Death, Voting, and Other Things That Are Impossible to Explain to a 3-Year-Old


With Daylight Saving Time in the books and evening daylight quickly fading from memory, Greyson and I resumed our morning walks on Tuesday. I woke my sleepy boy and bundled him up for a sunrise stroll. We left at 6:40 and walked down the narrow shoulder of the road toward our favorite nearby farm, noticing an unusual amount of traffic along the way.

Then I saw a cluster of cars parked at the church near our house, and a small cluster of folks lined up outside the door in the dawn’s early light. The lightbulb flickered on in my mental attic, and it hit me — oh yeah, it’s Election Day! What a great chance to expose Greyson to the wonders of democracy. My timing was accidentally perfect. I slightly modified our morning walk route and carried my little guy to church on a Tuesday morning, getting in line to do our civic duty just 5 minutes before the polls opened.

The voting process at our polling place was slow and inefficient, but I was in good company. Greyson enjoyed watching me scribble in the Scantron circles with a Sharpie pen for our (okay, my) preferred candidates, and I gushed to him about how important and special it is that we get to cast a vote.

But then I tried to explain how voting works. And as it out, that is not the easiest thing to explain to a 3-year-old. Even a fairly precocious one like Greyson. I did my best, but I don’t think he came away from the experience with a strong sense of either the historical gravitas or the procedural logistics of the American electoral process.

One reason is that Greyson has no concept of competition. When we watch an Eagles game, he doesn’t grasp — or care — that the goal is for one team to get more points than the other team. So it’s tricky to explain how every person casts a vote and then the votes are all tallied to see who wins. (I can just imagine him saying, “What’s ‘wins’ mean?” Ahh to be innocent again.) I tried to keep my explanation as simple as I could, but I’m pretty sure I failed to adequately convey the nuances of our democratic ideals. A toddler’s mind just isn’t wired for that stuff.

(Side note: He’s still a toddler, right? Please tell me he is. Google is telling me that toddlerdom ends at 36 months, but I roundly reject that notion. My little boy will be a toddler until he turns 5.)

There are a lot of things I come across like that. Concepts I start trying to explain which I quickly realize are tricky if not impossible to elucidate for a 3-year-old.

For instance, why does Papa have to go to work every day? Why must he leave his family for 9-10 hours at a time? This one is tough because it requires a basic understanding of money, a concept which is entirely foreign to a child’s sweetly pre-capitalist mind. I try to explain to Greyson that I have to leave our house so that I can “make some money” which allows us to have food and diapers and gas in our cars and heat in our house.

But what does it mean to “make” money? Am I building something out of raw materials? And what on earth is this “money” thing I’m making anyway? Try to picture yourself explaining any of that to a 3-year-old, and you’ll quickly understand how this work/money thing we take for granted is something that none of us could have grasped at that age. And that’s one thing that makes early childhood so charming.

Another oddball thing that’s surprisingly hard to explain to a 3-year-old is pronouns. Greyson is charmingly inept at properly deploying these building blocks of language, saying things like “What should you dream about?” and “Can you have a snack, please?” When we try to gently correct him, it leads to comically murky explanations.

Greyson [wanting one of us to hold him]: Can I hold you?

Me: Sure, buddy! But remember, when you are talking about you, you don’t say “you”; you say “I” or “me.” When I am talking about you, I say “you.” But when I am talking about me, I say “me” or “I.” And when you are talking about me, you say “you.” Do you understand?

Greyson: Can you hold me?

Then there are the subjects I’m grateful I haven’t had to elucidate for Greyson yet. Like procreation, and death, and the current presidential administration. I hope it’s at least one more year before I have to broach either of the first two topics, and I pray that in one year the third one will become a moot point. It would make my heart ache to have to explain anything about the Trump era to my sweet little boy, whom we are carefully raising to in every way be the polar opposite of our current commander-in-chief.

As for death, I know that conversation is coming. And I know it will be a hugely important one. But for now, we’ve been able to hover around the edges of that subject — and somehow avoid Greyson seeing any roadkill. We’ll cross that (rainbow) bridge when we get there.

And as for where babies come from? I hope we have a few years before that one’s on the table. But Greyson is an unusually inquisitive little guy, so we’d better start brainstorming soon. All suggestions are welcome.

Regardless of the inherent difficulties of explaining the world to Greyson, I wouldn’t trade the sacred privilege of doing so for anything. I’m delighted on a daily basis to see the way his teeming mind works and do my best to answer his increasingly probing questions. I love that he instinctively asks “What’s ____ mean?” every time I use a word he’s not familiar with.

But for that reason, I do think I’ll avoid certain words around him — like drugs, racism, death, and taxes. After all, there’s no harm in making my papa life a little easier while I still can.

More importantly, there’s no harm in letting my little guy be… little.

After all, it’s one of his most endearing qualities.

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