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My son, who is currently 9 years of age, tells me that life is absolutely meaningless and that "we're all here to waste time".

When he first told me this, I felt both angry and depressed.

And no, this is not because I am religious. I am an atheist, but I think his outlook on life is detrimental.

From an even younger age, teachers and I myself have observed that he is very intelligent, mature and highly interested in mathematics and physics since an early age.

One thing that I think is leading him to believe that life is meaningless is because he's very anti-social and often teachers tell me that he never talks in class and remains aloof (in his own world).

Some of his behavioral attributes include:

  • Was a late talker - didn't talk til he was 6.
  • He spends most of his time alone outside in a forest and the only time I speak with him is when he comes for dinner, breakfast and lunch.
  • When he's home, he rarely talks to me other than on eating occasions.
  • I have been since consequently told that he is "different in a strange way" by many people.

Somebody suggested that I give him the internet so he could search around, make friends and other things. He only used it three times and told me that "It's a great place to attain knowledge but other than that, it's horrible."

After this, I consulted a teacher from his school and she told me that I should sit down and talk with him.

And this is when he told me that life is meaningless. He said,

"Look. I know what you are trying to do. I know that you're worried about me. I know that you've been talking to a lot of people about my behaviour. But why do you want me to live my life the way others want? Life, by it's nature, is absolutely meaningless. Imagine yourself to suddenly wake up in a room, knowing of nothing, except the fact that you'll die within the next two hours. Would you attach importance to anything you would do during this period? Ofcourse not! All I know is that I am alive, a son of yours, on a beautiful diverse planet somewhere in the cosmos, and all I am interested is in knowing why did we acquire existence. This may be impossible, but I'd rather pursue the great impossible than spend my life living accordingly to the sentiments of people!"

He has no friends and nobody that even knows him properly. I feel that he'll go on to acquire mental illnesses as he ages, I don't know why but I don't feel good. Is there anyway to convince my son not to adopt this nihilistic outlook on life?

Edit #1:

After reading all of the answers, I decided to convince him to visit a psychologist to be introduced to a society bearing children with "interests similar to his" but he wholeheartedly rejected this and is instead urging for a visit to MIT and spend a hour with some people named "string theorists". He is saying that he has "formulated five logical alterations of general relativity" but there is a very critical mathematical inconsistency in the fourth. He told me that, "String theory is a lovely marriage of the quantum and macro worlds and is arguably the among finest mathematical achievements we have seen in years, but it's a little bland and most likely a fluff. Since string theorists are great mathematicians, I think they'll help me sort the issue out. But they're likely to be intimidated and even humiliated, psychologically, by my age and won't take me seriously. But it doesn't hurt to try. If that doesn't work, maybe you can assist me in publishing an article in a science journal. And no, as a son, my love for you is inherent but I don't want to meet some snobby know-it-all children. I am not interested."

I told him that I'll take him to MIT next month, but I don't think I can really do that. How will I get the scientists in there to talk to my son? Will they allow it? How can I tell them about this? And above all, what if I can't and how will I tell my son this? He was so happy when I told im I'll take him to MIT. Furthermore, I would like to add that he found out all about physics and mathematics by reading from my husband's vast collection of books. My husband was a mathematician with interest in physics and philosophy as a hobby, and he suffered from schizophrenia in his later life and passed away when my son was five.

  • 60
    I'm not a terribly skeptical person, but I highly doubt a 9 year old would make that speech. If he actually did, take him to a university library, point to the philosophy section, and turn him loose. Let him study the great philosophers who came before him; let him work out the reasons for his own existence, and try to keep up with him, because he's a 9 yo genius. Also, it sounds like you can use some help working on your own feelings about this ("I don't know why but I don't feel good.") You need to understand the reasons for your own feelings before you convince him him how he should feel. – anongoodnurse Jun 28 '15 at 23:21
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    @paul "Life is meaningless" can be interpreted as suicidal thoughts. When seen in the context provided it more seems like a philosophical statement, which is what I was trying to convey. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jun 29 '15 at 7:50
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    Logically of course he is correct. Without a higher purpose life is meaningless. I would have said the same at his age. – superluminary Jun 29 '15 at 9:51
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    Not speaking until 9, incredibly intelligent but not social. Goes straight to the point of reality with out being bogged down by rhetoric. and no one mentioned autism? – stephenbayer Jun 29 '15 at 18:51
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    I am a mathematician. At the age of 11 I believed that I had solved the Poincare Conjecture. In fact, I did not even know the full statement of the theorem. It is very unlikely that your son has made any kind of genuine contribution to the problem of quantum gravity, and I am not sure that taking him to meet someone at MIT will be very productive. I do think that you should get him to a math circle! These are gatherings of talented youths interested in mathematics, often lead by professional mathematicians. This will be a healthy and humbling activity for him. – Steven Gubkin Jun 30 '15 at 2:27

