How do you explain God, death, and infinity to a 5-year old?
September 13, 2007 9:38 AM   Subscribe

How do you explain God, death, and infinity to a 5-year old? Please recommend a book or online resource for explaining philosophy, existentialism, and other abstract concepts to a young child not yet capable of abstract cognitions.

I've been getting more and more stumped lately trying to answer philosophical/theoretical questions posed by a young child (5-year-old). Some examples: What is infinity? How can numbers go on for ever? If God made all things, then does it hurt God when we hurt the grass by stepping on it? Why is it okay to kill mosquitoes? Why are some people bad?

Ideally, I'm looking for a book that I can read to her that's written for a young child to understand. I'm specifically looking for a book on philosophy and existence. The key here is explaining abstract concepts in a way that a child who is not yet capable of abstract thinking can understand.

Also, if people know of books that they'd recommend for explaining complex, but concrete, concepts, that would be good too. By concrete, I mean things like: How does the brain think? How does my hand know how to move, etc.

posted by jujube to Religion & Philosophy (40 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Which theistic philosophy do you adhere to? (I'm assuming you want to give her theistic answers)
posted by phrontist at 9:40 AM on September 13, 2007

The key here is explaining abstract concepts in a way that a child who is not yet capable of abstract thinking can understand.

Isn't there some inherent contradiction here? She can't think abstractly, but you want to explain abstract concepts?
posted by phrontist at 9:41 AM on September 13, 2007

"That is a really good question, and a lot of people have different answers."
posted by unknowncommand at 9:47 AM on September 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'd explain infinity like this: No matter how a big a number you choose, she can always add one to that number to get a bigger number.
posted by phrontist at 9:47 AM on September 13, 2007

"You're young now, so a lot of things aren't going to make sense, but as you grow older and wiser, you'll understand them better."

Also, give'em a pen and paper and encourage them to write (or draw) about this stuff. Sounds like a smart kid.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:50 AM on September 13, 2007

Seconding phrontists requests for your particular frame of reference. especially if you're looking for religious answers to your questions.

If you are looking for such answers, you might start with a catechism for preschool-aged kids or kindergartners, such as this one or this one.

Aside: as the father of several preschoolers, I think simplest answers are best. The answers to your example questions may vary widely, depending on your faith tradition, especially the last three.
posted by jquinby at 9:54 AM on September 13, 2007

Fiction. Fairy Tales, and for those a little older, Charlotte's Web, which was written for exactly this purpose.
posted by jokeefe at 9:56 AM on September 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I tried to get my head around some of this stuff at 6, and I -- no lie -- almost had a breakdown. I was actually so freaked out by the idea that the universe was infinite that I started crying and shaking and basically panicking (because somehow I suddenly knew this was connected to the fact of my eventual death and my eventual parents'/grandparents'/sister's/pet's death -- the universe may last forever, but I won't and they won't, which was devestating). A few years later, when I had my first childhood bout with severe depression, I'd look back on that moment and feel really sad. So just a word to the wise that abstractions can actually be rather frightening to children.

When I was a bit older, though -- around 9 or 10 -- I really liked the Powers of 10 book.
posted by scody at 9:58 AM on September 13, 2007

You explain the brain and movement thing by explaining how a light knows when to turn on -- i.e., the wall switch is your brain, which sends a signal down the wire (nerve) to turn on the light (move your foot). You can also turn that into a lesson about the dangers of electricity to the human body.
posted by parilous at 9:58 AM on September 13, 2007

Stephen Law has written a couple of books on philosophy for kids (but perhaps an older age range).

There's The Philosophy Files and it's sequel ( link, couldn't find a good link on .com).
posted by edd at 10:00 AM on September 13, 2007

We always told our kids that no one knows for sure what happens after we die, which is, as far is I know, the truth.

We have stressed that there is no 'right' opinion about religion, but that they are all equally valid.

I am dead-set against presenting Christianity as 'default reality' to people who cannot decide for themselves.
posted by chuckdarwin at 10:02 AM on September 13, 2007

Best answer: some links for you.
posted by deejay jaydee at 10:13 AM on September 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Don't explain God at all.

