The other day my daughter asked me a question:
Mommy, why do I have two legs?
As I looked into her curious face three answers ran through my mind:
Because that’s how God made you.
I don’t know! Let’s go look it up.
The first answer is the answer my mother would have given. Actually, it’s an answer I heard a lot growing up. In fact, that was the answer to pretty much everything (which probably explains why it ran through my head!). Why does the earth go around the sun? Because that’s how God made it. Why are trees leaves green? Because that’s how God made them.
As my daughter’s question spurred me to think about the different replies that went through my head, I realized just how much truth there is to the claim that creationism stops questions rather than answering them. “Because that’s how God made it” ends the questions and ends the line of exploration. It’s a dead end rather than a starting point. And while it may be an easy answer to give a preschooler, it’s not all that satisfying.
But you don’t have to be religious to offer answers that shut questions down rather than opening them up. Just answering my daughter’s question with “because that’s the way God made you” ran through my head, so too did answering it with “just because.” It’s really tempting, sometimes. Toddlers and preschoolers ask so many questions that at some point it becomes easier to stop them by saying “just because,” especially when you don’t actually have the answers to their questions.
The third answer that ran through my head was the right one to give, but it’s also the hardest. It involves admitting that you don’t know the answer (but, but, but – as parent you’re supposed to know everything!) and then going through the efforts to find an answer, which may be complicated, and explain it in terms the child can understand.
But the third answer is also the most rewarding. Watching your child exhibit curiosity and figure out how things work is always thrilling. That curiosity, after all, is something I want to foster – not something I want to turn off with pat answers. And if that means looking up how humans evolved to be bipedal and then finding a way to explain that to a preschooler, well, that’s what I need to do.
There’s another perk to this third answer as well. Acknowledging that you don’t know the answer and offering to look it up helps your child understand first that people don’t know everything and that there is nothing wrong with admitting you don’t know something, and second that the solution to not knowing something is not to make up an answer or just shrug, but rather to go the extra mile, do the research, and find the answer.
I love being a parent, and one thing I love about it is that it is hard. Honestly answering a child’s questions rather than offering pat replies (“just because”) is the harder course just like positive parenting is harder than either authoritarian parenting or permissive parenting. But in this case, “hard” does not simply mean more difficult, it also means more rewarding.