12 Answers 12

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Take him to a psychologist. Not because he has a disorder, but because he is highly intelligent and both you and he need to learn how to deal with this gift.

Your son needs peers who share his intelligence. I don't know where you live, but any psychologist worth the name knows of local organizations that help highly intelligent children socialize with other highly intelligent children and find for them the special teaching that they need. Where I live, there is a special school for highly intelligent children. If such a school does not exist, your son could skip some classes.

Everyone – no matter if they are alcoholics or gay or highly intelligent – is relieved once he finds others who are like him. That is the single most important experience for anyone who is "different". The fact that you can talk to someone who knows how you feel is healing in and of itself. And making friends and having people that are interested in the same things will make him happy.

Do not send him to the internet unsupervised. He might be highly intelligent, but he still lacks the experience and maturity to deal with some of the more dangerous aspects of the net. There are places where nihilistic people gather and encourage each other in their negativity. Some of this turns to crime, some to suicide or drugs. Despite his intelligence, your son probably needs some kind of social life, and the lack of adequate peers makes him vulnerable, and his negative attitude makes him even more vulnerable.

Even if life is ultimately meaningless (which I think it is), you can still have fun with it. My argument to your son's argument is:

If you have two hours to live, why would you actively want to be miserable during those two hours? Purely from a logic point of view that seems like a stupid decision. You'll be dead long enough and there is no need to act dead before you die. Your body feels good if you provide it with tasty food. So quite obviously the fact that your body will eventually die, does not prevent it from experiencing pleasure. The same is true for the mind. All you need to do is find pleasant experiences for your mind. It is meaningless that life is meaningless. Life is what you make of it. You can choose to eat sand and feel awful. Or you can choose to eat (whatever tastes great to you) and feel well. I understand that with everyone being different from you and doing things that bore you, you might not know what kind of "mental food" you would enjoy. So maybe we can try to find kids who are like you and maybe you'll enjoy their company. It will cost you nothing to try, and you can go back to being miserable if you find that that's what you prefer. (Well, obviously you shouldn't say that verbatim ;-)

Give him autobiographies of other gifted people. Or do an internet research and find adults alive today who had been gifted children. Some have had difficult lives, others have found happiness. Show your son the adults and how they are not unhappy but have found something to do with their talent. Maybe some example of what your son might make of his gift will give him a perspective.

But most of all you all seem to be completely overwhelmed by the situation and need to get some professional support to help you out of it. It is common that highly intelligent children are depressed, but they quickly become happy once they find the appropriate peers and a schooling that addresses their talents.

A psychologist will test your son and find out what his special talents and what his weaknesses are. With this understanding he will help you tackle the problem.

Good luck!

Please read the section "Social and emotional issues" in this Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellectual_giftedness


Reply to your edit:

Visit the webpage of the MIT Department of Physics. Scroll down to the section "String Theory". Follow the links to the webpages of the people listed there. Contact one of them (maybe a native speaker would be best) by email and explain your situation. Don't write a novel, but do include some of the same detail as you did in your question here, explain your son's development, his behavior, your concern and include the quotes from your son. If you don't hear back from that person within a handful of days, they are on holiday or abroad (or not the right person for you), so contact another person. (Don't write to all of them at once.)

I work at a university, and many of my friends are academics in different fields, among them physicists. I can vouch that most of these people are highly social and very friendly and will certainly make time for an hour to meet with your son.

The people at MIT are people. They, too, have families and friends. I would be extremely surprised if no-one there would want to meet your son, especially since he might have real talent in their field.

