Answering a Preschooler's Hard Questions: "What's the Future?"

Family Matters on 07.20.11
Contributor bio

My son W is three, and unsurprisingly, I'm deep in the whys -- that moment in child rearing when your kid hits you with a barrage of questions that are both shocking in their quantity and appalling in their frequency. That the questions are coming is not surprising, no. What's unsettling is how thrown I've been by many of his inquiries.

One of Three

I've found that W hits me up with three kinds of questions:

  1. Those that are based around simple concepts requiring simple explanations (why are crackers crunchy? Why do dogs pant? Why do I need to wear socks with my sneakers?)
  2. Those that are big and deep and complicated (who is God? What is a cemetery? If smoking is bad for you, why do people do it?)
  3. And those that require answers outside of my stockpile of available knowledge -- usually scientific or technical, always humbling (why are clouds white? why is the wind invisible?) - these are the questions to which I must reply, "I'm not sure . . ." followed closely by a rapid Google search.

For this blog's purposes, I'll be focusing primarily on questions that fall in the second category as they pose the greatest challenge -- how to supply an answer that will be easily processed by a three-year old brain, that will not scare, scar or otherwise land him in a therapist's chair at 13.

What's the Future?

While idling at a red light on a recent Wednesday afternoon, W asked casually from the backseat, "Mama, what's the future?"

Moments before we were excitedly debating who could run faster -- a tiger or an elephant -- and now I was grasping for a way to explain the concept of time to a human being who only recently mastered going pee-pee on the potty. 

At first, my mind was filled with images of a future as seen from 1980 -- a Jetson's-like place defined by flying cars, robots and teleportation. I then remembered that this child pretty much lives in that future, Skyping with friends who live in Europe, listening to songs on an iPod, helping me email funny photos to his grandparents.

Micro is More

I quickly realized that it would be impossible to explain the future without touching upon the past and the present - they're really a team if you think about it. So, I went micro, shrinking these sweeping, existential ideas into what I hoped would be W's everyday reality. "Remember when we went to the playground yesterday?" I began slowly. He nodded. "And remember when you fell off the slide and scraped your knee and wouldn't stop crying until I found that green Bandaid at the bottom of my bag?" Another nod. "Well, yesterday is the PAST."

I glanced in the rearview mirror. He was now drawing figure eights on the window with an old tube of Chapstick that he found buried in his seat, but I swear I saw a glimmer of understanding in his eye. I forged on. "And now, right now, driving in the car with the wind messing up our hair and music blasting into our ears, this is the PRESENT."

He was now singing a mash-up of Old McDonald Had a Farm and The Eensy Weensy Spider, but I couldn't stop now. "Tomorrow, when you wake up and sit down at the kitchen table to eat your breakfast that will be the FUTURE. Anything that happens after the present is the future."

We drove a few blocks in silence, then, with a small voice he sang, "the eesnsy weensy spider had a future farm . . ." Clearly, my work was done. 


Photo: Eleaf/Creative Commons

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