“Because that’s how God made you”

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.

Just because.

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.

  • http://www.veganatheistblog.wordpress.com veganatheist01

    …and why are we bipedal now? :D

  • Irreverend Bastard
  • http://markkoop.blogspot.ca/ Mark

    Well put! This echoes my past and present perfectly – the “Because God” of the past and the “Let’s figure this out” of the present.

  • machintelligence

    Still, some simple questions have incredibly difficult answers. Try “why is the sky blue”, for instance. You have to know the properties of the molecules which make up air, and the physics of light in order to make a reasonable answer. I shudder at the thought of explaining it to a preschooler. It might be possible to get a “sort of” understanding at best.

    • http://kagerato.net/ kagerato

      The other problem is that children (and some adults) have a tendency to continue asking questions until we reach a level where no one knows the answer.

      Sure, it’s the interaction between light and the composition of the air (primarily nitrogen and oxygen). Why is air made of that? Well, we have to go through pretty much the entire history of the Earth to answer that. Why does the Earth exist? We can talk about the formation of the solar system. Where did the solar system come from? Explanation of galaxies. Where does the universe come from? … Still working on that one.

      A similar issue occurs if you go down the other path with light. Where’s the light coming from? The sun. Why does the sun produce light? Nuclear fusion. Why does nuclear fusion work? … It’s just the laws of physics, okay?

      Your best hope with these sorts is sometimes to lure them into a level of complexity that it bores and/or confuses them enough to stop asking questions. Quantum mechanics usually works.

      Alternatively, you can start down the path of metaphysics and wholly abstract philosophy, and then we’re truly going down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.

      • Contrarian

        The other problem is that children (and some adults) have a tendency to continue asking questions until we reach a level where no one knows the answer.

        … I’m not seeing how that’s a problem, actually.

      • http://kagerato.net/ kagerato

        … I’m not seeing how that’s a problem, actually.

        It only becomes a problem when it occupies so much of your time that you can’t get anything practical done.

        Sometimes the legitimate best answer to a question is “we don’t know”. If someone replies to this with “well, we should”, the responsibility falls on the questioner to go investigate the matter. Or, at least, find someone who is paid to answer such questions.

    • Rosa

      Actually, that one is pretty easy to explain to a preschooler. You can show them a prism, then just tell them the atmosphere bends the light so we see blue. Then early and late in the day, the angle is different, we see different colors (and right at sunset, usually all the colors.)

      The properties of individual gas molecules and the mix and density at different atmospheric levels can wait til they get interested in space or weather.

      You WILL get the followup questions that go way farther than you can handle in conversation (or in my case, in conversation while riding my bike in traffic) but sometimes the answer is “I don’t know, can you think of why?” or, when time/tempers are short “Physics!” or “Chemistry!” or “Science!”

      Which is why my toddler had a period when he took gravity really, really personally. “Why does gravity keep making me fall down?!”

      • Judy L

        It is often very helpful to think these out ahead of time and prepare good, straightforward answers and demonstrations like the prism.

        I think it’s important to try to phrase questions with children so that they learn the difference between ‘how’ and ‘why’ (for a child, ‘why’ is pretty much a catch-all query word). When a child asks ‘Why is the sky blue’, the answer you give is HOW the sky is blue, because they’re not actually asking ‘Why is the sky blue’ as a metaphysical question.

        ‘Why does the earth exist?’ is not the same kind of question as ‘Why do frogs eat flies?’, and children need to know that not everything has a ‘reason’ or a ‘purpose’ or a ‘meaning’, except that we are capable of creating purpose and meaning for ourselves.

        @Rosa: Your toddler taking gravity personally made me giggle. I’ve always liked the joke, ‘It takes two to three years for children to learn that they can’t fall off the ground.’

      • Grendels Dad

        If you don’t have a prism (and really, who does?) you can use the reflection off of a CD. :D

    • Antigone10

      Well, this is the answer that I taught to preschoolers (I’m a science teacher, or that’s what they tell me):

      Question: Why is the sky blue?

