Kid is 4 years old.

She knows that she was in my tummy and then doctor took her out. She saw my childhood photos and asked me where she was at that time. She has also asked me how she got in my tummy.

My 4 year old cannot understand the meaning of "not existing".

How do I answer these questions?

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    'My 4 year old cannot understand the meaning of "not existing".' - oh, I bet she can. Ask her to build a house out of bricks (eg lego). Then put the bricks away. Ask her where the house was before she built it, and ask her where it is now. – AakashM Jun 29 '17 at 12:51
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    @AakashM Reminds me of xkcd.com/659 – Tobias Kienzler Jun 29 '17 at 12:57
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    Whatever you do, don't let your kid ask Cortana/Siri/Google "How to Make Babies". – T. Sar Jun 29 '17 at 16:38
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    @AakashM, well, understanding concept of "non existing" state of some outer object is quite different than understanding of "non existing" self. I don't even think human consciousness can do that at all, at any age. – user28434 Jun 30 '17 at 15:46
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    "My 4 year old cannot understand the meaning of 'not existing'." Heck, I'm 30 and I can barely understand it myself. Entire religions have sprung up around this issue. Over millennia! – Lightness Races in Orbit Jun 30 '17 at 16:52

12 Answers 12

up vote 44 down vote accepted

It's difficult to understand what children are actually seeking as an answer when they ask a question such as this. Since parents know the whole story, it's a challenge to tease out just enough information to satisfy the child without overburdening them. Asking some questions of them about what they think (maybe talking about other species) might give you an idea of what they are actually asking.

Most children understand eggs. Almost everything we can see comes from an egg of some kind: insects, birds, turtle, all mammals, etc. It should not be hard to show her a video of, say, a turtle laying eggs and then the hatchlings coming out of the shell.

All these animals have the eggs inside of them long before before they grow old enough to start having babies/laying eggs. When the mother is old enough, the eggs are incubated (inside or outside of the body) and develop into what they are meant to become. You have human baby eggs inside of you in a special place in your tummy. That's where she was before she was in the part of your tummy where babies grow until they are born. She was always safe and warm there before she grew into a baby.

I told this to my youngest son when he asked, at about your daughter's age. He asked me if his shell was hard or soft. I answered, "Soft". That night in his prayers and for many nights after, he started his prayers with, "Dear God, Thank you that I'm not a smooshy egg." Somehow this idea disturbed him. So, less than we think is often better with kids.

I tend to think some version of the truth is always best. To deal with this question when my son asked it, I used a fruit analogy: just like apples grow on trees, babies grow in their mommy's tummies; and just like there was no apple before it started growing, there was no baby before it started growing. I'd maybe skip the bit about exactly what triggers a baby to start growing :) and just add that babies can only grow in grown up girls, just like an apple can only grow from a grown up tree.

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    I see. I think it helped my 3 year old a lot that we watched a couple of YouTube videos of plants growing from seeds - seeing that there was basically nothing and then it became something over time. The concept of zero/nothing/non-existence is tough though. – MAA Jun 29 '17 at 6:16
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    @MAA This seed comparison is technically speaking very close to the reality, as when a girl is born she already have all her eggs. – le_daim Jun 29 '17 at 7:52
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    @Aquarius_Girl: Ask her to look for the pink elephant in the kitchen. She will say "it's not there". Then you can ask her "where is it?" and then she may figure it out. – gnasher729 Jun 29 '17 at 9:26
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    @le_daim But plants aren't "born" with seeds: they grow the seeds when they need them. (Of course, plants aren't "born" but, for example, when a plant first pushes out of the ground and grows its first leaves, it has no seeds. They're grown later.) – David Richerby Jun 29 '17 at 10:06
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    @DavidRicherby le_daim's point was that, when the mother was born, technically the child was already inside her as a seed. So the answer to the child's question would be "you were a seed that hadn't grown yet" or something similar (replace with egg to be more technically correct). – Doc Jun 29 '17 at 15:56

This is going to be somewhat subjective based on your own beliefs & what you want to instill in her. My own mother believes we are in heaven with God before birth, so that is the story I was told. I told my children, that I truly do not know where they were, because I don't know that I have a strong belief on it. I told them that their body wasn't made yet, but as far as their spirit I cannot say since I don't recall anything before age 3, and they don't recall, so there is no way to know.

