The Confused Agnostic Approach for Explaining Life, Death and the Rest of It to a Five Year Old

“What were humans before?”

That’s a heavy question for a five year old, but one that should be sufficed with a quick Google search- except it’s never quite that easy.

I show Liam a timeline of human evolution- the one with the hunched over ape-like creature that gradually straightens upright into a modern man.

“That looks like a monkey.  Did I used to be a monkey?”

I am wholly unprepared for this conversation.  I start rambling about one-celled organisms growing legs and coming out of the water.  I think I am doing pretty well describing how we are all interconnected- how tiny sea creatures over time grew into birds, sharks, dinosaurs, and even humans.

“So I’m part dinosaur?”

Ok.  I might need a little help with this.  As an agnostic, and a very confused one at that, I have been loathe to discuss life, death, God, religion, and all the other big questions.  I guess I shouldn’t put it entirely on being agnostic, but I am the worst kind of agnostic- the agnostic hippie. My almost four year old wears pajamas all day, every day because I don’t want to crush his spirit by forcing him to wear “real” clothes.  I am completely incapable of pushing any sort of agenda that might involve personal beliefs and the fight for our eternal souls.

But evolution, I feel I can sink my teeth into.  This is not the great unknown, this is science. For once, I can set about answering a big question without searching for some sort of politically correct answer.  Over the next few days, I again look to Google (how did parents manage before the internet?) for answers and come across this video by Stated Clearly.

I  was reluctant to show Liam the vidwo because I thought it might be a little over his head.  I wasn’t sure he could grasp DNA mutations, heritable traits, and reproduction.  But, the more I searched, I didn’t come across any other videos or books that I thought were easier to understand.  This is a big concept.  Liam was asking the question, and I felt like I needed to answer with honesty.  I let him watch the video.

He didn’t grasp the whole thing, but he was very interested in it.  He understood enough to get a good start on comprehending evolution.  I figured there were worse things I could do than feed a curiosity about science.  Kellen on the other hand just walks around repeating “evolution has officially occurred!”

I didn’t want to leave it entirely to youtube to educate my son.  So I went to my other parenting source- Amazon.  I found an “Eras of Life” poster.

I have trouble organizing my thoughts when speaking.  This poster provided points I could talk to, as well as information the boys could visually process.  I liked how it mapped the continents dividing, and provided pictures illustrating how animals evolved.  I think it is an item that will continue to be helpful as they grow and are able to understand more and more of it.


I was ready to pat myself on the back for a job well done, but the big questions kept coming.

“What happens when we die?”

I wouldn’t say Liam is obsessed with death, but he does have a healthy preoccupation.

I have always said that I would support whatever religion or lack of that my kids choose to believe in.  I just don’t feel comfortable picking a system of faith for them.  To me, religious beliefs are about as personal as you can get.  I don’t want to indoctrinate them to believe what I believe. I want them to have the freedom to think for themselves.

But I was also beginning to think that I was failing Liam.  Clearly, whatever answers I had provided were not sufficient.  More than once he had cried in my arms, scared of what was going to happen when he dies.  I didn’t have to determine the course of his faith for his life, but I needed to give him some comfort to hold on to.

We began exploring death and religion.  I worried that by talking openly about it, I might fuel his worries.  Instead, I think the discussions demystified it a bit.  Death was ok to talk about.

Back to Google and Amazon, I ordered books.

Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie is a good place to start, especially for my younger son, Kellen.  Through simple words and beautiful illustrations it discusses how every living thing has a birth, a death, and living in between.  Liam knew this already.

“But what happens when you die?”

Time to get real.  We read What Does Dead Mean by Caroline Jay and Jenni Thomas.  While written with gentle words, it does not sugar coat anything.  It explains funerals, cremation, and burials.  It touches on what people believe the soul is and if there is a heaven.  The writing can be a bit bland, and the boys attention wandered a bit by the end, but I did like how clearly stated everything was.  I think it is a book that will be reread and more will be absorbed.

My favorite book selection was What Is God? by Etan Boritzer.  This book is so beautifully written, it actually brought tears to my eyes.

“Maybe God is what you feel when you stand on a very high mountain and see a big beautiful view all around you.  Or maybe God is what you feel when you hear beautiful music, sometimes soft, sometimes loud.  Or maybe God is what you feel when you see a million stars at night and you feel very small looking up at them.  Maybe we can feel God when there is loud thunder or bright lightning outside our windows.”

It provides brief explanations for the world’s major religions, without endorsement and with plenty of room for free interpretation.  Kellen really liked this one.

The book talked about prayer.  I have never really shared much of my own beliefs with the boys.  I took this as an opportunity not to impose my ideas on them, but to give them a personal example of what one person thinks.

I told them that I don’t believe in a specific God, and I’m not sure what happens when you die.  But I do think there is something out there, and sometimes I find it comforting to talk to that being by saying a little prayer.  I asked if they wanted to hear how I prayed and they said yes.

“Dear God.  Thank you for this day and for all the good things in it.  Please help us to be as kind as we can be.”

We set about exploring different ideas about what people think happens when you die.

We saw the movie The Book of Life, which explores traditions behind the Day of the Dead.  I asked the boys if they would like to build their own alter, even though it wasn’t November.

I have never celebrated the Day of the Dead- you know my answer, back to Google.  We created a small alter featuring pictures of loved ones and pets that had passed, talking about our favorite memories.  We made tissue paper marigolds to place around the alter.  We lit candles to light the way for the spirits, as well as provided food (cookie) and water in case they were hungry or thirsty.  We added a few coins to remind us to share wealth.


One day, Kellen said that he wished he could be a baby again.  I replied that some people believe when you die, you are reborn into a new life (which led him to holding up his hand and saying “new life” every time I said something he disagreed with).  The boys seemed to really like the idea of reincarnation, but I wanted to explore it a bit further.  I found a great explanation, but I can no longer find the site.

The writer talked about how in order for an astronaut to go into space, he needs a spacesuit.  Our body is like our spacesuit, and our soul is inside our body.  Our body does not live forever, but our soul is eternal and can be born inside different bodies- sometimes plants, sometimes animals, sometimes people.

The boys loved and understood this explanation, and for the first time, Liam seemed comfortable thinking about death.  He began talking about different things he would like to be reborn as.

We also talked about heaven.  He had heard different ideas about heaven from his friends, and I asked what he thought heaven was.

“Heaven is where everyone listens to you and does what you say.”

Welp. I might be raising an egomaniac.

I’ve started a new ritual at the boys bedtimes.  Before I sing lullabies and give them kisses, I ask a question.

“Would you like to say a prayer or no thanks?”

Kellen wants to move right on to his favorite lullabye.  Liam sometimes wants me to pray, sometimes says no thanks, and even has said “I want to say my own prayer after you leave.”  I like that.  I hope that I am sharing information, providing comfort, but still letting him be his own man.  Or in this case, little boy with big questions.

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One Response to The Confused Agnostic Approach for Explaining Life, Death and the Rest of It to a Five Year Old

  1. Pingback: The Silver Linings Day of the Dead Playbook | yourmamasallwrite

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