      Me: Well, is it always blue?

      Class: NO!!

      Me: Shush, one-at-a-time or we can’t hear each other. Raise your hand if you can tell me a time when the sky isn’t blue.

      Class: At night! The morning! When it’s cloudy! When it’s dark out!

      Me: That’s right. So, blue isn’t how the sky IS, it is how we see it a lot of the time. Does everyone remember me talking about rainbows, and how raindrops act like prisms? And everyone remember the prism I brought in to show you how they make all the colors?

      Class: nods, yells “Yes” disinterested stares, freshman algebra looks.

      Me: Well, the atmosphere acts like a prism too. Do you remember that I said that the sun is white?

      Class: yes, we saw the picture!

      Me: Well, the sun provides the light, but the atmosphere is a prism so during most clear days, the light it bends out is blue. When it’s at a different angle, we get different colors.

      Move to experiment- jar of water with a little bit of milk mixed in, put a flashlight through it to show how it looks blue. Add more milk, turns slightly different colors.

      About 6 might remember it (this time). But hey, it’s an anchor point.

  • http://www.firsttheegg.com Molly

    One big bonus of the “I don’t really understand that either–should we look it up?” answer is that you get to learn about all sorts of cool stuff that you’ve either forgotten or never really knew because your own parents went with “because of God” or “just because”! I love learning with my five-year-old: his joyful and intense curiosity refreshes mine.

    And yes, as machintelligence says, it’s sometimes quite an intellectual exercise to do that ‘translating’ and start close enough to the beginning to make useful sense of complicated phenomena or uncertain theories–but surely that can be part of the fun? Actually, one of the most productive exercises I asked students to do in a science-writing-for-popular-audiences course was to have them use words and images to explain a scientific concept for an audience of five-year-olds. Anyway, I think many children handle complex ideas and uncertainty/ambiguity rather better than many adults expect, given the opportunity.

  • Martin

    Ugh! I hate “why” questions about the natural world, because they usually assume agency when none is involved.

    The good answerable questions are the “how?”, “what?”, “when?”, “where?”, and “who?” ones. The only valid “why?” questions concern the motives of an extant entity, or (in some cases) a group entity.

    E.g. “Why do we have two legs?” demands a motive answer (“luck of the draw” is not a satisfying answer, but correct and complete), whereas “How did we get two legs?” means that one can explore the development of quadrupeds and then hominid bipedality.

    • JeseC

      Not necessarily. It’s a perfectly valid question in science to ask “why did we get this result rather than another one”? In the case of why we have two legs, the answer is going to be “well we really don’t know, but there’s some theories that it helped us achieve better use of tools and the ability to carry things for long distances.” Just like the answer to “why is the grass green” is that chlorophyll is what lets plants take in the sun and make energy, and chlorophyll is green. Why just asks for a reason – that reason doesn’t have to involve a personal will, it can be about a function or process.

    • http://www.arizona-writer.com Kimberly Hosey (Arizona Writer)

      Eh, I never mind them, because it’s just the way kids ask things. “Why do we have two legs?” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re assuming some kind of overarching urgency or purpose. I hear it as more along the lines of “What’s the reason or course of events that made this thing like this?” It’s like shorthand for “How does this fact fit into the overall picture? How does it relate to other facts I know? What do I do with this information?” They just don’t have those words to ask it like that.

      I like it, as long as it’s not co-opted with kooky magical-purpose talk, because it’s open-ended. I’m a reporter. A professor once told us to investigate/interview like a toddler: Go at least three “Whys?” deep, and you’ll find information you didn’t even know you were looking for. i.e.: There’s an unplanned city council meeting. Why? To discuss budget changes. Why? Because the town’s out of money. Why? Because they blew it on corrupt business deals, and here’s the evidence.

