Teaching Evolution to Children

Last night, Turtle was talking to his dad about the dinosaurs in the puzzle he was piecing together and mentioned that the T-Rex was a “bad guy”. Daddy corrected him pointing out that just because an animal is a meat-eater, that doesn’t make it a bad guy, that’s just how it needs to eat. Turtle clarified saying the reason it was a bad guy was that it ate people.

To which both of us quickly jumped in to remind him that dinosaurs and people never lived at the same time on earth.* I said something to the effect of “a long time after most of the dinosaurs were extinct, then humans came to earth” and the instant those words left my mouth, I regretted that last clause.

Predictably it led to Turtle asking “well, how did humans come to the earth, then?” Crap! I knew better than to use the phrase “came to”- what was I thinking! To make it worse, Backtire jumps in with a sarcastic “well, the aliens dropped off the humans” and I give him the evil eye because this is going to be a tough enough concept to explain to an almost 5-year old with out adding sarcasm about other people’s misconceptions and crazy notions into the mix.

So, I had to explain that Daddy was joking about the aliens thing and apologize for my mistake and backtrack into the explanation that there was an ancient group of animals who changed a little over time, then changed a little more, more, more, more until they became humans. He already knows that this is how birds came about from their dinosaur ancestors, so the analogy would have made sense to him.

Then he says “oh yeah, so gorillas changed into humans”. Aack! No! I started over, explaining that there was an ancient primate that was similar to monkeys and apes, but not the same, and some of them changed and changed and eventually became gorillas, while others changed and changed and eventually became chimps, and others monkeys, and others humans.

After that, we had to head out to dinner, but I kept thinking about this conversation, as a parent and an educator. Evolution is notoriously tough for laypeople to understand and there are some very real cognitive barriers (not to mention the emotional and cultural ones) that prevent people from truly grasping it easily. One is that it deals with deep time, which in and of itself is nearly impossible for most people to conceptualize. Another is that it is a highly complex phenomenon, each new piece you learn leads to more questions and details and variables to consider, so although you can attempt so simplify evolution and explain it to people of all ages and educational backgrounds, a true understanding of it doesn’t come until after much study.

Although I understand evolution well and have been careful to avoid explaining nature in magical or so-grossly-oversimplified-that-they-become-incorrect ways, he still leapt to conclusions that represent some of the most common misconceptions held by laypeople about evolution all on his own. Namely, that humans and dinosaurs lived together and that monkeys and apes turned into humans.

This happened in my living room and I am a parent who has invested a lot of energy into educating myself about evolution, educating my students about evolution, and working with other scientists and educators to attempt to address the difficulties encountered by the public and students when trying to understand evolution.

What’s a less evolution-involved parent to do? Seek out appropriate resources for helping you talk about the realities of how nature works with your young children. Visit Charlie’s Playhouse and recommend it as a resource to your child’s teachers. They’ve got learning resources and a list of approved and recommended books for all ages. This is important because there is a lot of quackery and incorrect stuff out there, so you can’t just Google “evolution books for kids”- the list you get back won’t have been vetted for accuracy.

Educate yourself. When’s the last time you took a biology class? Who knows what the quality of your learning was in the first place, how much you've retained, and how outdated that information is at this point? Get the facts. How?

Go to Berkeley’s Understanding Evolution site, which can serve as a sort of refresher Evo 101 course for you and has a whole section dedicated to resources for teachers you can recommend to teachers you know.

Visit the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Human Evolution site with your kids. There are beautiful photos, fossils, timelines, videos, maps, and more to help you understand and explain our origins. Even better, plan a visit to the exhibit with your family!

Want to go deeper into current evolution research? Try NESCent.

Want updates on efforts to ensure quality evolution education in public schools? Head to NCSE.

Good luck with you & your child's evolving understanding of evolution!

(*Dinosaurs lived between 250 & 65 million years ago, when most of the species went extinct. It’s important not to imply and simply not true that all dinosaurs went extinct. Some species remained, evolving over time to become modern birds. This is one of the first misconceptions children hear from us about ancient life and evolution.)


The Birth of A Stereotype

Turtle came out of his room in his red Valentines shirt and wearing a baseball cap backwards this morning. I commented that he looked really cute in the hat and he said:

"Mom, did you know that bullies wear their caps backward?"

"Oh, really?"

"Yes, if they have caps."

"How do you know that?"

"I've seen pictures of bullies in some books at school and they always have their caps on backward."

"So, are you trying to be a bully today?"

"No!" (smiling shyly)

"Right, just because someone's hat is on backward, doesn't make them a bully. And also can't there be bullies who wear their hats forward? or don't have hats?"

"Well, it was an information book, so it says all the bullies have their hats on backward."

"Well, I think you can't tell by someone's hat whether they are a bully or not."

"Well, it was an information book, Mom."

So this is how stereotypes are born, huh? Clearly every picture book he's seen that features bullies stereotypes them as the kind of kids who dress and look a certain way. Which is sad and inaccurate. Unfortunately there will be all sorts of bullies Turtle will encounter in life and I only wish they could all be easily identified in advance by something as simple as how they wear their hats. The reality is much more nuanced than that. At least he wanted to wear his hat backward anyway and didn't fear being identified as a bully.

Of course, later in the car ride to school, he explained to me how the boys might be wearing red today and the girls might wear pink and purple. But the boys won't because those aren't boy colors. I proceeded to explain that there are no rules when it comes to colors and people can like any color they want and reminded him we had just five minutes before both been admiring the pink blossoms on our plum tree. I told him that you can't know what everyone likes unless you ask them. I was told "well, I asked all the boys in my class and they all don't like pink and purple. Those are girl colors." I countered, "well, I know some other boys who do like pink and purple." And then I sat and thought to myself how I had picked out pink liner paper for Fox's* dresser and how it was already filled with pink and purple hand-me-downs. How much do you push fighting stereotypes when you realize that you've bought into them, at least to a certain extent, too?

And this whole information book thing has been an issue lately. At some point, I had explained to him the difference between fiction and non-fiction, in the context of wanting him to understand that some of the stories we have about animals and people at home were really true stories or that other books were reference books with true facts. Ever since, that has been used against me. Anything I try to correct him on, he tells me that he got the idea from an information book, which is supposed to justify it regardless of how wrong it is. Oh my. And again, I realize that he's merely reflecting my own values. I am an information book kind of gal. I'm a skeptic and tend to not buy into an idea or be comfortable justifying it until I've read about research studies that validate it. Which is a good thing, I think, in the age of blossoming internet quackery. But the part of the lesson I haven't been able to get across to my almost 5 year old yet is how you have to know how to validate the source of your information and balance it against everything else you know. All in due time...

*Fox is the baby girl I'm expecting in 9 weeks.