Explaining Evolution to Children

One morning earlier this year my daughter asked me what evolution was. I assume she heard my husband and I discussing the topic and became curious. I paused at the question and thought about how to explain it in terms she could understand. I don’t even understand evolution completely because it’s a new explanation of life to me even though I’m almost 30 years old. I quickly thought about how I could break down something that seems so complex to me in a way that she understands it. Basically, evolution can be defined as development of something – a series of changes and improvements. OH! Her birthday is coming up…I’ll use that!

I explained that about 7 years earlier she started out as a little egg. Over weeks and months she was going through different stages until she was ready to be born and survive without the help of my body. Then she could begin to change even more. I explained at a year old she had evolved into a one year old. She was capable of walking and communicating better than she had as an infant. I kept building on it and explaining the things that had changed and how she had continued to become more and more independent. She understood very well and we kind of agreed that every year we were celebrating a year of evolution when we celebrate her birthday. She was ecstatic about the explanation and was satisfied with the examples I had given her.

Just last week she was reading one of the best books a kid can read, in my opinion – The Magic School Bus. In this particular book they were talking about microbes in the air and how they change. I about fell out of the chair when she piped up and said “Germs evolve Mom! How awesome is that?” Please understand my excitement, when I was seven I didn’t even know the word evolution much less have the ability to pick up on it when I was reading for fun. I had never embraced the possibility that I was a walking example of science. I once argued with a wonderful science teacher about the big bang theory and got thrown out of his class; the only time I had ever had such an experience in school.

I’ll admit, I am very proud to know that my kids have had the opportunity to arrive at their own conclusion. I feel it is the duty of us, as parents, to answer questions honestly and present evidence of the facts in terms children can understand. I wasn’t provided such an opportunity. I was spoon fed religion from the beginning. I wasn’t allowed to look at the evidence and make my own conclusions. The Bible was the explanation to everything in life and we were not to question it. I urge you to encourage your children to question things. Offer them evidence and allow them to arrive at their own conclusions. They may not end up with the same opinion as you do which is also okay. All you can do is present the evidence. They’ll ask more questions if they don’t understand. Be patient and be prepared for their little minds to process the details.

I look forward to posting more experiences as a mother who is a free thinker. If there are any particular topics you’d like me to share with you feel free to comment with such inquiries. I’m new to this type of parenting myself so I may not have the answer for you but I’ll do my best to research it and get back with you.

I wish everyone a safe and Happy Thanksgiving. May your homes be filled with family and friends who enrich your lives and offer great conversation!

  • http://gorillaatheist.wordpress.com/ Gorilla Atheist

    Good work. My little boy calls his Preschool Workbook his "Science Book" because those are the books I have around the house.

    When it comes to religion I usually just tell him the, "Some people believe xyz." Invariably he asks what I think and I tell him.

    Once he asked me for a snack that was on the counter. I asked if he thinks he should sit and wish for the snack or if he should get up and go get it… a few minutes later he had said snack in hand.

    Speak Up, Fight Back!

  • carsmom2000

    Thanks for the encouragement. I enjoy your point of view G.A.! I know there are a lot of ways to lay the foundations for our children to decide for themselves but I sometimes feel hopeless because there is no 'instruction manual' so to speak. All we can do is offer them the opportunity to decied for themselves by allowing them to review the evidence and think for themselves; like you did with the snack on the counter. Excellent input! :)

  • NoriMori

    The Magic School Book probably IS the best book she can read, at least for someone her age, and assuming her reading level isn't so advanced that kid books are holding her back. O.o Seriously though — The Magic School Bus freaking rocks. I had two or three of their books, and I used to watch the show almost religiously as a kid. At least in North America I really believe it gives the most bang for your buck, as far as being educational while still being entertaining enough to grab kids' attention. It does both better than most shows do one or the other. A lot of my most basic scientific knowledge comes from watching The Magic School Bus. Kids can learn from that show what a lot of adults these days don't even have an inkling of. I believe it gives kids a very important building block upon which to build a solid understanding of more complex science later on in life.

