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Kristen Kennedy Headshot

Is There a Right Way to Explain Evolution to a 6-Year-Old?

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photo by tedfoo via Getty Images
photo by tedfoo via Getty Images

I was raised Catholic, which means I spent every Sunday morning at Mass, and sometimes Saturday evenings as well. If a holy day of obligation (look it up, heathens) fell on a weekend, then my family went twice -- once because it was Sunday and a second time because of the holy day. It takes a special form of Catholic math to sort these things out.

I graduated from a Catholic high school. I was confirmed Catholic. I even taught English for a couple of years at a Catholic university.

I had my daughter baptized in a Catholic church, the same church that sits next door to the Catholic school she goes to.

But I'm not really Catholic.

Catholicism is religious theater at its very best. I really enjoy all the Easter voodoo, Christmas idolatry and Lenten sacrifice. I also appreciate the doughnuts that are usually served after Sunday Mass, and the sense of community that comes from the feelings of guilt and shame that are common to all Catholics.

But that's about where it ends. I'm not really sure what I believe, and I'm OK with that, most of the time.

Enter my daughter who is just now learning her Bible stories -- at the Catholic school I send her to, in case I didn't mention that.

Adam and Eve or evolution or both?

My daughter recently came home with a coloring page picture of Adam and Eve. (Set aside your opinions of coloring pages for a moment.) Both of the aforementioned parties were appropriately covered in plant-based frocks. She admired her ability to color in the lines before asking, "Do you know what this is, mom? It's Adam and Eve."

"Yeah. Uh-huh. I see that. What did you learn about them?" I asked, trying really hard not to look as uncomfortable as I felt.

"They were the first people on Earth. God made them. That's what my teacher said."

She quickly added, "Do you believe that? I don't believe that. It doesn't make any sense."

What a great time to introduce the idea of evolution, I thought. I only briefly wondered whether this was a good idea before launching into my "scientific" explanation of how life began. It went something like this: "Well, if you think of Adam and Eve as two single-celled organisms that multiply over time to become more complex organisms, then the story is really like an allegory."

This didn't sound at all like what her teacher had told her. She started crying. The contradiction was overwhelming, and my explanation just made things worse.

I tried to cheer her up, adding, "Then there were dinosaurs! Apes turned into people!"

Full. Mental. Meltdown.

After the fall

More butchered explanations followed. A few more tears were shed. I realized evolution makes even less sense to a 6-year-old when I explain it than Adam and Eve does. The idea that faith can coexist with the belief in evolution is a concept many adults can't accept, let alone a child.

So I did what any bumbling parent does: I bought a book.

A colleague recommended Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton -- the Virginia Lee Burton of The Little House and Katy and the Big Snow fame. We read it together, many times, and it's great -- a smart, clear, and illustrated guide to how evolution works. Burton artfully weaves the reader's life into the bigger five-act play that is the story of all life on our planet. As allegories go, it's a very good one.

Did it subdue the creationist crisis my daughter was having? Not really. She just stopped talking about it, which is fine for now. But when the next frustrating contradiction emerges, I'll be ready with an explanation of what not to believe about Biblical allegory.

We'll see how that goes.

This article was originally published on the author's blog, Not Those Kennedys.