When my daughter was approaching two, she started the “why phase.” Luckily for my sanity, she often had legitimately good questions to ask.
“Why do I have to wear my hat?”
“Why do we have to stop to change my diaper?”
“Why do I need to sleep?”
“Why can’t I use the iPaaaaaadddddddd?”
I wanted to reenforce these quality, specific questions (instead of the WHY? WHY? WHY? ones) with satisfying answers for her, but as you know, two-year-olds don’t know much. How do you explain that hats prevent DNA damage when a two year old doesn’t know she’s made up of cells, let alone has DNA programing those cells?
I decided to make a few books for her about biochemistry, called The Baby Biochemist. Since I’m a biochemist, my answers to her were pulling from what I know. I wanted to give her a foundation to help grasp these concepts so she could keep on asking great questions. It’s been about a year since most of the books came out and I can say without a doubt they have been helpful to me as a parent (and to her as a consumer of my parenting). Let me tell you about a few specific ways.
I would like to stress that I think kids are way smarter than we give them credit for. They are attentive little sponges with amazing memories and a love for learning- why not take advantage of that? We’ve gotten some flack for encouraging biochemistry at such a young age “because this is usually taught in high school or college” but you know what? There are plenty of reasons NOT to wait that long. Pretty much everything they are learning in life is new and abstract, so teaching them the basics of science is not only possible but it will also give them the background and confidence to build on that knowledge throughout their lifetime. And importantly, the best thing about reading these types of books is that you get to learn with them! It only takes a basic knowledge of biochem and medicine to make some big connections and I hope this knowledge can equip you AND your kids to approach the field as it applies to your life.
1. Why do I have to put on sunscreen/ wear a hat?
“They protect your DNA.”
This topic is touched upon in The Baby Biochemist: DNA (Volume 1). In the book, I explain that the human body is made up of cells and those cells have jobs. Cells know how to do their jobs by reading instructions from their DNA. Later in the book, it talks about how things like sunlight can change the sequence. I used this part to show my daughter that if she gets too much sun, it could change the sequence of her DNA and cause her cells to get confused. At this point in her life, ‘confusion’ is pretty bad in her mind, so that sufficed. I’m not ready to tell her about cancer, I don’t want her to have a fear of the sun. The cells in the illustrations are shown putting a hat and sunscreen on, so that’s just what she started doing. I was truly amazed it worked that well. She even started reminding me if one of us didn’t have a hat on.
Conversely, I didn’t want to instill a fear of the sun and DNA damage. So I also told her that we need SOME sunlight so our bodies can make a special nutrient called Vitamin D and that our bodies have ways to protect our DNA when we get a little sun. Yep. It was as simple as being honest. So now, when I say “It’s fine, we don’t need a hat, we won’t be out for long.” She says “Yea, we don’t need a hat if we won’t be out for long. I need some Vitamin D (pronounced “vimamim gee” by this little scientist).”
2. Why do I have to eat this?
“Your body needs lots of different nutrients to work properly.”
So, we are pretty lucky with my daughter’s eating habits. She’s a great eater, will try anything once, and loves (I mean LOVES) vegetables. She eats things that I won’t eat, like beets and green olives. If my second kid is also a good eater, maybe I’ll write a post on what we did to make them this way, but for now I’m chalking this up to different tastebuds (she likes drinking broccoli water- like the water leftover from steaming broccoli….yea…*shrug*). But anyways, we use the books to talk about why she should be eating the foods she eats and why we limit sweets and other nutrient-poor foods.
In The Baby Biochemist: Proteins (Volume 3), I talk about the protein Rhodopsin and how it helps us detect light in our eyes. Rhodopsin uses a molecule called retinal to do its job. This molecule is made from the Vitamin A that we get from our foods. Ever wonder why you heard that carrots are good for your eyesight? That’s why! Carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupes, and dark leafy greens all have tons of Vitamin A. So, because of this example, my daughter knows why she needs to eat healthy foods to allow her body to work properly, and I think it works better than just telling her “because I said so.”
Another win from this approach is that children learn that what they eat affects their body. When all she wants is broccoli for dinner (I kid you not), I tell her that she also needs to eat other things to get different types of nutrients. I ask her to tell me some different things that her body can do (run, jump, see), then I tell her all those things take lots of different nutrients for her body to do them well. Broccoli doesn’t have all those nutrients, so she’s gonna have to eat something else. This approach works. Running and jumping well is pretty high on her list of things to do, so she’ll decide on her own to eat something else. It’s great.