    Anyway, Rachael, reading your article was very encouraging, because from its content, it seems that you are a very responsible, open-minded, and mindful parent. I'm sure you appreciate how rare those kinds of parents are. You took the time to think about how to explain evolution, rather than just ripping her off with an inadequate answer like "it's when things change" or "you're too young, you won't understand", or just not even attempting to explain because it's too much effort. It's amazing how many parents can't be bothered to teach their children anything, because they think it's the schools' job to give them all the knowledge and skills they need in this world. I mean, hell, my mom almost had an aneurysm trying to get me to understand how to tell time on a clock, and here you've just explained evolution to your seven-year-old kid, and done it so well that she was able to recognize an instance of it on her own. I hereby bestow unto you a hearty thumbs-up for acknowledging your responsibilities as a parent and carrying them out so well. Also, kudos to your kid for being so smart! She sounds very bright. Not sure how much of that is nature and how much of it is nurture, but congratulations, you have been blessed!

    One thing though — make sure your kid understands that an organism growing up isn't strictly evolution. It's a good analogy, but it's not really "evolution" in the sense that science usually refers to. If you think she'll understand, it would be wise to explain that actual evolution is when natural selection causes organisms to adapt to their changing environment. She (probably) already learned this from the Magic School Bus book you mentioned, but she might not realize on her own that this is evolution, while a single organism growing up is not. In fact, she might think that "evolution" is 100% synonymous with "growing up", and she may think that this is all the microbes in that book are doing — she might not even realize that they're "evolving" in a different way from what you explained. I dunno, I haven't read that particular book, and, obviously, I'm not inside your daughter's head.

    Of course, you did say you were trying to break it down so that she'd understand — she might not be able to wrap her head around a more accurate definition, so maybe you should just disregard that last paragraph. Eh, what can I say? Your call, you're the parent and you seem like a good one. XD I mean, even my grade twelve chemistry teacher says things to us like, "This definition/explanation/model isn't strictly true/accurate/complete, but it's good enough for our purposes." Considering your daughter's age and the fact that you yourself are not an expert on the subject, your explanation to her probably falls under that category.

    Wishing you and your daughter many happy years to come!

  • NoriMori

    Ok, first four words were "The Magic School Book". I meant The Magic School BUS. XD

  • http://www.babblesofmybrain.com/ Brandon

    That's not a very good example of evolution. Actually that's not an example of evolution at all, it's not even a good analogy. She didn't go through millions of iterations in your womb and happen to come out as a baby human. She developed purposefully as instructed by her unique DNA.

    The fact is she is too young to understand, and there is nothing wrong with telling her that. That is the truth after all. I think it's more damaging to give her an example of something that is not evolution and telling her that's what evolution basically is. That's lying to her. From what I've read on this site everybody is against lying to children whether it's about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or God.

  • Adam

    @ Brandon: Actually, we aren't against lying to children. I've discussed it in other posts before: http://www.atheismresource.com/2010/santa-v-s-jes… It teaches kids to be skeptical. It will be a happy day when my daughter comes up to me and tells me why, with evidence, that Santa isn't real. Then, she has learned to question what she has been told is true and develop her own answer based on logic and reason.

    I know the little girl in the story. She is very smart, but this answer works for her… for now. I'm sure the truth will make sense to her later. Rachael isn't hurting her by doing this.

  • Allison

    I don't know. I am glad that you are talking and explaining things to your kids. But, it does make me a bit sad. It seems like so many parents who were spoon fed religion, which isn't cool, are so anti-religion, if efforts for our kids to make their own decisions. I have a 5-year- old, and I am not going to tell you how to raise your kid, but my only thoughts would be not to put a negative spin on religion. The reason why I stumbled across this post is, my daughter and I were just watching Magic School Bus and they were talking about left overs from when the planets were formed. I didn't like the evolutionary spin on it.

    I had to explain to my daughter that the MSB was talking about evolution, and I told her what Christians is, we go to church, and what the MSB was trying to portray. It was a little confusing to her, but I want her to understand, just because you see it on tv, even the MSB, doesn't make it true.