When I was five years old, I asked my mother, “Where did the first carrot come from?” My mother, not really understanding the question, replied “Carrots come from seeds that we plant.”
“But where did the first seed come from?” I asked again. My mother, starting to sense the profoundness of the question, tried to explain that a long time ago, the world had no people and God made all the plants and animals. Unsatisfied, I pressed on – “But where did those carrots come from? Where did the first seed or carrot come from?” My mother, unable to come up with any other explanation, simply said, “God made the first seed,” and promptly changed the subject.
This was very unsatisfactory to me even as a five year old, but I got the sense my mother just didn’t know the answer, so I put the question in the back of my mind.
A few nights ago, I was babysitting and toweling off a four year old and her two year old sister after their baths. She was asking me about the bath water and where it came from. I have explained to her about pipes and plumbing in the past, so I was surprised she was asking again. As I started to remind her, she interrupted me and said “No, where did the first water come from?”
I was caught off guard. I asked her to clarify.
“How did the water get made? How did it come to the dinosaurs’ bathtubs?” I laughed and told her that dinosaurs didn’t have bathtubs, and that a long, long time ago there were no bathtubs or streets or cities in the world and dinosaurs got their water from oceans, rivers and lakes. But she pressed on. “But who made the world?”
I realized that if she was anything like my five year old self, the answer “God made it” would not be satisfactory (and I try to let parents do the religious explanations if they're at all religiously inclined; it's not really my place).
I said, “That’s complicated to explain. Let me think about it for a minute.” (Meanwhile, I’m in the middle of putting a diaper on a wriggly two year old, looking around for her pajamas and trying to respond to her deepest query of the night – “where is my dolly?” all while trying to figure out how I’m going to explain evolution to a four year old!) This is the explanation I came up with:
“A long, long time ago, there was no world. There was only tiny pieces of rocks, dust and diamonds floating in outer space. One day, they all stuck together and made the world. Then, slowly, oceans and trees started to appear. (“Like magic?” she interrupted.) Kind of like magic, but different. It’s a magic called science. They started to grow very slowly, First the world only had fish and bugs. Then one day, a fish came out of the ocean to see if he could live on the sand. And he started to change a little bit – he started to grow legs. And more fish came out and little by little they changed into different things like turtles and lizards. (“And hippos?” she asked.) Yes, hippos too. Then one day, some of the lizards decided to walk into the forest and see if they could live there. And they started to change a little bit. Some of them started to grow wings and become birds, others started to grow fur and become rabbits, squirrels, lions and monkeys.
Then one day, some of the monkeys decided to come out of the trees and see if they could live on the ground. They started to stand up straighter and walk, and their fur went away. And they turned into people. And the people started to walk all over the world, and make houses and cities and bathtubs.”
She listened intently to every word, and there were no more questions. I hope my explanation made some sense to her; it's hard to explain eons of time to a toddler who can't even grasp the meaning of an hour yet.
I’ve essentially given the same explanation to six year olds, but I’m able to add in the concept of heredity since they have a better grasp of time (i.e. One day a monkey had a baby that looked a tiny bit different, and then when that baby monkey grew up it had a another baby that looked a little bit more different, and in thousands and thousands of years, they had changed to people.) A four year old can barely grasp the meaning of a year or numbers above twenty, so my approach had to be different.
Sometimes I wonder if religion was invented for the purpose of answering our children’s questions. In the absence of scientific knowledge, our ancestors had to come up with something to quiet young minds.
(I don’t think evolution necessarily interferes with anyone’s religion either, as the same child later exemplified in a conversation about dead people: “So when we’re dead we can play with Terry Fox and baby Jesus?”)
I’m interested to know how other people have explained the universe to their young children. I wonder if anyone’s written a book on evolution for toddlers?
[edit: I just googled it and wow, yes they have! I'll have to check some of them out.]