For infinity, you can try the concept of Hilbert's Hotel.
posted by number9dream at 10:16 AM on September 13, 2007

i would give the child simple definitions. meaning comes later--much later.

as for god, most faiths have a sunday-school program that might be a good place to start. if you aren't affiliated with any particular faith, but believe in god, give him your definition of god. it doesn't matter if he doesn't understand right away.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:17 AM on September 13, 2007

What is infinity?

That was an exercise in calculus class: trying to explain infinity to someone who only understood basic arithmetic. Two things that were sort of successful: (1) You can count as high as you want, but you can still count higher, and (2) Get them to think of a really big number, and then ask what that number + 1 is, and so forth, repeatedly, and when they start to get irritated, explain that you could have that conversation all day, all week, all year, but you could always add to it. Just because you can count really high doesn't mean that there is anything there--you can count to a quadrillion, but no one has, say, a quadrillion dollars. If that makes sense.

If God made all things, then does it hurt God when we hurt the grass by stepping on it?

No, because God isn't the grass, he just made it. Kind of like how he's not harming you when he chews food you cooked: you merely made the food.

Why is it okay to kill mosquitoes?

Let me know if you find an answer to that. I haven't. (And any explanation I can come up with 'justify' it could also be used to justify, say, the Holocaust.)
posted by fogster at 10:19 AM on September 13, 2007

Best answer: Existentialist philosophy (inasmuch as it is possible to generalize) is fundamentally incompatible with easy answers. Of the thinkers typically labeled as existentialists, a slight majority were atheists. Those who were Christians typically explored the relationship of faith to reason, and God and the individual, in a way that (thankfully) complicated our understanding of these issues, rather than making them clear.

So, if you want to borrow a page from the existentialists, you could talk with your child about something s/he already understands--namely, uncertainty. You could introduce uncertainty as something not to be waved away with tropes, but ruminated over, with friends and family, in a way that makes us richer human beings.

As far as a general introduction to philosophy that could be something for you and your child to think about together, I like Astonish Yourself: 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life. But again, as with much philosophy, it'll only leave you and your child with more questions. Whether that's a positive or negative thing depends on how you view life, I suppose.
posted by limon at 10:30 AM on September 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think jokeefe's approach is best.

When the child asks such a question, consider responding with 'well, let me tell you a story...' and proceeding with your own retelling of a folk or fairy tale or bible story which gives you some degree of comfort when you think about this stuff.

Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales was absolutely revelatory along these lines for me when I read it some years ago, and I don't think it is at all compromised by his dedication to Psychoanalysis.

Once the story has for the moment satisfied the emotional needs which almost always accompany, if not directly provoke such questions from a child, you can address and stimulate the curiosity which will help his or her intelligence grow in the more conventional sense of that term.
posted by jamjam at 10:31 AM on September 13, 2007

Best answer: Little Big Minds by Marietta McCarty is an excellent resource that gives ideas for how to talk about philosophy with kids.
posted by Daily Alice at 10:36 AM on September 13, 2007

For me as a parent (and as caretaker to many kids & cousins), I'd use simile to handle a lot of those questions. But the key is to avoid answering the questions so completely or resolutely that the kid is discouraged from finding his/her own answers. What that looks like in practice is,

"What is God?" "Well, a lot of people think of God like a parent/guardian/the weather/a song [or whatever your preferred simile]. What do you think God is?"
"Why is it ok to kill mosquitoes?" "Well, for some people it's not ok. In our family (culture/community) we do. Why do you think that is?" When push comes to shove, I think there's value in the simple and honest answer which you locate in yourself and offer to the child to explain your world: "I kill mosquitoes because they hurt me." Of course you open the box on all kinds of tough questions then. But that's life and learning to think for yourself, in my opinion.

As for how the brain thinks, a lot of good people still aren't sure about the answer to that question. It's ok to say, "I don't know. Why don't we investigate!"
posted by cocoagirl at 10:44 AM on September 13, 2007

There are two concepts that even children understand: space and time. Using these you should be able to explain most anything to them. This is, in fact, how most abstract concepts are taught to kids. (Though some people discourage the 'finger counting' method their reasons for doing so are pretty terrible.)

Infinity can be explained by linking it to the temporal concept of eternity (which, again, most kids can grasp): it takes a really long, long, long time to count to some numbers and counting to some numbers would effectively take forever.

