I got an email the other day from @hannibaltraven whose stepson is being fed creationist BS when he’s at his Dad’s. The email read:
My 9yo stepson says he doesn’t believe people evolved from monkeys. After a long sigh, I tried to educate him but I don’t think he gets it. How do I change the indoctrination he gets from his “born again” father?
This is a really difficult situation and to be honest, I don’t know that anything you do will work, guaranteed. Indoctrination is powerful stuff, and if you add to it the need for a child to “side” with or defend their biological parents, you’re in for a rough ride. As a step parent myself, I know that trying to counter something that the biological parent has said can be a complete minefield, and in my experience, requires a bit more care than teaching your own biological child something. Often, the stepkid will become defensive, feeling that you’re threatening their mom or dad. Given the tendency for this, here’s how I would approach the situation:
1. Be subtle – don’t come right out and say, “humans evolved from monkeys” or “your dad is wrong” or “evolution is true”. Come at it from another, more gentle angle. Even with fully grown, adult creationists, simplifying evolution and bringing it away from our ape status helps them to see that it’s not so wild or insulting to be an evolved being. Evolution is, stripped right down to it, gradual change over many generations. It is why offspring aren’t all born identical to their parents. Getting your nine year old to accept that people are born with different coloured eyes from their parents, is going to be a helluva lot easier than getting him to accept that we’re apes.
2. Jump on every opportunity to point out evidence of evolution when you see it. But do it subtly. For instance, if someone mentions getting a DNA test to find out their ancestry, paternity, or if you’re watching a crime drama and they’re using DNA evidence to determine guilt, ask your son if he would believe the results. Would he believe matching DNA samples at a crime scene means guilt? Would be believe a match between a boy and a man meant paternity? Would he believe his ancestors are who his DNA determines them to be? If he says yes, tell him that DNA evidence doesn’t just tell us our human ancestry. It also tells us that we share a common ancestor with the rest of the ape family. If he’s curious to know more, show him how closely related our DNA is to chimps – use photos on the internet.
3. When you do end up talking about it, make sure your son understands that evolution is not an origin explanation and that there are many scientists who study and accept evolution who still believe god created us. Some say god set evolution in motion. Make him understand that accepting evolution doesn’t necessarily mean kicking ol’ Jeeby to the curb.
4. Instead of you trying to teach him evolution, try to poke holes in his beliefs. Use the socratic method – have him explain what he believes to you and ask him, “Why?” as much as you can. Do not counter his beliefs. Just get him to explain them in greater and greater detail and if something doesn’t make sense to you, as much of it will not, say, “Wait, I don’t understand that part. You mean god is trying to trick us? But why would he do that?” Etc. Make sure you’re asking in a tone that is not accusatory, or gotcha-like, but rather, genuine curiosity. Truly listen to his answers. Repeat what he says back to him. Show that you want to know what he believes and eventually, as you go over it and over it, the holes will become blaringly obvious to him without you even pointing them out.
5. Make sure he has internet access – while you definitely want to monitor what he’s doing on the internet and you might need to limit his time on it, if he’s a voracious intertubes consumer, you have to let him explore and learn and get exposed to new ideas. Talk to him, without judgment, about the things he saw. Even if it has nothing to do with evolution or religion in any way. This opens the doors to more conversation about more things in the future.
6. Be okay with what he believes. The most powerful tool a parent has is trust. If you build trust and open conversation with him, rather than barking at him what he ought to see as the truth, eventually, when he has his own doubts, he will come to you for guidance. You have to accept that you may not change his mind. You have to love him anyway. You have to create an extremely safe space for him to talk about his beliefs without judgment. I can guarantee you that his indoctrinating father doesn’t do that, because indoctrination doesn’t work that way. This gives you an advantage over his creationist dad in that, when he finally does experience a doubt or two, he will feel more comfortable coming to you to talk, than jeebot daddy. I cannot stress this point enough. Just accept him for who he is and create that trust between you two. Become friends. Eventually, he will turn to you for guidance all on his own.
I think it’s important to remind yourself that he is just nine, and he’s got plenty of time to grow up in a world where information is easily accessible. Many people credit the internet and the easy access to knowledge for their loss of faith, and your son is likely to come up against a great many ideas that contradict his beliefs. All you need to do is make sure you’re the one he comes to when he has questions, and he’ll be just fine.
Readers, what are some other ways to explain evolution to a child who denies it? Let me know in the comments!