My husband and I decided a long time ago that we wanted to try to answer questions from our kids as honestly and accurately as possible. This is what guides us as we field the tough and awkward questions and it is also our guide for the fun questions generated by their curiosity. I would rather find a way to explain that the Earth rotates and the side that we are on faces away from the sun than tell my kids that the sun goes to sleep at night. We quickly realized that we needed to figure out how to talk about science in toddler terms to be able to do this. We’re not really trained on this as scientists. Our vocabulary and way of talking about concepts gets less relatable the more we progress in our fields, so it can be tricky to come up with explanations that will make sense to little kids. I’ve been surprised how much my kids can understand, though, when we are able to simplify concepts and put things in their vocabulary. Figuring out how to explain DNA is one example.
I can’t remember the first time we used this explanation or the first question that prompted it. My daughter had a pretty extreme case of the “whys” and was very curious about everything, so it was probably something about why her hair was curly and mine was straight or why Daddy was taller and I was shorter or some other observation of different physical traits. If I tried to give her a simple answer like “We’re all different,” or “That’s the way you were born” she would follow-up with another question. “Why are we all different?” or “Why was I born with curly hair?” She wasn’t satisfied without more information (and I wanted to encourage her curiosity), so we tried to come up with a way to talk about this that was simple enough for her to understand. She obviously wasn’t ready to talk about DNA, nucleotides, helices, dominant vs. recessive traits, Punnett squares, genetics and all of that fun stuff, but she understood instructions. This is how we explained it to our 3-year-old.
Before a baby is born, it gets one set of instructions from a mommy and one set of instructions from a daddy.* The baby uses those instructions to know how to grow inside the mommy and to know how to keep growing after it is born. We all get the same instructions for a lot of things, but some parts of the instructions are different for everybody. This is why there are a lot of things about us that are the same, but we are also all a little different.
This is a super simple explanation and it’s in terms that a toddler can understand. There are lots of details and nuances that are left out, but it’s accurate and we can build on it. No one ever learns a complex concept in one lesson.
As we expand on this, we can give more information and details about what these instructions actually are. We can talk about how the baby will pick between the instructions from the mommy or the daddy for certain things. We can talk about how we have instructions in our body and even if our body didn’t pick them for us we can still give them to our baby. We can talk about how the mommy’s body has different instructions to choose from so every baby that she has will get different instructions. The same thing is true with the daddy. We can talk about how the instructions are actually a code. We can talk about how that code is written with chemicals. And, eventually, we’re going to be able to talk about DNA, nucleotides, helices, dominant vs. recessive traits, Punnett squares, genetics and all of that fun stuff.
This “set of instructions” explanation is one that we’ve used over and over again to help answer questions. We’ve been building on it and it’s been exciting to see my kids understand this idea and connect it to other observations and situations. It’s not always easier to translate science for our kids, but I think it’s worth it.
*Important note: I want to point out that we differentiate between how a baby was born and who their family is. A baby does need an egg (a set of instructions from a mom), a sperm (a set of instructions from a dad), and a mom to grow inside to be born. Who the baby gets these instructions from, though, isn’t always who the baby has for their family. The baby might have two Mommies, or two Daddies, or live with one Mommy, or one Daddy, or a Mommy whose tummy they didn’t grow in, etc. Our kids know that every baby was born from a mommy and daddy, but that there are all types of families.