As for morality, there's not really any need to explain it to kids. Just tell them what to do and make sure they do it. If you do insist on reasoning about it with them doing so in the Socratic manner -- where you ask them questions and prod them to reach the right conclusion "on their own" -- can be useful even if it doesn't produce any deep insights. Just getting to them to think about these things rationally can instill good habits and set some precedents. It can also backfire so be warned.
posted by nixerman at 10:47 AM on September 13, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. Some of the suggestions are very helpful.

In response to some of the questions that folks have posed above, perhaps I should explain further about the type of answers I don't want, or have tried and found to not work.

I do not want answers such as, "you'll understand when you're older." I remember getting answers such as those at her age and found it extremely condescending and frustrating. I must admit I have resorted to this answer on occasion, and have found her reaction to be pretty much what mine was when I was her age.

I also do not want a religious answer that provide easy and pat answers because they have so far served to further confuse. For example, how can there be only one God, but also exist in three as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? If God is everywhere (another catechism for young children) then why is it okay to kill mosquitos?

I have tried answers such as, that's a good question, and there are lots of different answers. .Some religious traditions believe. . . , while others believe. . . , so on and so forth. there are different ways of praying to God and different people think differently, etc. So far, this has worked best, but was hoping that the hivemind could come up with something better, and more comforting, because I'm trying to avoid the type of situation that Scody is talking about.

In in response to theistic orientation, her religious belief is that God is love, and that when she have love in her heart, then she is close to God. She believes that there are many different ways of praying to, and being close to, God, and that no one way is the right way. And as I wrote above, sometimes she finds theistic answers comforting, but such answers have often resulted in more questions.
One more thing: I'm not trying to cram abstract thinking/thoughts., etc., into a child who cannot understand them. I'm trying to break down questions and consequences of morality and existence that is frightening for a child and trying to make them understandable.

posted by jujube at 11:01 AM on September 13, 2007

What often works well with my five year old is simply asking "What do you think?" and then letting the wonder of her imagination flourish.

The way I see it, she stands to be an adult for a much longer time than she gets to be a child. Rather than pull her into the adult ways of thinking sooner than she has to be there, I just sit back and enjoy answers like "God gave us grass so the grasshoppers would have some shade" rather than try to explain that grass lacks a central nervous system.

Chances are, she'll remember the fact that you spent the time with her more than the answers you give to her anyway.

Isn't five a great age?
posted by 4ster at 11:14 AM on September 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

scoda- I had a similar experience when I was about that age. It is still one of the more vivd memories I have from my single-digit years.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 11:35 AM on September 13, 2007

"Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream; merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream." There is more truth to this children's song than many have thought to ascribe to it. If you read into it a little bit it easily explains god, death, and infinity.

What a brave and cheery little song to sing as civilization crumbles around us: when, instead of unfolding, the universe seems to be unraveling, quickly and from every side; when the human comedy is turning tragic, distilled to an endgame of hubris, blind elephants and no laugh track. (source)
posted by pwally at 11:40 AM on September 13, 2007

What you want are not the most accurate or correct answers to these questions. What you want are answers the kid will remember so that when they are much older they will come back to you and tell you why those answers are wrong.

Five year olds do not even understand the physical world the way your or I do. (for example, their interpretation of distances in physical space dpend greatly on psychology and habit. A school 5 miles away that they visit every day is in their measurement of the world closer than a dentist's office 3 miles away that they only see twice a year. Also, things are larger in darkness than in light etc. This is how their mind maps its emotional space to phsyical space and it is not to be ignored, even though it seems silly.) So no matter what answer you give them, they will not understand it in the same way that you do when you communicate it. You have to give them something to think about to apply in their immediate world and test.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:50 AM on September 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

What's the definition of sanity? Something aling the lines of being able to simultaneously hold several contradictory beliefs without our head exploding... Which means a sane adult is a moral hypocrite at some level or another, so there's no fully satisfactory answer to alot of the judgment or existence questions.

I believe the best way to answer a moral question is to answer in a way that's just a hair beyond what they can immediately grasp, so they have something to reach for.

For example, to the question "what is God?" I would answer that many people wonder how come we're here and why is the world so big and interesting etc etc, and some people think it's because someone very special and wise made it like that, and they call that person God.