By 4 my children have all known how a baby comes out. So when I am asked by a child too young to actually grasp things like an egg that is so small you can't see it with the human eye, I stick with simple responses like "You went in the same way you came out". At this sort of age, that has seemed to be enough. I also often ask them questions versus filling in blanks. We watch videos with human birth (as I want them to see it as normal & not gross - so far, so good). I also have them watch videos on fish reproduction & we own fish. I think that helps them to see what is happening because it all takes place externally, but in many ways no so differently than how it does for humans. When "the time" came to actually talk, by them my kids had figured it out on their own really. I mean, my youngest is 3, so not yet for her, but by 6 my others already deduced that the man makes sperm & puts that inside you & I didn't even have to go into details, as I had slowly shown them enough info for them to sort it out. It's not that I don't want to tell them. it's that I recall being told & having it feel so confusing as I had no context. I think for my kids it's never felt confusing or surprising as it's a conclusion they came to through many small talks.

And if you have done the best you can to simplify it & she says she doesn't understand, just reassure her that it's okay not to understand. That in life some concepts are so big they are hard to understand & sometimes impossible to understand. Realistically I do not really seem to understand the concept of infinity. I can't wrap my head around the idea that space could go on "forever". The human mind only really grasps things that start & stop. I can't grasp being indifferent to suffering, but so many people are. I can't explain those things to my kids. I've been asked. I've tried. We have had to just agree we all, as a family, do not understand indifference to suffering. We won't always be able to grasp all things, even when we are fully grown. So you just do the best you can to explain it the way you understand it, and then show your human side that to them, that you too struggle at times to grasp certain things.

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    Good answer. I agree that it's okay to tell a child you do not understand either. That can be the start of a good discussion. – sleske Jun 29 '17 at 8:18
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    Technically you CAN see a human egg cell with the human eye. It's right on the edge of the smallest things we can resolve, but they are typically 0.12 mm in diameter. It's just that you generally don't have a good opportunity to look at one. – Shufflepants Jun 29 '17 at 15:01
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    Interesting shufflepants..thanks for that. I doubt I could see it though...I apparently can't even see my keys unless they are exactly where I expect them to be. ;) Hehe – threetimes Jun 29 '17 at 15:07
  • I'd be worried that if I said something like "You went in the same way you came out", the child would think that her mother swallowed some kind of pill, and then later, she popped out of her mother's mouth. – Dawood ibn Kareem Jul 3 '17 at 1:51
  • When I said that @dawood, my children had already seen birth, so there was no concern for me that they would think the mouth was involved. If a child hasn't gotten yet to the point of seeing birth, then yes, that would be a confusing way to explain any of it as you are saying it with no context. – threetimes Jul 3 '17 at 3:58

When you talk about your child not understanding where they were when you were little, the thing that I immediately thought about was Piaget's experiments with children and when they can begin understanding abstract concepts. There is a ton of great stuff about Piaget on the internet, but this article did a nice job of summing it up in a manner that seemed particularly appropriate in response to the question:

In the preoperational stage (Piaget said it lasted from around age 2 until about 7), kids start being able to grasp symbols....On the other hand, they don’t understand abstract concepts like amounts, speed, or weight. In one of Piaget’s most famous experiments, he showed that children at this stage can’t comprehend that if you pour liquid from a short, wide glass into a tall, narrow glass, it’s still the same amount.

I think that your daughter is simply demonstrating Piaget's theory about how children have difficulty understanding abstraction. I think your best bet is to figure out an explanation that best fits with your own personal beliefs--something along the lines of "you were a bundle of energy waiting in the sky until it was time for you to be born" or "you were with God until you were ready to be in mommy's tummy" or "your atoms were part of other things until they all decided to gather together to form you."

Those suggestions all seem pretty clunky to me, but hopefully they can start you thinking about something you can tell your own child that fits with your belief system and can help her have some sort of concrete explanation that will help her feel comfortable until she is actually able to understand a more abstract explanation.

EDITED TO ADD: There are a number of great non-clunky suggestions for what else you can tell your daughter in the other answers to this question. So, please think about my response as more of an answer to why your child is struggling to understand this and not as much about how to better answer.