I also use this approach to talk to her about eating sugar. It’s fine that we have sweet treats every now and then, but we’re not going to eat the whole cake because too much sugar (or too much of anything) is a bad thing. Since she knows her body has proteins that do jobs for her, I tell her that sugar can stick to those proteins and prevent them from doing their job. If you have a little sugar, your body can deal with it, so we have some treats because sugar tastes good. But if you eat too much sugar, it will stick to proteins and prevent them from doing their job. (That is actually what happens and is believed to be the reason why diabetes has so many adverse effects on the body. Glucose will bind to various proteins, especially in the blood and vasculature, and mess them up.)
This helps us stress moderation to her. There’s no reason to be super crazy about sugar intake because our body does have ways to deal with it. But there is also no reason to give kids lots of sugar, because it’s legitimately bad for them. They are totally capable of understanding this balance, and making informed choices, if you give them the knowledge to make these choices.
3. Why do you have to change my diaper?
“Enzymes will eat your butt.”
We had a problem with poopy diapers. The problem was that they were no problem to her. When we were outside, and I wasn’t in smelling distance, I wouldn’t know she had poop in her diaper until later and she would get rashes. So, using her knowledge of enzymes from The Baby Biochemist: Enzymatics (Volume 4) (basically that there are little things in her body that do work for her, like digest/break down her food), I told her that the enzymes in her poop are going to keep eating her butt and cause rashes if I didn’t change her diaper. This worked with entertaining results as she would then yell across the playground “Mama! I have poop! The enzymes are going to eat my butt!” It was tons of fun.
4. Why can’t I use the tablet right now?
“It will confuse your photoreceptors and you won’t get a good sleep.”
We don’t let our daughter use a tablet very often. I’m not a fan of them for kids- it creeps me out how addicted she can get to it. We did, however, let her use a drawing app because drawing is great for little brains and I was hoping it would save some paper (it did, but it also resulted in a cracked iPad screen, so yea).
Anyways, she wasn’t allowed to use it at night because no one, even adults, should be looking at a screen close to their bedtime (…and yet I’m typing this when I should be sleeping…). The light messes with your circadian rhythm and sleep hormones. We would just tell her it would prevent her from getting good sleep, and then we would talk about all the wonderful things good sleep does for her body and brain. And that simple explanation worked fine, but what really solidified it for her was learning about the proteins involved.
We were reading the protein book one night and there is a Brady Bunch-like illustration of a “family portrait” of the opsin family of photoreceptors, the proteins responsible for detecting light in your eyes/brain. She asked me what each of them does, so I explained “These (top row) help you see colors, this one helps you see in low light (Rhodopsin, shown in red), this one might help chickens fall asleep (Pinopsin in teal), we don’t really know what these do in humans (Peropsin in fuchsia and Encephalopsin in blue) and these (Melanopsin in yellow and Neuropsin in purple) help you fall asleep.” (Here is a cool, easy-to-read article on the very recent discovery of what Neuropsin does.)
Then it clicked for me to relate this conversation to tablet use. I told her, “Those proteins get confused when they see the tablet light at night, and her brain goes “Wait, what? I’m sleepy, I’ve had a full day of play, but I still see all this light! Is it not bedtime? Is it not nighttime? What should I do?!?” So we don’t want to use the tablet so we don’t confuse the purple and yellow photoreceptors.” And that was that! Whenever she asks to watch TV late at night, or turn on a bright light, or look at our phone or tablet, I just say, “No, sorry, little bean, the light is going to confuse your photoreceptors” and seriously, she accepts it. It’s wonderful.
The best thing about all these tactics are that they are the truth! We don’t have to lie or say “because I said so” to her. I feel like we are teaching her the best way to take care of her body at an early age through knowledge and education. This just won’t happen overnight, and my daughter does have an advantage that she hears about science-oriented things almost every day, but you can start laying the ground work for your kids to understand the inner workings of their body, to empower them to make educated decisions about how they treat it.
You don’t have to buy the books to do this, you can just start talking about biochemistry a little, or do some biochem experiments at home with the kids (browse this site!). Googling questions is always a great option, and there are tons of free YouTube channels out there that explain simple biochemistry, which you can take and pass on to your kids. It’s totally fine if you are learning biochemistry right along with your kids! In fact, it probably works better that way!
Kids are not too young to learn words that they would have only learned in high school or college now a days. In fact, I barely knew what DNA was until I was in college because I was never taught about it and I never bothered to read about it. It was not because I couldn’t understand it till then. My daughter knows more about DNA at age 3 than I did when I was 18. Kids don’t need (and aren’t able) to grasp the entire complexities of biochemistry, obviously. But they can absolutely understand some basics. For her to take what she knows and use that to guide her decisions (or at least acquiesce to my requests) is a huge boon to me as a parent, and to her as soon-to-be-autonomous little human.