Approaching Adam: Talking with Kids about Human Origins and the Bible
“Hey, Mom and Dad, where do humans come from?” Christy gives some helpful dos and don’ts to help parents lead theological and scientific conversations with their children.
Within the evolutionary creation (EC) perspective, there are a variety of ways to understand the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve found in Genesis 2-4. Whichever interpretation(s) parents prefer, it’s inevitably more complicated and nuanced than explaining a straightforward literal reading, and parents may wonder how and when to bring up the finer points of their interpretation with their kids. Some may even dread the day when their kids put two and two together and ask how what they have learned about Adam and Eve from the Bible fits with what they know about Neanderthals or wooly mammoths from their library books.
My kids are now in middle school and high school, and I’ve had a little bit of time to reflect on what went well and what needed course corrections as I tried to help my kids reconcile science and Scripture in their elementary years. I don’t have a very detailed roadmap for my friends just starting out on their own parenting adventures, but I’ve come up with some general Dos and Don’ts to consider.
Do recognize your kids will probably experience Genesis differently than you did.
Some of the questions Adam and Eve raise may feel intimidating and uncomfortable because of our own baggage. For those who grew up with a rigidly literal view of the Bible, it can be a painful process to come to a place where faith and science are on speaking terms. If you are one of the people who has experienced disillusionment because you felt deceived by people you trusted, or if you have experienced spiritual abuse or rejection for changing your perspective on human origins, it’s important to acknowledge that damage and hurt.
However, your children might not process their questions the same way you did or feel the same emotional reactions, because they are growing up in a different environment. They are exposed to different ideas and are receiving different responses from a very young age. One thing I started doing when my kids asked questions about how natural history or science and the Bible fit together was to say something like, “That’s a really good question, what do you think?” Sometimes my kids had pretty interesting thoughts that led the conversation in an unexpected direction. Sometimes their real underlying concerns were not what I initially assumed. For many of us whose faith background has taught us to value having the right answers, it can be hard not to jump in with an answer right away, especially if we think we have a good one. But it is probably more important in the long run to affirm that it is normal and good to be curious, and that imagination, creativity, and humility all have their place in thinking about God’s story.
If your kids are hearing a young earth creationist perspective at church or a Christian school, they may find those ideas very appealing and convincing for a time. Depending on your situation and personality, you may have to be careful not to put your kids in the middle of your own power struggles or debates with other adults in your lives. Kids need space and time to build their worldviews and figure stuff out for themselves. If you consistently model openness to questions and how to seek out reliable information to answer them, that will pay off. But at the end of the day, it will be your honesty and unconditional acceptance that will make you trustworthy to your kids, not the strength of your answers and arguments.
Don’t think you have to explain everything in one sitting.
When my four-year-old asked where babies came from, my choices were not: 1) tell him something about storks and recant later; or 2) explain everything he’d ever need to know about reproduction and human sexuality. I responded honestly to his question using age-appropriate concepts and vocabulary, knowing that many other conversations would follow. Similarly, when it comes to discussing biblical interpretation with your kids, plan on having lots of conversations as children mature intellectually and in their own faith. It doesn’t accomplish much if you try to explain highly abstract ideas to children who are still very concrete thinkers.
For some parents whose views on the Bible have shifted since their own childhood, there can be a sense of anxiety or discomfort about an imagined moment where they sit their kids down and have “the talk” about Adam and Eve. It’s not like that. Parenting involves plenty of awkward and difficult conversations, but Adam and Eve doesn’t have to be one of them, and you definitely won’t have to explain everything there is to say about the topic in one conversation.
Do talk with your kids about what to say or not to say.
Most parents in the American context have to decide how to handle Santa Claus in their family. If you are one of the families that introduces the idea of Santa Claus to your children as make believe from the beginning, you probably still don’t want your kids to make themselves a persona non grata by ensuring every other kid in preschool is clued in. The analogy breaks down, of course, especially if you believe that Adam and Eve are historical figures, but most parents don’t want their kids to alienate others or be ostracized in some way for having different insights into Genesis than their peer group. What do you do when all your kids’ cousins, or friends from Sunday School, or classmates at the homeschool co-op are being taught something very different about Adam and Eve and the origins of humans?