      I think kids are natural-born information seekers (unless it’s trained out of them), and “Why?” just keeps the questioning lines open so they can keep asking more questions. It’s simultaneously annoying as hell and absolutely wonderful.

    • machintelligence

      There are at least two types of “why” questions: those which imply purpose and those which do not. For a fascinating discussion see the Daniel Dennett lecture (it’s a bit long, but worth it). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3L7uNyQL0H0

  • http://www.arizona-writer.com Kimberly Hosey (Arizona Writer)

    I LOVE you for this. Yes. The third answer rocks. It is really hard. But it’s so, so worth it. Pat answers are hardly ever the most correct, even when they are correct. This is hard for me — I love knowing things, and my son asks me questions (he’s still haranguing me with questions at 10, so I must be doing something right) to which I really do know the answers — how do we know bird are related to dinosaurs? why do I have to get a shot? what’s the background of every Star Wars character ever? — and I love providing the answers. But even then, just giving the answer is about a tenth as rewarding for us both as exploring the answer together.

    I guess maybe I had a head start coming from a family of educators. The answer to “What’s 2 plus 2?” isn’t “It’s four.” The answer, for a kid learning, is “Here. Let’s add them and see.”

    It’s SO HARD not being a know-it-all and giving the answers to all his questions, especially when I know them. But the reward is now he’s interested in some of the same things, and we explore them together. And now I have someone to geek out with about science and Star Wars!

  • ElyssaElizabeth

    But…how would you even look up “why do we have two legs?” I mean, I agree that’s the best answer, but I wouldn’t even know where to start with that. When you get questions like that from your daughter, how do you find the answers?

    • Nathaniel

      Google. So much simpler these days.

    • Rosa

      It kinds of depends on the kid – the “well how would a different number work?” answer is good for a lot of kids.

      It also depends on your own level of interest and education – “we evolved that way” works as a general answer, so do a bunch of more detailed answers like “all of the Great Apes have two feet in back and two hands in front. Even if they walk on their front hands they are different from their feet” or even “animals with spines are usually symmetrical along our spines”, which all lead to being able to say “what’s something different that might work too?” to further questions.

      Human evolution isn’t one of my real areas of interest, so all those things I learned at zoos or reading photo/fact books about animals with my now-6-year-old – if you go to your local library and look in the kids nonfiction section, it’s easier to find kid-level knowledge than on Google, and a librarian will usually help you.

  • Emma

    I once got into a conversation like this with my 3 year old cousin (I was 18 at the time). He asked me some question (I think about why some berries are poisonous), and every time I gave an answer , he wanted to know why that was true. I kept obliging him, and before I knew it I was trying to explain natural selection to a 3 year old. Don’t know how much it made sense to him. It was especially awkward for me because I kept having to skirt around the issue of death, which I really didn’t want to discuss with him.

  • Ursula L

    There is another answer that is nearly as much fun as “lets look it up!”

    It’s the “What do you think?” option. Very good for during long car rides, and other times when looking it up right away isn’t an option.

    What do you think? What would happen if we had one leg? What would it be like if we had three legs? What would it be like if we didn’t have arms, but used them as legs, like animals do? Do you remember seeing a baby crawling, and how it tried to stand on its two legs, to be able to reach things?

    The “what do you think?” option is also useful for buying yourself a few minutes to think, if you find a question odd or uncomfortable or awkward. Remember the joke of a parent who’s child asks “Where did I come from?” who goes into a long story of the birds-and-bees, only to have the punchline be “But Bobby is from Baltimore, and Betty is from Boston, where did I come from?”

    Even if your child is genuinely asking a birds-and-bees question, “what do you think?” can help you sort out what your child knows, what your child thinks they know but has wrong, and what level of answer they’re looking for now.

