As I’m getting set up for a living room work out, I ask my daughter, “Hey, you want to work out with Daddy?”
She looks up, and as she jams a cheeto into her mouth, says, “As soon as I’m done filling up my muscles.”
She’s three years old, almost four (though she’s already told us she’s tired of us talking about it). And she is infinitely curious, as kids that age tend to be. She asks questions about just about everything, but she’s especially interested in how things work. And if she’s dissatisfied with your answer, she’s not afraid to ask follow up questions.
But many of her questions have answers that are simply too complicated to actually explain to a three year old. So, the result is a sort of half knowledge of the world, comprised of the things adults have told, and my favorite parts, the things she has built herself on that foundation, or just made up out of nowhere.
After the workout, it rained, so we had the conversation about why it rains. I’m actually quite proud of my answer to this question. See, it’s easy to imagine how you would answer those questions when you just think about them, but when they pop those questions at the most unexpected times, you're really put on the spot. I told her that the clouds are made of water, and that when they get too heavy, some of the water falls out as rain. This has the added benefit of actually being almost true. Hence, my pride.
When it was bath time, and I asked her to stand up, she informed me that, maybe she could, maybe she couldn’t—the workers in her muscles were getting tired. Did you know that everybody has robot workers in their muscles, that make their muscles work? Nope, I sure didn’t.
Then, when we were putting on pajamas, one of her eyes was covered, and she proudly announced that she was a pirate. So she asked me why pirates have eye patches. I just decided to play it straight, and tell her about people who lose eyes, and also the notion of using eye patches to preserve night vision when you go in and out while on ship. I’m pretty sure she didn’t understand a bit of it, but she was satisfied.
While she was in bed, refusing to go to sleep (busy day, right?), she brought up the subject of death. She told me a story about playing with her neighbors that I did not understand at all and couldn't even begin to reproduce for you here, which ended with, “I would be so sad if she died. I would just cry like a baby! Then I would just die.” How do you even talk about ceasing to exist with a person still coming to grips with her own existence?
Speaking of existence… One day, she was out in the front yard, playing with her cars and trucks, while I sat on the porch and worked. Out of nowhere, she asked, “Daddy, how do people get made?” Now, how exactly am I supposed to answer that question? I just said, “Well, they grow in their mamas’ bellies.” She was entirely unsatisfied with that answer, and impatiently asked, “Yeah, but how do they get built?”
I realized she was looking for a physical, mechanical explanation of how human bodies are assembled, like her cars and trucks. I was at a loss. I pointed to a flower that was fortunately nearby, and asked, “How did that flower get built?” She just laughed like it was the funniest thing ever and ran off. My wife and I followed up on her question later, and now, we know the difference between things that grow, and things that get built.
It’s been very entertaining to watch her wrestle with the notion that the world existed and people did things before she was born. While we were looking at pictures of her mother and me, she asked, “But where was I?” I said, “Well, you weren’t born yet.” She followed with, “Where was I before I was in mama’s belly?”
Now there’s a stumper. If you’re religious, you can say, “You were in heaven,” or whatever matches your faith. As a secularist, I was really at a loss; “You just didn’t exist yet” was clearly not going to suffice. So I just told her she was up on a cloud, waiting for a Mama/Daddy who needed a baby. Weeks later, as we laid on the grass looking up at the clouds, she pointed up at one and said, “Whoa, I bet there are a bunch of babies on that one!”
Questions like these really drive home the amazing responsibility we have toward our children. It’s our job as parents, relatives, and teachers to populate their worlds with explanations that make sense, and when possible, with ones that are accurate. We have to decide what to tell them, and we have to decide if they are ready for the real answer, part of an answer, or if we just need to make something up and put it off till later.
My wife and I make a habit of teaching her as much as we can, and seeing what sticks. Fortunately, her preschool lives up to the name, and is run as a school, not as a daycare. At three years old she comes home telling us that the sun is a star, and listing the planets. She loves learning, and loves sharing what she learns. At least ten times a day, she starts sentences with, “Did you know that…”
When she tells me things, I’ll ask, “How do you know that!?” And she’ll reply, “Because I’m a smarty girl!” Hilarious and adorable as her at times incomplete understanding of the world may be, it’s vitally important that we encourage her love of knowledge, and provide that positive feedback when she learns things, and shares what she learns.
As she grows older, becomes more self-aware, and builds an ever more complicated understanding of her world, there are times when I am struck forcefully by the realization that this is a real person, no longer the seed, but the sapling. My relationship with her and my responsibilities as her parent change and grow as quickly as she does. I just hope I can keep up.