(I'm an athiest but I'm not about to quote Nietzsche to a 5 year-old. Show them what's out there, and let them figure it out)

Why is it okay to kill mosquitoes?

Well, actually it's not ok. It's just that we weigh the "wrong" of killing the mosquito with the "inconvenience" or actual harm, in the case of malaria; we judge the latter to outweigh the former, and we kill mosquitoes. Same answer applies to meat and fur.

Best answer I ever heard to that question came from the Dalai Lama. it went along the lines of "when the mosquito comes near, you go shoo, shoo and brush it away. if it comes back, repeat. If it comes again and there are more and they're not going away, well maybe you have to slap them" . In other words don't go calling for helicopters and Paraquat right away.
posted by Artful Codger at 11:56 AM on September 13, 2007

Best answer: By the way, a good book for an older kid, around 12-15, would be Sophie's World (previously on Metafilter).

Also, on the subject of numbers, good books are Anno's Mysterious Multiplying Jar which a five-year old can handle, and Anno's Magic Seeds.

For morals and ethincs, you can try Three Questions or Zen Shorts by Jon Muth.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:59 AM on September 13, 2007

Best answer: Boy, this is hard. As some of the answers suggest, I do think it's important to focus more on the style of answer, or what the answer accomplishes other than as the "best answer" to the literal question -- since if anyone really knows the answers to these questions, and can anticipate all the variations that an active young mind will generate, I'm all ears.

In light of the above, for my money, any good answer: (a) stresses that the questions are good ones, natural ones for the child to be concerned about, and occur to many others as well; (b) communicates that the questions are interesting to you, but not upsetting or disturbing; and (c) suggests gently that you don't know all the answers, but again, that this is okay.

How you strike the balance in (c) may depend on whether it's your daughter -- not the gender, but because you're a parent. It's my sense that these questions present quandaries in part because they test the ability of a parent to successfully communicate that he or she doesn't know everything, but is still capable of protecting the child.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 12:32 PM on September 13, 2007

this had kind of been said, but to put it another way, the reason that many people think it's ok to kill mosquitoes seems to boil down to that it's ok to use the necessary amount of force or violence to stop something that is trying to physically harm us. in general, I think this is a great principle for kids to understand.
posted by lgyre at 12:40 PM on September 13, 2007

If you don't know, tell the kid you don't know. Then -- this is the fun part -- ask what they think. The answers can be quite amusing, and you can use them as a jumping-off point for your more sensible explanation. If you can get them (not to mention yourself) any little bit closer to the "truth" you've accomplished something.

It gets them to use their imaginations and think for themselves, which is really the only thing anyone can do.
posted by Reggie Digest at 1:13 PM on September 13, 2007

Sigh . . . Or what 4ster said.
posted by Reggie Digest at 1:17 PM on September 13, 2007

You might enjoy this blog post on Theology for three-year-olds, which discusses the answers to such questions as 'Can God open a tin without a tin-opener?', 'Does God ever have a runny nose?', 'Is God a man or a woman?' and 'What can God do that I can do as well?' (hmm, tricky one that).

Serious discussions of metaphysics will be wasted on a five-year-old. All they need to know is (a) that you are pleased when they ask questions, (b) that you pay attention to them, and (c) that you try to give them honest answers. Look on it as an opportunity to have some fun together, and stretch your imagination, but don't be too solemn about it.

(BTW, I find that my five-year-old is not impressed by woolly-liberal answers along the lines of 'well, some people think X, and some people think Y'. She doesn't want to know what 'some people' think, she wants me to give her the answer to her question.)
posted by verstegan at 2:18 PM on September 13, 2007

I find that my five-year-old is not impressed by woolly-liberal answers along the lines of 'well, some people think X, and some people think Y'

So, when she asks about God, what do you tell her? Just curious.
posted by Artful Codger at 2:27 PM on September 13, 2007

Re: nixerman and 4ster's recommendations:

It seems like a great way to go, as it lets them work towards answering their own question from their own base of knowledge. Also try searching the web for "teaching socratic method" for examples. =)
posted by joquarky at 2:41 PM on September 13, 2007

the world famous: there are more possible answers to the question "do any gods exist?" It's the same as the answer to "do plays and fairy tales exist?" Sure there are many stories about Zeus, Odin, Krishna, the Islamo-Judeo-Christian god, and many others. Just as there are many stories about King Arthur and the Family Robinson. They can be good & useful reading.