    • RQ

      This is a strategy I love to use when it’s a fairly ambiguous question with an ambiguous answer. Especially if there is some confusion about, for example, two answers being correct. Then I like to ask ‘What do you think?’ and let the imagination run wild.
      Sometimes the answers are truly ridiculous, and sometimes they’re surprisingly insightful, but all of them are interesting and from these answers, we can work down to something that is true and understandable. Like giving (or again asking) some reasons for why the ridiculous answers aren’t correct.
      And sometimes I like to turn the tables, when my eldest comes to me and states a fact of his own (something his cars just discussed or something he figured out), I ask him ‘why?’, and not just once. I like to see him thinking.

  • http://thaliasmusingsnovels.com/ Amethyst

    “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.”

    But ask “Why do I like girls the way all the other girls like boys?”… :/

    • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

      And don’t even try to ask “why do I feel uncomfortable in my own skin?”

  • Ursula L

    A couple of other points about the “What do you think?” option.

    It’s helpful in that it gives a child the chance to think for themselves, rather than looking to either the authority of a parent or the authority of a book or the internet. It respects the child’s observation of the world, the child’s imagination, as the tools a child has for understanding the world.

    It’s also helpful when you get into a string of “but why?” responses to your offered answers, and you find yourself getting into explanations which you know will be way over your child’s head. These questions can often be as much about boredom and wanting interaction with others, rather than strictly scientific and abstract curiosity about the answer. “What do you think?” can go all sorts of places, such as hopping around to see what it would be like to have one leg, or crawling to imagine four legs, or giggling over the thought of using your hands as feet and having to eat and drink like a puppy or kitten.

    And for times when looking up the answer, having to provide the answer, just seems hard for a parent, it’s a way to respect the child’s question while also respecting that parents have times when they’re just not in a place to stop and look up technical answers.

  • smrnda

    I remember a similar thing from a Richard Feynmann essay where he was critiquing a textbook for kids that basically said that things worked because “energy makes them go” – apparently this was used for why the earth went around the sun, why cars go, why birds fly, lots of very different things. His point was that the answer is correct, but that it doesn’t really explain anything but it creates the illusion of knowing the ‘real reason.’

  • cy

    Stony Brook University has a contest going on right now which challenges scientists to answer “What is flame?”

    The winner of the contest will be picked by a panel of 11-year-olds.

    It was the idea of actor Alan Alda, and the explanation is:

    “As a curious 11-year-old, Alan Alda asked his teacher, “What is a flame?” She replied: “It’s oxidation.” Alda went on to win fame as an actor and writer, became an advocate for clear communication of science, and helped found the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He never stopped being curious, and he never forgot how disappointing that non-answer answer was.”

    The link: http://www.flamechallenge.org/

    • http://kagerato.net/ kagerato

      Having the contest judged by 11-year-olds pretty much guarantees the most accurate answer will not win. Unless, of course, most 11-year-olds understand quantum mechanics these days.

      Do they even cover atomic models by 5th or 6th grade? I don’t remember it back then, and doubt standards have improved much considering the course of education in the US during the subsequent time period. You need to at least know what an electron is to get within even the vaguest of reaching distance of explaining fire as a chemical reaction. The actual explanation of quantum state, election excitation, and photon emission would be beyond many university students.

      • Ursula L

        Having the contest judged by 11-year-olds pretty much guarantees the most accurate answer will not win. Unless, of course, most 11-year-olds understand quantum mechanics these days.

        Do they even cover atomic models by 5th or 6th grade? I don’t remember it back then, and doubt standards have improved much considering the course of education in the US during the subsequent time period. You need to at least know what an electron is to get within even the vaguest of reaching distance of explaining fire as a chemical reaction. The actual explanation of quantum state, election excitation, and photon emission would be beyond many university students.

        I don’t think the point of the contest is to get the most complete, technical, detailed and scientifically advanced definition of a flame.

        Rather, it is to explain flames and fire, in a scientifically accurate way that is at a level that an eleven year old can understand, with bonus points for doing it in a way that captivates a child’s imagination and inspires them to spend more time learning about science and the world. Even more bonus points if it involves children experimenting with flame and fire (in a safe and age-appropriate way) so that rather than being told the answer, they are guided through the process of discovering the answer.

