pointless as Facebook statuses. Just 19 hours ago this gem appeared in my Facebook feed by some existentially troubled peer:

    “I always thought I was a radical free thinker. Turns out I was just wrong about how everyone else thinks.”

    But yes if all else fails you could try letting your kids watch The Matrix. 15 minutes of Keanu Reeves standing around saying things like, “Is this real? Is that real? Is reality real?!” was really all I needed to turn off the DVD and walk away.

  14. Lucy

    I’m with Thea on this one. Lexie has asked me the same queestion. I forgot “smell” in my (overly detailed) explanation. She looked me straight in the eye and queried “Farts aren’t real then?”!

    (And I suspect you were at Sydney Uni with my lovely (but long winded on all things philosophy) husband. Not 1990?!)

  15. Lady Estrogen

    It’s amazing how the simple questions are the ones that cause us to get all philosophically stumped – too much noise in adult heads, I think. lol.

  16. Tricia Rose

    This is the fun part! I never could answer properly, but it go me thinking.

    My children ADORED Process Theology when they were a bit older, for some reason it made them very cheerful.

  17. Victoria

    Great question. Great answer. Thank goodness Lazy Town put an end to any further debate!

  18. Mama of 2 boys

    Oh wow! I am SO looking forward to those brain bending questions one day… I think they may have already started with my Mr3, though nothing quite so profound as asking to define “real”. You did very well with the response, I would almost certainly have confused him AND myself answering a question like that. I do recall questioning things like this too, as a young child. Are we all really here? on earth? or is it all just a dream? Now your Mr4 has got ME thinking again :o)

  19. Glen

    point out that if he really wants to know what’s real – then he should take the green pill, but give him one last chance to take the red one and go back into the matrix.

    p.s. if you are a big enough nerd to know whether I guessed the pill colours right or not, then please don’t hesitate to point it out to my friend John. He cares about that sort of thing.

  20. Cate

    Nice answer – always answer only what you are being asked…never embellish. It might be just as well to ask him to clarify the question – he’ll probably have a specific example in his mind. Or he might just be asking what the word ‘real’ means.
    Anyway, he was happy with the answer, so your job is done 🙂

  21. Deer Baby

    He certainly knows how to keep you on your toes doesn’t he?

    I read English and European Literature at uni but with a side order of philosophy. I think we did one every fortnight.. Descartes, Plato, Aristotle, Sartre …I wish I could remember more of it. If no one hears a tree fall in a forest…..There were some jokes going round recently along the lines of if no one comments on a blog post, did you really blog?

    I’m having to read up about Platonic ideals of beauty at the moment. It’s bringing it all back.

    Can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next. He is obviously The Thinker.

  22. Dorothy

    Great answer! Can you help me with this one “Is the world too old to ever end?”

  23. Thea

    If he does ask again, you can incorporate more senses…if you can touch/see/smell/hear/taste it, it’s real. That should do…for awhile anyhow!

  24. therhythmmethod

    Good answer, mum. My Mr4 asked me today which fairies were real – it got pretty messy, I said the garden fairies are the fuzzy things that blow in the wind, and the tooth fairy was more like a little person. Then I got myself all tangled in whether or not tooth fairy was a Mr or a Miss. Then I had to go have a lie down.


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