But do not expect an immediate solution. That talk will help you to get feedback on the level of his abilities (make sure you have a few minutes with that person without your son, to get an honest assessment) and for your son to learn what I described above: that life can be fun through his talents.

But since the laws of your country probably don't allow your son to skip school and enroll at MIT right away – or, as Steven Gubkin pointed out in his comment above, your son might overestimate his own abilities –, you still need a strategy. If your son is not willing to see a psychologist (which I can understand), find one yourself or find whatever organization there is to help giften children in your area (or nationwide) and contact them and go there alone. Your son is not the first of his kind, and these people will have some practical ideas for the next steps you and your son can take. (If you chose to see a psychologist, don't visit some random psychologist. Call them and ask who they would recommend in your situation. Or contact your local university's psychology department.)

There are programs for giften children to visit university while still going to school, or there are special schools or after school activities, and these organizations will know the steps for you to take to get your son to where he will flourish. For you and your son to understand which of the many possible options are best, a psychological assessment will be necessary. You can explain to your son that this does not mean that anyone will want to push him from the path he envisions for himself, but to help him find the best approach to get on that path. Many professionals make use of tests to understand themselves better and better be able to manage themselves.

But he is still nine, emotionally, so you need to be the mother and nudge him a bit, if he is afraid or disinterested.

Note: Schizophrenia is related to high intelligence. For example, the twin of a highly intelligent person has schizophrenia more often than that of persons of average intelligence, and vice versa. The fate of your husband, who probably was highly intelligent as well, makes it important that you also consider the medical and psychiatric implications of high intelligence.

I'd be very happy if you would come back and let us know how this all goes.

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    I more or less agree with this answer, but I'd replace psychologist with philosopher. Philosophers are trained this specific subject matter. On day one of PHIL101, my professor said the terrible reality is that this subject matter kills a very small percentage of Freshmen. He pointed out that it doesn't happen to Seniors so often... So his advice was something like: "Keep reading. Don't assimilate a tiny fraction of what has been written on the subject of the meaning of life and jump to conclusions. Thousands have walked your path, most do not harm themselves. Keep reading." – daveloyall Jun 29 '15 at 21:25
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    Taking an intelligent child to a psychologist simply because he's intelligent and you need to learn to cope makes as much sense as taking a child to the hospital because he can jump really high and you need to learn to cope. – corsiKa Jun 29 '15 at 21:26
  • You can find a philosopher at your nearest private liberal arts school. Call the department head and request a brief, in-person meeting regarding a nine-year-old who is asking questions you are not prepared to answer. Bring the kid. Explain that someone on the internet recommended you request the meeting. – daveloyall Jun 29 '15 at 21:28
  • @corsiKa Read the section "identifying gifted children" in this Wikipedia article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gifted_education The problem is that we don't know what ails this child and what he needs. He could have Asperger's. Or been the victim of an event that he cannot talk about to his parents (as is often the case in traumatized children). And even if he is gifted, as I assume, it is necessary to know where his talents lie and where he maybe needs help (e.g. social skills training). – user4758 Jun 30 '15 at 4:20
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    @corsiKa Also, psychologists aren't only for the psychologically "sick". I the same way that it makes sense for healthy people to pay attention to nutrition as well as for diabetics. A psychologist can help give a unique and new perspective to someone, which can be useful for anybody at any point in life. (You might want to do some research though beforehand, as not all psychologists are automatically good in this category.) – Rafael Emshoff Jun 30 '15 at 10:46
8

Show him Star Trek, the original series (Kirk, Spock, McCoy & c.). From episode 1 on.

Seriously, if there's a simple way to communicate optimism, inclusion, love for science and empathy for other beings, it is this sci-fi show. Brilliant as he is, he will surely appreciate the ongoing debate between rationality (Spock) and passion (McCoy), and the capability to take strong positions in the most adverse times (Kirk).

Life may start meaningless, but it can be a beautiful adventure nonetheless. And if you just share a little bit of your adventure, you have already found a meaning.

I'm not saying this as a parent, but rather as a guys that was pretty like him at his age.

  • Ha ha, my answer below was to try gaming. Thank you for the Star Trek reference, its nice to know I'm not alone. – user7678 Jun 29 '15 at 14:06
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Life is, indeed, meaningless. There's nothing wrong with your kid.