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    A caution about Piaget's work: An observation that something does happen a particular way has zero implications that it must happen that way, or that it can't happen some other way. For example, all data about child prodigies must be discarded to make Piaget's theory universally applicable. (cont'd) – Wildcard Jun 30 '17 at 23:52
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    (cont'd) I have personally seen evidence that contradicts the "can't" statements in the linked article. It may be useful information to guide expectations, but absent understanding of the factors of intelligence sufficient to produce increased intelligence at will, it's much like a medieval observation of the stages a stab wound proceeds through en route to death. The missing understanding being germ theory and the causes of infection—which, fully grasped, enable one to either accelerate, decelerate, halt or reverse the stages of infection. – Wildcard Jun 30 '17 at 23:56
  • A common misconception about many studies is that they are "universally applicable", when they are instead expressing a continuum of information, which usually falls along a bell curve. I referenced Piaget because so many of the answers to the OP talk about trying to help her daughter understand something abstract, and I wanted to point out that her daughter may simply be unable to understand abstraction at this age. – magerber Jul 3 '17 at 14:59

Where does chocolate milk come from?

Chocolate milk is a combination. It doesn't exist, until all the needed parts are available. The needed parts are combined, and then the rest of the "chocolate milk-creating process" (a.k.a. "stirring") happens.

Where do babies come from? They grow. First, you start out with cells. Cells are so tiny that they can't even be seen. Some of the cells are Daddy cells, and some are Mommy cells. Then, the needed parts (the cells) are combined, and then the rest of the creation process begins. That doesn't involve a lot of stirring, but it does involve a lot of growing. The little tiny tiny tiny baby grows. And grows. And grows and grows and grows.

After about nine months, the baby is born. Before then, the baby may not be ready to breathe air. After nine months, the baby is big enough to breathe air and eat, so the baby is ready to come out of the mommy. Then the baby can see the world. It is also nice for the mommy to not always need to keep carrying the baby all the time after the baby is big enough to be born. But, even then, the baby still isn't done growing. The baby becomes a child, and still keeps growing until the child becomes a grown-up.

Let's go make some chocolate milk.

  • As adults, we know there are details we'd rather not discuss. If we focus on another aspect, like growing, the child might not focus on those details. Or; you can say, "how mommies and daddies combine cells is something for you to learn later. You can't do that now. Noone else your age is a parent. Just like you need to grow up more before going to college, getting married, or learning about starting fires or driving cars, this is something people can do later. Like these other things, you'll learn more about when you grow up some more. In the mean time, look forward to growing up. – TOOGAM Jul 1 '17 at 3:39

I think that there are two problems here.

The first problem are the details of human reproduction: that can be solved by telling the truth or by telling an appropiate tale - my choice was telling the truth or most of it, but that is a matter of preference.

The second (and most unexpected) problem is the idea of non existence: that's a lot harder. One of my daughters had a hard time understanding that at some point of time she wasn't anywere. That might be related to the difficulty of young children understanding time-related concepts that adults take for granted - and she had difficulties with some of those concepts. However, I think this was also influenced by the feeling of being excluded: knowing about a time enjoyed by all the family excluding her but interestingly including her older sister could have been disappointing enough to reject the idea of not existing.

The second problem is harder to solve because there isn't much to tell about where she was when she was nowhere. The good part is that it's a problem that solves itself with time when the child grows enough to get the concept of not existing - at lest my daughter did, and as far as I can remember it didn't happen much later than 4 years old, or maybe earlier.

It's important to remember that young children don't have the cultural baggage associated with sex that adults do, and I would suggest that if your child is old enough to ask the question, they are old enough to get a proper answer.

Equally, if a child approaches adolescence with a reasonable knowledge of how sex works, they are likely to have a much easier time when the more confusing realities of how their own bodies work start to set in.

Also, the way she has phrased the question is not that far from the truth, as women do indeed have all the 'eggs' they will ever have present form birth, so that may be a useful fact to hang your explanation on. So it may be helpful to explain it in terms of her being a 'new' person made from equal parts of her mother and father.

Obviously this is a potentially embarrassing topic, but I would suggest now is a less embarrassing time to deal with it than a bit later on.

As others have suggested, looking at the way e.g. fish reproduce may be a good way to introduce the basic biology e.g. via nature documentaries.

It is probably also not a bad idea to get hold of a good, scientifically focused book on the subject and go through it with her. There are plenty which are appropriate to that age group.

