Deep questioning on race, religion, and evolution . . . with a 3 year old.

Anyone who’s spent any time with a preschooler knows how not surprising that title is and just how fast you can find yourself in an educational/ethical quagmire. In between tough field research trips in Ecuador and Vietnam I was spending a bit of relaxing time at home, and on this particular Sunday was enjoying the company of a 3 ½ -year-old who is quite dear to me. We were taking a break from backyard lizard stalking in the Tucson heat to just chill in front of the freshwater fish tank and draw with a fresh new box of crayons. I should have known to grab a beer first. Here’s how it went down.


The kiddo points to a fish wiggling its way along the bottom and asks, “See that fish? Why does he have long fighting-swords on his head?” Instantly, my internal voice that often overreacts and overthinks even simple things said to me: That’s interesting. He’s automatically assuming that a catfish’s feelers are for fighting. Hmmm…Is this a reflection of a fear-based society?  My more mindful, eel woman response was, “That’s a good question. Let’s watch him for a while and see how he uses them.”


We watch for a few seconds until a flashy fish comes out of hiding and the kiddo asks, “Why is that one fish bright red?” My more relaxed internal voice thinks, Cool, we’ve got a little Darwin in the making here. Remember, don’t explain away his inquiry by giving him any curiosity-killing answers… and, hurry up!  So, I quickly ask, “Well, why do you think your skin is brown?”  Instantly, my self-critical internal voice spits: Are you nuts?! Why didn’t you just ask him how he thinks it might help a fish to be a bright color like red? Good grief.

The clearly surprised and befuddled kiddo adamantly announces to this clearly insane adult: “I’m not brown! I’m white!”  At this point I go into fight-or-flight mode and realize I need a beer.

Meanwhile, my internal, overeactionary voice is screaming, “WTF? I know his parents well and they aren’t racist. How did our divisive society, hell-bent on sticking everything and every person into a clearly-labeled box because it can’t deal with the gorgeous chaos of life, already blind a preschooler … heck… a mere toddler … to his own actual skin color!? OK…calm down.


Then, what the kiddo confidently stated next stoped me in the tracks I was making towards the lager-laden fridge: “And I’m white because God made me that way.”  What would YOU say? My internal voice was thinking, Oh, man. How did I get into this? I just wanted to chillax with the fish and enjoy not being the go-to diaper changer. Now I really needed to be mindful and dualistic (not DUEListic). Obviously his parents are raising him with Christianity and I respect that. But, it’ll be a cold day in the hell-I-don’t-personally-believe-in before I let any of society’s religions or other conventions just close the door on a child’s rightful, natural, God-given (if you will) scientific curiosity. So . . .



I looked down to see the kiddo looking up to the adult for confirmation and asking, “Right?” In a flash of eel-woman inspiration, or perhaps just desperation, I grab the big box of crayons and say an ironic prayer of “thanks” for children’s distractibility.  “Hey!” I say, “Look at this big new box of crayons! Check out all the different colors. Let’s see if we can each find the one that best matches our skin colors?” As the kiddo is eagerly bent to the joyfully entropic task of pulling out one crayon at a time, comparing each to his forearm, and tossing each rejected stick onto the floor, I pull out the true white crayon and hold it up to my arm and then his arm. He shakes his head. We both agree: No match. We keep searching. I settle on a light “raw sienna” for myself and he agrees. After exhausting the entire box as you would expect any healthy human child to do, and as much as he wishes he could claim Crayola© “macaroni & cheese” as his skin color, we agree his skin is closest to their “peach”. I point out that peaches are sweet and juicy as I grab him and give him pretend bites and chomps.


Finally, feeling relieved and poetically inspired I whisper to him, “You know what? I actually think your skin is the exact color of the sand on the beach where your mom used to build sand castles when she was little and where later she married your dad.” This prompts the dear kiddo to look at his own arms and legs, smile, and ask, “So, what about that red fish?”

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