I was just like him - I had zero friends and didn't like talking to anyone. Then I gradually began to become more social, and now, in my mid-thirties, I have friends begging to hang out with me every single day of the week. Life is wonderful - but yeah, still meaningless overall.

Don't worry about him not having friends. He'll be really depressed sometimes, but we all get that way.

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Congratulations - your son has discovered nihilism at the age of nine.

My question is - how would you react if an adult you knew and cared about made such a speech?

Personally I'd find it an interesting conversation to have, to which I would probably disagree with their position thoroughly. My answer to the nihilist question is 'Life is to be enjoyed, and personally I like to make the world a better place, to leave that as a legacy. Even if life is meaningless, we can still enjoy it'.

It sounds like there are two issues here:

  1. How do you deal with your son having these ideas? I suggest getting educated in philosophy so you can discuss them in a constructive manner.

  2. How do you foster your son's philosophical interests, so he can develop more sophisticated ideas?

The answer to both of these questions, is to read and learn about philosophical ideas.

A starting point I would always recommend, is reading Sophie's World, which is a fictional story that explores various philosophical ideas. It's a very interesting read.

I imagine there are also some very interesting talks on YouTube or Podcasts you could listen to.

A third issue is your son's apparent introversion. I would suggest taking him to a child psychologist is probably a good idea.

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    Introversion by itself is not grounds for seeing a psychologist. – Erik Jun 29 '15 at 7:04
  • @Erik from personal experience, therapy helps. – Gusdor Jun 29 '15 at 11:27
  • @Gusdor For some it does, for some it doesn't and for a few it makes it worse. You never know for sure until you try, but it's not necessarily the best option. – Mast Jun 29 '15 at 11:45
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    @Erik Taking him to a psychologist does not necessary mean to consider him sick or anything like it. It's to help the son and the parents to deal with the situation and to see if the kid is highly intelligent, which it probably is. I'm speaking from my own experience, I went to a psychologist at the age of 6 because I also was 'different' and had little friends, and got bored in school very easily. – Marin Althuis Jun 29 '15 at 12:58
  • In that case I would think the answer needs to add that, because as it stands it merely says "your son's apparent introversion is an issue", which suggests that it's a trait to get rid of. – Erik Jun 29 '15 at 12:59
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Oh my GOD! Your son is terrific. He is 1 in a million. Don't push him for anything(at least for now). First delve into his mind and "study" all the things he thinks. If you want to have conversation with him, you are gonna have get into his mindset. First of all, believe what he said is true then question him seriously about the statements and their implications.

He is gonna be a scientist in MIT or Stanford. Provide him with books and resources he needs or demands or finds interesting.

I can understand this because I too share your son's thoughts and I have only 3 friends and rarely talk to them. I also spend time talking to myself alone about the world and existence. Nobody understands me either. I consider the world meaningless somewhat. But I am mature and can understand what you are trying to say.

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    So... you are going to be a scientist in MIT or Stanford then? Interesting. Seems like this got up voted for some appeal to emotions. – n00b Jun 29 '15 at 19:21
  • @n00b : Nope you got it wrong. I am not a kid and not a scientist in MIT or Stanford. I share his son's thoughts. I am not "that" genius like scientist. Still I am enough to understand what his son is saying. Don't categorize intelligence as discrete levels. You may be intelligent but may not understand his son. I do understand his son because I harbor the same thoughts. It is not regard to my intelligence only. A lot of people intelligent don't harbor these thoughts.(I have seen) – pulp_fiction Jun 30 '15 at 1:48
  • @n00b : And "appeal to emotions" : That's right. That was an appeal though unintentionally. I just said what I felt because I got to see resonating, rare behavior which matched mine. I thought, finally I am not the only one. I am quite familiar with the situation and his mother's concern/thoughts. What I don't understand is the Star Trek answer got upvoted although not all people may like Gaming or Star Trek. Its unlikely the son is unaware of gaming for being a 9yrs old. This answer got upvoted due to people's love towards Star Trek and not their regard to OP's question – pulp_fiction Jun 30 '15 at 1:50
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You have an astonishingly bright child for 9 years old. In fact, he appears to be so bright, that my response is not one that I would tell a "normal" 9 year old, but rather one that I would tell to an intelligent adult who can make up their own mind.