That's what to tell the kid.

Next question, for those who are ready: Should we lead our lives as if the stories about Arthur inform our present lives, or as if he's really our king? Does anyone believe that the Robinsons are really on an island somewhere, or even lost in space?
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:13 PM on September 13, 2007

"Waiting for the Whales" by Sheryl McFarlane.

Brilliant book, and one that I used to explain my father's passing to my kids. Cycles of life and such.

Can't imagine trying to explain this concept without the visual images presented in this book. Also can't recommend highly enough, even if you are not trying to get the concepts of life, death, god, etc., across to children.

Obligatory linky link here.

Just remember to keep all teachings balanced - lest your children also learn your prejudices.
posted by fox_terrier_guy at 3:16 PM on September 13, 2007

Along the lines of the "merrily, merrily, merrily" post. The granddaughter of a close friend asked me once, "Why are there nightmare's?" She may have been around 8 or 9 at the time. My response to her was something along the lines of, "So we can figure out ways of living and being in that world. " My response surprised me. I would consider us both to dreamers. The fact that we both dream to me erased any age differential. My answer was based on a series of nightmares I had as a child. These nightmares began when I was around 4-5. Praying to God to not have them didn't seem to work. I had to figure out a way to not have them on my own, which I did. This way required that I be self disciplined, aware, and on the ball. If I wasn't, I would have the nightmare. At a point, a mystical/spiritual/whatever anyone wants to call it dream happened that essentially imparted, "It's OK. You're protected. You'll be OK!" Writing this post makes me think of the term, "God helps those who help themselves."

So at the moment I am with the responses of 4ster and Reggie Digest.
posted by goalyeehah at 3:19 PM on September 13, 2007

Regarding killing mosquitos, from what I understand in some native american traditions, one's body is considered innocent. thus fighting for and defending one's body from outside threats is valid. we may swat mosquitos because we have learned on an evolutionary scale that they have the ability to kill us.

The body as dirty and defiled is a very Judeo-Christian concept.

At the end of Bucky Fuller's life, when asked what to teach children, he would impart to keep it simple and let them know that on a spherical planet, there is no such thing as " up" or "down".......that the sun does not "rise" or "set". "out" and "in" were more accurate and understandable substitutes. he felt that these were reflexes still used enmasse that come from a belief of a flat earth and skewing perception to accept entropy. he felt that the term "infinity" also comes from this concept.......a flat plane that continues on and on. He also stated that nature does not calculate " pi " when making a bubble.

my feeling is that children understand whole systems naturally because they are closest to it at that age.

for what it is worth......
posted by goalyeehah at 3:47 PM on September 13, 2007

Thanks, Famous, for your answer, which is more articulate than mine was. I really should preview these things and set them aside for awhile before posting them.

One source of confusion is that you've capitalized 'God' indicating that it's a specific person/entity/whatever, whose name is "God."

Regardless, whether we're talking about "God" or many, many gods, do they "exist"? Sure they do: they're the lead character in many, many old stories.

This is not an evasive answer. That's the sense in which gods exist.

Stuart Little "lives" a couple of miles from here, but there's no chance that we'll ever see him on the street.

Why would we even think of discussing whether something from old books and stories is actually talking to us or listening to us or saving us or smiting us, today, right now?

I apologize if anyone feels I've derailed the discussion.
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:59 PM on September 13, 2007

The World Famous said: ...under what logic would any parent present to their child as true anything other than what the parent believes is true?

When the question is "does God exist?" the answer, if it is an answer, must begin with either "yes," "no," or "I don't know."

If you're honest, the most correct answer of the 3 above is "I don't know" Cos you don't, right?

If we assume you believe sincerely and deeply in (a) God, then the most truthful answer is none of the three; it's "I believe God exists". I'll concede that it could start with "Yes, I believe..."

A child's insistence on clarity is no reason to lie to them. Believed true and proved true are not the same things.
posted by Artful Codger at 5:22 PM on September 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

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