This requires wise judgment, and different parents will probably come down in different places about the best way to balance integrity and harmony. No matter how you hope your kids will handle confrontations, they can benefit from role-playing conversations. You can then talk about when to speak up and when to stay quiet, how to avoid hurting people’s feelings, and how to be respectful of their relatives, their friends’ parents, and their teachers, even if they think they are wrong about something.
You can start these kinds of role-playing conversations by simply proposing a situation and asking how they would respond. “What would you do if your teacher said all Christians believe Adam and Eve were the very first people on earth?” “What would you do if a friend told you people who believe that prehistoric cave dwellers actually existed won’t go to heaven?” “What would you do if your cousin told you not to read your National Geographic dinosaur book because it isn’t a Christian book?”
This can give you great insights into your kids’ thinking, feelings, and unresolved tensions. It also may prompt them to tell you about things that have already happened to them that you wouldn’t hear about otherwise and may want to debrief a little. My children have told me the most difficult part of growing up exposed to EC ideas has not been their occasional confusion about how to understand the Bible—it has been dealing with the complicated social demands of participating in Christian communities that assume (and sometimes try to enforce) a different perspective.
Don’t lose the forest for the trees (or in this case, maybe the Garden for the trees)
Sometimes we can get so concerned about giving our kids good explanations of all the sticky parts and reminding them what Genesis isn’t teaching, that we forget to focus on the main message. What do you think God is telling us in Genesis 2-4? What’s really important? Make sure you spend more time talking about, marveling at, and helping your kids internalize those things than you do dwelling on the “problems” with the text or the errors you see in other people’s interpretations. I want the way I communicate about Scripture with my kids to impress on them that the Bible is a gift from God. It is life-giving, it is wise, it inspires worship, and we are accountable for how we respond to its truth. If all I do is focus on how I think other people misinterpret things, or how the ancient audience didn’t understand the science and natural history we know today, or how many unanswered questions a certain interpretation of Genesis leaves, then I may be modeling how to miss the point.
Don’t underestimate the power of story
Sometimes when I talk with other EC parents about how they approach Adam and Eve, I sense that some people are uneasy about how real and compelling stories are for kids. I have even heard some parents say that they don’t want their kids to know what Genesis says about Adam and Eve, “until they are old enough to understand it.” I assume they mean something other than being old enough to simply comprehend what happens in the narrative. Although I can see where this reticence comes from, I think maybe we need to trust God’s chosen way of revealing his truth a little more.
On a recent Language of God podcast, theologian Alister McGrath encourages listeners to reconsider the power of stories. He noted the importance of realizing that “stories capture the imagination, and in doing so they make people receptive to or interested in what lies behind those stories.” Since the Bible is full of stories, we should be using them as we think about and explain Christianity. He said that many times we are tempted to shortcut the storytelling and just give a synopsis, but this misses two things. “First of all, the appeal is no longer to the imagination, it’s to reason,” McGrath explains. “And secondly, in trying to summarize a story—mythos—in words—logos—we end up reducing it… And therefore by trying to summarize, by trying to reduce mythos to logos, what happens is that our rich multifaceted story becomes a single line of argument… We need to respect story as story.”
This is good advice for explaining Christianity to adults, but it’s even more relevant for children, whose imaginations and abilities to empathize with a story’s characters are more unfettered than adults who easily get distracted by looking for theology to distill. Maybe we shouldn’t view it as a handicap that children may not old enough to “understand” the Adam and Eve narrative like adults can. They may be young enough to be fully captured by it.
A closing pep-talk
Talking with your kids about Adam and Eve can be the beginning of many fruitful conversations about really important things over the course of a childhood. You can do this! God promises wisdom to every parent who recognizes their need and asks for help (James 1:5). And, if you have your own advice, anecdotes, or dilemmas from the front lines of parenting that you would like to share with others who are on your side, stop by the BioLogos Forum and start a conversation.
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.
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