I went through a similar phase myself, except I only came across it in my late 20s, rather than at 9. I found it as a side tangent in my search for truth, and it sounds like your son has come to it in a similar way. I had sought truth, but found that the thing I was truly looking for was closer to "meaning." It sounds like your son has sought something, himself, and also found that what he was searching for is closer to "meaning."

The resolution I came to was one of the imperfection of my own knowledge. I do not know that life is meaningless. I do not know that life is meaningful. This created a great deal of strife in my life, trying to reconcile the two.

In the end, I changed the question I was after from "Is life meaningful?" to "What is the meaning of life?" with a recognition that the answer may very well be "it has no meaning." That took the question away from a binary yes-or-no situation into a deeper and more profound search. In doing so, I found the most effective phrasing in my life to be "Striving for meaning in life can never have less meaning than failing to strive for meaning." And, despite his apparent age, it sounds like your son may have come to the same conclusion. However, there are many ways to strive, and you and your son may be able to work together to find the best ways.

At this point, I found an important transition. By changing the phrasing as I did, I found that the issue had shifted from a question of truth to one of actions. I point out strongly that I elected to make that shift, switching from wondering about meaning to striving after meaning. It is not a 100% logical jump, so if your son questions this path, it is in his right to do so. However, I do gather from reading between the lines of the paragraph that he may have already made this jump. If so, knowledge of the path I chose may continue to be useful.

From this point, the great question is how does one strive for meaning? After all there, are a hojilion ways to go about it. However, it occurred to me,

Others may have discovered something I did not, and it may be monumentally hard to teach meaning with words. I may lack the information at the present moment to discover it on my own; it may be something that I must experience with others. Or it may not, who knows? If I live my life the way others want me to live it, I may fail to discover the meaning on my own. If I isolate myself in the search for meaning, I may fail to discover the meaning due to lack of opportunities to experience it.

But wait, those two extremes do not have to be exclusive. In life, there are slivers of opportunity where the life others seek for me coincides with the internal search I need for my self. In such cases, I do not have to choose between them. I can choose both.

Since then, I have found that not every situation affords a perfect balance between experiencing the world around me, and studying meaning internally. However, I have found that such situations arise more often as you strive for them harder. It becomes a balance, but its a balance I choose. And, more importantly, I update the balance all the time. The balance was much more introverted when I started down this line, concentrating almost entirely on making sense of what potential meaning I have found so far. As of late, I have "discovered" that others actually had far more clues as to the meaning than I had given them credit for, and the world actually contained a remarkable amount of them! By balancing the two positions, I got the opportunity to change that balance as I learned and matured.

I cannot claim this is a "path to meaning." All of this starts from a question which accepts the possibility that life is indeed meaningless. However, I have found, in my life, it has served as a reasonably logical structure within which to build my own search for meaning. Your son may be able to take this structure, and adapt it to his own search... for I am absolutely positive that no two searches are alike, and he should always make his own search his own. He should just know that sometimes others are engaging in similar searches, and the search for meaning is a whole lot easier if we can share the load between each other. Who knows. Maybe we'll even find it!

You should be incredibly proud of your young son. When I read his position, it does not have the immaturity which is stereotypically associated with a child. His stance is one I associate with a fully grown adult who has simply discovered a very troubling question which is not easy to resolve. If I may try to predict the future (recognizing that such predictions are never fully right), if your son can balance the positions he is grappling with today, at the young age of 9, he has an astonishingly full and beautiful life ahead of him!

As a closing, I would like to give a bit of advice. Your son may have already arrived at this conclusion on his own, in which case it may be nothing more than affirmation for him. If he has not, this advice may lessen his burden. Your son does not need to discover the meaning of everything, the reason for all of our existence. That is too much for nearly anybody's shoulders. Searching for the meaning of himself and the reason for his existence is sufficient. The only reason for one to seek understand the meaning of everything, in whole or in part, is because many philosophers have brought their minds to bear on the topic. It is likely, though not proven, that the clearest path to a meaning for onesself is at the very least tangential to the proposed meaning for everything philosophers have communally wrought.

Good luck to you both. I look forward to what his voice can bring to the world in the coming decades.

1

Life is only meaningless if you require that it should be meaningful for something that trancends human life and humanity, like a god. Re-define meaning as the chosen and self-determined meaning of your own life and it's suddenly meaningful.