        An interesting thing about learning and teaching science is that it isn’t just about learning the latest and most advanced theories.

        Schoolchildren today still recreate Galileo’s experiments rolling balls down an incline to study gravity. And they still learn Newton’s laws explaining how gravity works.

        For professional scientists, the work of Galileo and Newton has been supplanted by newer theories, which involve concepts like relativity and which are more generally applicable – Galileo’s and Newton’s understanding of gravity was very much focused on how gravity works on Earth, and doesn’t translate completely to deep space, other planets, or to subatomic particles.

        But their work is still useful for teaching science to children. The simple experiments of Galileo are easy to recreate in a classroom. They’re dramatic and tactile, so that kids can remember them easily. They explain how the world that the child lives in works – children live on Earth, experiencing Earth gravity, and learning to test and measure the world around them is essential to understand how science works, so that they can later learn to appreciate science that is more advanced, where they may not have the resources to recreate experiments themselves.

        It would be impossibly confusing to start by teaching the most advanced and recent theories of science that rely on experiments that are necessarily completely outside the reach of schoolchildren. You’d necessarily be teaching them based on the authority of the book, rather than teaching them how to test and understand the world for themselves. It would be memorizing scientific facts, not learning to think scientifically.

        So you start by learning how gravity works on Earth on a scale that humans can interact with directly. And later you learn how that fits into broader understandings of gravity. There is no reason for learning about flames to be different. You start by teaching children about understanding flames in the way that children can experience and interact with flames, and gradually work your way into more subtle details.

        There are other venues where scientists compete and cooperate to figure out the most subtle and technical details of flame and fire. This contest is about getting kids started, so that, when they’re grown, they’ll be ready to join the ongoing discussion.

        “Let’s look it up” is still an authoritarian focus – you look for the correct answer to be provided by a qualified authority. Done properly, that is definitely a good thing to know how to do. In fact, it is essential to learn the right way to trust authorities – to know who is an authority about what, to trust them in their area of expertise, and also to know the limits of any authority’s expertise so that you don’t allow respect for hard-earned expertise to be confused with blind trust in someone who is labeled an authority.

        But there is also a need for learning to find answers without an authority – “let’s think about it,” “lets experiment,” and “let’s figure it out for ourselves.”

  • Cat

    I was a curious child, and while my parents raised me in a Christian home (and reinforced everything with “God’s plan” or “God’s creation”) my mom is a teacher, so I had lots of books. When I started asking Why? questions my parents couldn’t easily answer – particularly science-related questions – they got me a book series called the “Just Ask!” books. They cover all manner of questions from “Why is the Sky Blue?” and “What is a Volcano?” to “What is a Wave?” and “Why does it Float?”

    Your daughter might enjoy them, and it would be a great way to turn hard questions into learning opportunities and bonding time. I started reading them when I was about three. I don’t know that they print new copies anymore, but you might be able to find them at the library. Here is a link about the book series:

    • victoria

      Another really good series — and one that is, I believe, still getting new entries today — are the Let’s Read and Find Out science books. They come in two levels: one for preschoolers and one for kindergarteners/early grade schoolers.

      We keep a “question list” on our fridge. Whenever the kiddo asks a question that we either don’t know the answer to or that we’d like her to research on her own because it’s interesting, it goes on the question list, and periodically we take the list to the library or look online to answer an interesting question. Some of the questions may never get answered (“How did the first person get into the world?”), but that’s OK.

  • Liz

    I love this! I teach math at a private christian school, and I make a big effort not to appeal to diety when the kids ask ‘why’. It has gotten me a few comments from other teachers that I need to do more ‘biblical integration’, but I don’t let that bother me. If you believe in a god, you should believe he made us logical, inquisitive creatures as well. And it makes life so much more fun and interesting!