When toddlers reach the “why” phase, conversations become longer and more complicated. Nothing really prepares you for answering hundreds of questions per day, especially when the answers can be challenging or abstract.
It’s possible to Google “why is the sky blue” but there are some questions that don’t have easy answers and trying to find the right response can be difficult.
During the time that my family and I have been home on lockdown, the “why” phase has truly started to blossom as my son Lucca is not as stimulated as he was in pre-school and his routine has become more monotonous.
“Why can’t I go to school?”
“Why can’t I play with Cousin Noah?”
“Why can’t we go to the park?”
These questions are hard to answer because the response is complex and explaining to a young child brings about even more “whys” that get harder and harder to address. To make it even more difficult, explaining why we can’t do something that our child loves to do (and misses doing) is genuinely heartbreaking. But answering hard questions and leading across uncharted territory is my responsibility as a father and my wife’s responsibility as a mother. And patronizing our child with unrealistic or, even worse, dishonest responses isn’t an option.
I believe that Lucca deserves to know the truth. And since the beginning of this pandemic, we have slowly started explaining to him about the “bad virus” that is out there making people sick. But, as any parent of a toddler knows all too well, after telling him about the “bad virus” comes the series of “whys” and follow-up questions.
“Why is there a bad virus?”
“Because, in this case, a virus that started living in animals figured out how to live in humans.”
“Because when many animals are living together against their desire, especially in places that are very dirty and unnatural, there is a greater chance of viruses evolving and spreading.”
“Why are animals living together?”
“Because, as you know, some people eat animals. In fact, most people eat animals, including a lot of people in your family and your little friends. Animals that become food live on dirty farms and end up in even worse places before becoming food. These places that are very dirty are ideal environments for viruses to grow and evolve. But we don’t eat animals, right, Lucca? What do we eat?”
“Plants and flowers.” (He loves to add ‘flowers’ to that response.)
“Why don’t we eat animals, Lucca?”
“Because we love animals. We give animals hugs.”
A child’s instincts are to love and care for animals. They are fascinated by animals and curious about them in every way. Fortunately for us, our property borders a nature reserve in the southeast of Brazil and is visited on a daily basis by monkeys, tropical birds, and a seemingly endless variety of insects. To Lucca, this is joy in its purest form. We have countless opportunities to show him the lives of those who are different to us while reinforcing the idea that they too deserve our compassion and respect. Even when snakes and large spiders enter the property (or our house, for that matter), I show Lucca how to safely remove them (while he stays at a safe distance in the arms of my wife).
The way we explain the pandemic and zoonotic diseases, subject matters that are complicated even for us to understand, is a natural extension of how we explain the coexistence of humans and animals. Because we spent the first three years of his life (and his nine months in utero) talking about how animals are friends and deserve our respect, his understanding of what’s going on (while obviously elementary) is happening faster than we expected. Sure, the subject matter is difficult for him to understand but he doesn’t really question how he feels about animals or the role of animals in our lives. He already understands that animals should not be exploited even if he isn’t fully aware of what exploitation is.
By continually educating him that animals deserve our love and respect, the very idea of exploitation (whether in the form of factory farming, animal testing, trafficking, etc) will automatically register in his mind as wrong as he gets older and gains a better understanding of how animals are exploited throughout the world at the hand of humanity.
Many people inadvertently inculcate their children into believing that animals are here for our use and consumption. This happens even as they teach their kids to love and respect animals. Countless popular songs and shows teach just that: respect animals, don’t hurt animals, be kind to animals. But these shows are written by people who eat animals and viewed by children whose parents feed them animals. If a child were to hit a pig with a stick, it’s almost guaranteed that their parent would scold them and teach them not to mistreat animals. But by continuously feeding them animal products, they are creating a disconnect that will, more likely than not, follow them for a lifetime and influence their future decisions and habits.
In a time like this, where the world has come to a grinding halt, and children are unable to live their normal lives, difficult questions will arise. As this current pandemic is unlike anything that anyone has ever experienced, it can be extra challenging to find references on how to act or how to explain these current events to our children. But giving them the option to understand at their own pace by providing them with an honest and factual account of what’s going on is what they deserve. Sugarcoating a global crisis won’t prepare them to confront future challenges or address difficult experiences they will imminently face down the road.
Addressing zoonotic diseases, wet markets, and pandemics isn’t fun or easy. Beyond epidemiologists and other folks who have specialized in these areas, most people are just starting to understand that these things even exist. But just because someone isn’t an expert doesn’t mean they can’t, at the very least, share the basics and present factual information to their kids, even if they are only toddlers.
Children thrive when they are treated with respect. Their curiosity knows no bounds and they crave knowledge. Sometimes, that knowledge might deal with a subject matter that isn’t comfortable or easy to discuss. But that doesn’t mean it should be ignored and it certainly doesn’t mean the child should be lied to in order to keep them in the dark about important issues. Sure, no one has to go into extreme details that will traumatize their kids, that should go without saying. I wouldn’t dream of telling my three-year-old son about what happens inside of slaughterhouses or go into detail about animal suffering on a factory farm. That time will come when he is older and ready.
In the meantime, however, we will continue to educate him about what is happening in the world, even if it means discussing topics that aren’t easy or pleasant to talk about. He deserves to be prepared for a world that isn’t always kind, especially to animals. And it’s my duty as a loving parent to be there for him in an honest and responsible matter.
Grant is the co-founder of Sentient Media. He currently lives in Brazil and has traveled across dozens of countries on assignment.