Your son's example with the 2-hour room is a bad one, since life isn't two hour, and we have a past, and it's not just "a room". In reality, you do attach meaning to things, if you prefer anything in life instead of anything else, you do attach meaning to it. Like all nihilist philosophers, your son his letting is depressed mental state influence his analysis. I agree with the other posters, in that you should find people on your sons mental level, being special in his way isn't fun, it's no wonder he has that outlook on life, even if he's wrong.

Had your son been older and more mature, I would have recommended Nietzsche, a philosopher who made the godless universe his own challenge. Nietzsche was wrong about many things, but he turned out to be an optimist.

Life, for you and me, and for humanity as a whole, is probably finite, that means that any possible meaning is finite.

Depending on your personal nature, you will find different things meaningful, for me, being creative and helping others in their lives feels meaningful - I could die happily if I knew I had made some difference to humanity.

1

I agree with pulp_fiction's answer - this kid is just a very introverted individual. Don't panic.

Try to offer him lots of opportunities to socialize, but do it on his terms. He like science and math? What about clubs or camps. Take him to a meetup at the Smithsonian.

Another question is does he like to game? He kind of sounds like a gamer. Try taking him to a comic book shop or playing some board games with him. Intelligent individuals love strategy, its a great mind exercise. This could be a great way for you two to connect without worrying about what to talk about.

I highly suggest Star Realms and Lords of Waterdeep, they are really hot right now and a lot of fun to play.

1

It looks like he came to a reasonable conclusion provided all the information available to him. I am a little alarmed by your statements

  • He spends most of his time alone outside in a forest and the only time I speak with him is when he comes for dinner, breakfast and lunch.
  • When he's home, he rarely talks to me other than on eating
    occasions.

It seems like your relationship could use some work. I love spending time with my children, and wish that everyone can experience the joy that comes from spending quality time with their families. I think you are missing out on a huge opportunity to have a positive effect on his life. I agree with you that his outlook is quite detrimental, and it is primarily your responsibility to correct this outlook. It seems that he has had a lot of independent learning time, which is not a bad thing at all, but if you want him to learn things that you know or believe, You need to spend more time with him. He needs to see you applying those principles that you believe, and then he will learn them from you. I would make sure that the time you spend with him is quality as well. You should focus on having experiences with him that highlight and underline the meaning of life.

1

Your son is logically correct. In the absence of a higher purpose or deity, life is indeed meaningless, The only meaning being the meaning that we choose to give it.

If the meaning you live by is just something you've picked out of the air, something you've made up in your head, then that meaning has no reality at all. I would imagine that your son has noticed this.

This is a view I would have shared with your son at his age. It falls naturally out of atheism. For me it lead to a host of problems. If life is meaningless, then why do anything at all, or why not do anything that you feel like.

For me, developing a faith was a life raft. My advice would be to get him to a church, just once or twice and see how it goes. I recognise this will be an unpopular piece of advice with many here, and that this is a subjective response based on limited evidence.

0

Like your son, I was very interested in deep philosophical questions from a young age --my own children are the same way. That's just how some people are wired.

As he gets older, he'll probably become interested in the vast treasury of literature that composes the philosophical tradition. However, no less an authority than Plato warns against children studying philosophy too early. He states that it can lead them towards moral relativism and nihilism -- to which your son seems to already have a predisposition.

Would you be open to your son exploring membership in a religious community? The core of religion is finding meaning in a world that can often seem meaningless. I know that many of the most visible religious movements are associated with intolerance and anti-intellectualism, but there are quite a lot of religious persons and groups with more progressive ideals --consider the current Pope, for example. And there is a rich tradition of religious intellectualism and philosophical inquiry as well.

-1

Color me skeptical as well. The son didn't talk until six — presumably that was an ordeal, but this post reads like the mother is considering all of this for the first time.

Putting aside my doubt. Sure, life is ultimately meaningless. You still have to engage with the world. There's still joy to be found. Which your son already appears to understand.

That said, your son is only nine. Don't let him call the shots.

He doesn't get to decide now who he's going to be for the rest of his life.

It's your responsibility to give him the opportunity to grow and change.

If you're concerned, get him out there trying new things.

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