It is also worth saying that she will find out about sex sooner or later, so you have the opportunity now to have some control over how that first gets presented.

My experience is that even very young children are usually fine with hard factual information, even if they don't fully grasp it. It's half-truths and innuendo that bothers them as they can tell it doesn't quite make sense but they don't understand why.

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    This seems like a very reasonable answer, +1. Why the downvote? – Ben Crowell Jun 30 '17 at 23:26

When my son was four, he was asking questions like this. I told him that we took a teeny tiny piece of Mummy, and a teeny tiny piece of Daddy, and we made a teeny tiny baby, that wasn't even as big as a pea. He started off in Mummy's tummy, so small you couldn't even see him, and he got a bit bigger every day (he has learned about "bigger every day" by planting a seed, and watering it every day and seeing it grow).

When he was too big to fit in Mummy's tummy any more, he came out through her vagina. He doesn't have any problem with that, and it's basically the truth. He doesn't seem to be interested yet in the exact mechanics of how we got the two tiny pieces and put them together.

One nice thing about this is that I've told him that wherever he is, he's always got a bit of Mummy and a bit of Daddy inside him, which he seems to like.

  • +1 - Nice answer and true yet understandable. – anongoodnurse Jul 3 '17 at 14:22

I believe it's important to be honest, but at that age, if your kid believes in Santa or the Easter Bunny then why not fudge the facts of conception a little bit.

From the age of 3 until kindergarten my daughter believed she used to be a monkey at the zoo until her mom stole her and turned her into a baby ..or some such thing. Before she started school I made sure to find a simple video on YouTube aimed to answer that question for young children and I watched it with her and answered her question.

I've found a lot of help explaining various difficult questions on YouTube. Just make sure you watch it all the way thru before showing your kid or you might get Rick-rolled, and that will really confuse your daughter.

Everything you see here consists of extremely tiny parts. Those parts are called "atoms" and every unique material here in the world consists of a specific form of atoms called "molecules".

Those parts are existing on earth for a very long time and they do not disappear: They are used and reused again and again. If you see things disappear in a fire, in reality the molecules are moving into the air were you can't see them.
Currently you have in your body molecules which once belonged to dinosaurs, plants, jellyfish, bats, birds or any kind of organisms.

As you can see, we can assemble things from other things. We can make cake from water, wheat, eggs, milk and sugar. We can make mobiles from metals and plastic. So things which are markedly different from their original material can be built and assembled.

What is also important is that if some things have not been done, it may be not possible to do a specific thing ever again. Let's imagine that your favorite baseball team visits your town; if you get sick, you may be extremely disappointed because it could be that they come never again.

Life is strange because we humans and other organisms are able to reproduce ourselves: Molecules can be built in a very specific way so that they are able to assemble other molecules like a tool. Hard to believe, but true. We are pretty sure that the molecules in dumb materials and smart humans are pretty much the same, but why it is possible that molecules can built copies of themselves and why the seemingly dumb molecules allow consciousness and thinking is an unsolved question. We simply don't know it.

Eggs are very specific parts of organisms which exactly contains such molecule forms which are able to assemble other molecules. They are called sperm cells, they do not contain babies, only a memory how your mom was created. This memory is itself not sufficient to create a new baby.

You begin only to exist once your mom and dad are loving themselves at the right time. Then the sperms of your dad which themselves contain the memory how to create your dad are merging together with the egg of your mom and they share their memories which finally allows the molecule form to start building you. Your mom's tummy is necessary to give them the nutrients they need to create a baby.

Given that you are created from both mom and dad, you are similar, but different. The fascinating thing is that only the decision of your mom and dad coming together starts everything, without that (like the baseball team mentioned before), the world could have continued without you. Even more strange, you and all other organisms are absolutely unique, there will be never be another human like you on earth nor did a human like you existed before. Even twins are different.

This is question that is difficult to deal with for adults as well. The physical facts about birth are not going to address the issue of "where we came from" in a satisfactory way, because you're left with the notion that you didn't exist, which is a difficult notion to deal with. Far enough in the future we won't exist either because we'll die, many adults cling to religion to deal with that. It are these issues which motivates pondering these questions, not the technical details about some biological facts about pregnancy, especially for a four-year-old.

