Things You Can’t Explain To A Child

When it comes to issues pertaining to queerness (particularly in public education), one tired refrain frequently emerges from opponents: namely, that children are incapable of understanding the issues involved.

Allow me to present an anecdote: when I was about five years old, my father outlined Einstein’s theory of special relativity to me. Now, obviously, when I say that he outlined it, I don’t mean that he provided me with relativistic equations of motion or that he derived the Lorentz transforms for me, or anything of that nature. Rather, he simply explained to me the practical consequences of this theory: “You can never travel faster than the speed of light,” he told me, “and time slows down for you the faster you go.”

Now, I found what he said to be bizarre (and I was disappointed that it seemed to conflict with what I’d seen on Star Trek*), but I had no difficulty understanding what he was saying. I understood what speed was, what light was and what time was; therefore, this explanation made perfect sense to me, because if you understand what the various elementary constituents are, it’s not that difficult to grasp a relationship described between them. Thus it was that a theory of advanced physics could be comprehensible (in principle, at any rate) to a child of five.

In much the same way, a few years later I had no difficulty understanding my mother’s description of sexual reproduction. I knew what a penis was, I knew what a vagina was, and other components, such as sperm and eggs, could be entered into my  worldview without much difficulty.

The fact of the matter is that it’s not actually all that difficult to explain things to children–in fact, it might even be easier since they have fewer preconceptions of how things are “supposed: to work. The only exceptions are those things which require a broad base of knowledge in order to understand. For example, my parents wouldn’t have been able to explain things like quantum field theory or post-modernism to me because these deal with objects that were entirely outside of the scope of my knowledge, and which would have taken years for me to learn about. So yes: there are some things which are impossible to explain to children.

However: I would argue that there is virtually no “hot button” social or political issue which falls into this category. War is explicable to children; taxes are explicable to children; and indeed (and this is where this argument is usually applied): queer people are explicable to children.

You don’t need a degree in Queer Studies (or, indeed, any formal education at all) to understand, in essence, categories like heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual and asexual: all that is necessary is to understand, in a broad sense, what “love” is (or more particularly, what “sex” is), what “men” are and what “women” are. Likewise, all that’s necessary to understand transgenderism, broadly, is to understand what “men” are, what “women” are, what “feeling” is. None of these things are complicated.

But of course that’s not the issue here, is it? Because in a political context, when a parent says that they can’t explain something to their child, what they in fact really mean is that they don’t want to do so.


*Actually, in point of fact, it doesn’t; the warp engines on Star Trek work by distorting the spacetime metric around the ship in order to contract the distance between it and its destination, which is actually allowed by the known laws of physics. The more you know.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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6 Responses to Things You Can’t Explain To A Child

  1. Pinkjumpers says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post. 🙂
    You have introduced your ideas wonderfully, and I agree that the matters of various sexual orientations within humans shouldn’t be made a taboo from an early age but, rather, they should be introduced. If only mildly.

  2. ChrisCQC says:

    You mean Star Trek physics are actually real???? 😄

  3. Rob F says:

    What a wonderful post.

    “But of course that’s not the issue here, is it? Because in a political context, when a parent says that they can’t explain something to their child, what they in fact really mean is that they don’t want to do so.”

    I think you’re exactly right. And perhaps the reason those parents don’t want to explain things to their child(ren) is because they are afraid their children will see how their parents views are complete nonsense. They want to stay in the bubble, so to speak.

  4. I think that you can go further than this as children’s ideas are incredibly malleable and so the introduction of new categories that are similar to their existing ideas is very easy. Using this you can easily explain non-binary gender identities to them.

    Sadly, somewhere along the way adults lose this power of associativity and they start needing everything to be defined independently

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