If you have kids, you’ll eventually find yourself trying to explain the mechanics of solar orbits or the behavioral patterns of honeybees or the applications of Bernoulli’s effect.  As a lover of science, I always give the scientific answer first, but it’s only because I find it amusing. My 5-year-old is just learning subtraction, so I don’t expect her to understand the details of fluid dynamics.  Try explaining buoyancy and she’ll likely repeat the question. She didn’t ask about relative densities or displacement. She just wants to know why boats float.

The problem isn’t a lack of intelligence or education but a difference in the way young children learn.  Adults approach words metaphorically and treat ideas analytically, but children tend to treat words literally and learn ideas analogically.  Tell your kid your phone is “blowing up” and see what their reaction is. I can still see the look of terror on my son’s face when we suggested there was a whale in his bedroom.  Likewise, you can’t get them to understand a concept by explaining the idea behind it. Abstraction comes very late in the process of learning. You don’t teach a child to add by starting with numerals on a page.  You have to start with apples on a table. If you have one apple and I give you two more, how many do you have?

If you want to explain something to a child, compare it to something they know.  Why is there day and night? Where does the sun go? It’s hard to imagine the whole earth spinning on an axis and rotating around the sun, but it’s easy to imagine a basketball spinning on a finger and someone turning away from a light until they can’t see it.  You don’t need to understand cellular processes to understand that plants need water for the same reason (more or less) that people do. No child psychology is necessary to explain that their brother is crying when they take his toy for the same reason they get upset when they don’t get ice cream.

This is the basic process of all learning, to take what is large and make it small, to take what is out there and bring it in here, to take what is other and make it personal.  Only then can we abstract that knowledge and apply it to everything else. It’s why books start with anecdotes and sermons with illustrations. The next time you’re struggling to answer why the sky is blue or cardinals are red or mommy is crying, give it a shot.  “That’s just the way God made it” is always a good fallback, but first try to think of something it’s like. You’ll be surprised how well they understand.

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