So, besides talking about the biological facts, it's also useful to explain that not all questions are 100% settled. It's a useful thing to know at an early age that there are things out there that are so hard to understand that even adults have not understood it properly yet. This can make learning about such subjects a lot more interesting.

Now, it may not be clear that there can be something non-trivial about this particular question asked by the four-year-old. You may think that in the end the broad picture of where we came from will be the same anyway. So, let me give an alternative perspective that may not be correct but it's consistent with current knowledge. This is however a bit too complicated to explain to a four-year-old.

My starting point is that we are just biological machines, our minds are algorithms run by our brains. From the perspective of an algorithm that is processing a finite amount of information, the external world can be in any state that's consistent with that information (but not all these states will be equally likely). Then another assumption I'm going to make is the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics which leads to the conclusion:

In layman's terms, the hypothesis states there is a very large—perhaps infinite[2]—number of universes, and everything that could possibly have happened in our past, but did not, has occurred in the past of some other universe or universes.

Then whenever you learn a new fact, that fact was not settled before you learned it (unless the alternative is inconsistent with your existence). If e.g. humans including you could have evolved without there ever having existed dinosaurs, then the moment you learned about dinosaurs you split off from a copy who learns something else about the geological history of the (copy of the) Earth.

Within this framework the answer to the question will be totally different. When going back in time when you had less information stored in your brain, you are going to merge with former copies who had split off previously due to learning different things about their world. When you were born you wouldn't know which century you lived in, it would take some time before you would see a car. Information about such basic facts would have entered your brain quite some time later. Therefore you were not even located in a definite place where these facts were settled, if you consider locations in the multiverse where these facts were settled and picture you as a baby in these places, then you would be identical in the different places where the facts were different, in the sense that your mind is the same in the different places.

So, I've to picture me as a newborn baby as being everywhere that's consistent with the knowledge I had back then. So, the very same person I was back then, was also born on many different dates in many different places ranging from prehistoric times to far into the future of different copies of the Earth. In fact, you can take two different persons, say Julius Cesar and Albert Einstein and argue that they were in fact the same person when they were young enough (which then may include being an embryo), because if you go back far enough in time you'll erase arbitrary much of the brain content.

This means that I cannot say that I was in the womb of specifically my mother, because the difference between me and my mother gradually fades away the farther I go back in time. My mother, me and everyone/everything else existed as the same creature in a place that gradually became more and more well defined (e.g. as an egg or a womb). At some point I would have diverged as a different person from my mother and father, but it's hard to say exactly when.

In China, people tend to shun such topic because it is too sensitive or just embarrasing. Many children are told by their parents that they are the gifts given by the telephone company when they recharge the paying card. In your case, when the kid is so young, he or she cannot fully understand the facts even with your great efforts to tell them. It is better to distract him with other interesting things.

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    What are the advantages or disadvantages of this approach? Is there no age appropriate way of discussing human development at a 4-year-old's level? – Acire Jun 29 '17 at 15:12
  • It is something like, not everybody could understand 100% of Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity. And even after your discussion in a way that you think is appropriate, what do you expect a four-year-old could know anything useful from such discussion? Thins that cannot be made clear at the moment are better left to a better time in future. – NanningYouth Jun 30 '17 at 4:22
  • Einstein once said "if you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough". Relativity is easy to explain to a child if you understand it. Sex is even easier to explain. The issue has to do with what's appropriate, not what's easy. – Occam's Razor Jun 30 '17 at 21:48
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    Confucius also said that there should not be classification of students if you are a teacher good enough. Yes, under the ideal circumstance, everything is possible. A man knows well of how a baby is born, but he cannot give birth of the baby himself because he doesn't have the organ for this purpose. A small kid, without the organ of understanding fully developed, should not be expected to understand things like sex. And it is unnecessary to tell him about it too. – NanningYouth Jul 1 '17 at 0:50
  • Another factor in this is cost. Yes, Einstein can finally find an easy way to tell that man or child who is not so clever his complicated theory, but how much is the cost for doing that? Do you expect him to do other important things in his capacity of a scientist? In the case of child education, it is the same. A very young kid doesn't need to know so much or exactly about sex. His curiosity could be satisifed by other things that he can easily understand, without causing too much embarrassment and other undue cost to his parents. – NanningYouth Jul 1 '17 at 0:56

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