10 Things I Learned from My 4-Year-Old

When my son was born, I imagined how I would teach him about life. Little did I know that he would be the teacher. He taught me:

  1. To use positive words
    One evening at the dinner table my son said, “Dad this food is disgusting.” I thought – where did that word come from? Another time while I was explaining the rules to a game he said, “Now that’s just ridiculous.” A minute later he said, “this is stupid, I give up.” At that moment it dawned on me… He’s getting this stuff from me. From now on I better choose my words carefully.
  2. To look for opportunity everywhere
    My son views the entire world and every new person, new object, or new event as an opportunity to learn something. When a new person walks in the room he wants to know who they are and if they would like to play. If I drop a new object into a cluttered room, he will spot it, touch it, pick it up, ask questions about it. Nothing new goes unnoticed.
  3. A new synonym for persistence
    Santa Claus brought my son a white board and a set of dry erase makers for Christmas (can you tell I’m in IT). My son learned to write very early. He spent months obsessed with writing letters on the white board. One day I looked at the board while he was writing and I saw this combination of capital letters – SHHANDSHOWBO. He also knows how to sound out words, so I asked him what it was. He said, “It’s a word I made up – Sha-hand-show-bo.” I asked, “What does it mean?” He said, “To keep trying even when it’s hard.” Now when I get frustrated I think – Sha-hand-show-bo.
  4. To ask big questions
    A few weeks ago our cat was dying. So I explained death to my son and told him our cat was going to heaven. I was amazed that he grasped the permanence of death. Like the other members of my family he was very sad for several days. Then he asked, “Dad, how do you get to heaven?” I said,”Well everyone goes there when they die.” He said, “No I mean, how do you get there? Do go out the door and get in the car? Do you take a rocket?” I had to admit to him that I didn’t know how you get to heaven, I just believe in it. A few days latter he asked, “If God made me, who made God?” Good question. I haven’t thought about that one in years.
  5. To accept mistakes
    Watching my son grow and learn, it became clear that all learning is based on trying something new, making a mistake, adjusting your actions, trying again, repeating until you get the results you desire. That is how he learned to walk, speak, read, write, build lego walls, set up train tracks, jump, run, and pedal. I can’t think of one thing he did right the first time. It is a good thing he has an abundance of sha-hand-show-bo.
  6. To pay attention to little details
    When my son was 2, he was pointing in a box and saying, “ate, ate, ate, ate.” I said no you don’t want to eat the box. He said, “no, ate, ate, ate.” I looked in the box and it was empty. I looked at him puzzled. He stuck his face in the box and said, “ate, ate.” I looked again closely. On the bottom of the box, in the corner, printed in a small font was the number 8. He sees things I don’t see, because he pays attention to little things everywhere, like the tiny red dot on the white sheetrock wall he called an “owie.”
  7. To stop complaining
    Recently my son went through a phase where he complained about everything. His food was too hot, playtime was too short, he didn’t want to go to pre-school, everything was “too hard.” This experience forced me to think and come up with a plan to help my son through this phase. I developed some techniques to help him stop complaining. His phase taught me how irritating it is to listen to complaints without solutions. His complaining taught me to listen to myself when I start to gripe and realize complaining isn’t going to get me the results I desire. It is one thing to identify something
    uncomfortable or painful you wish to change, and another to sit and complain about it and do nothing. Solutions provide value – gripes sap energy. Besides, how can I expect my son to stop complaining, if I complain – see #8.
  8. To strive for consistency
    If I am inconsistent with my expectations and actions my son won’t understand what I expect. For example, if I tell him I won’t allow him to jump on the furniture and then let him do it occasionally; he becomes confused and jumps on the furniture trying to understand his limits. The consequences for jumping on the couch are random and he never understands my expectations. If I let his little brother jump on the couch, rest assured, he will say “you let him jump on the couch. Why can’t I jump on the couch?” and I won’t have a meaningful answer. Since I have seen inconsistency lead to chaos with my 4-year-old, I now believe it will lead to chaos in every area of my life.
  9. How to build a maze with random items in the garage
    Garage MazeGarage Maze
    Garage Maze
  10. To experiment
    My son learns everything by experimenting. He learn the rules of the house by experimenting. He must ask questions in his mind at some level – like what will happen if I flick this spoonful of mash potatoes at my little brother? or how will mom react if I eat this bug? Now I’m not recommending that you or anyone else start flicking food at each other or start eating insects just to find out what happens. What I am suggesting is that my son illustrates how we learn. We learn by experimenting. Never stop experimenting.

This post was entered in the Carnival of Family Life. Please visit it for more on family life.

175 thoughts on “10 Things I Learned from My 4-Year-Old”

  1. Why all these comments are focusing on God creation when the main subject of this article is different?
    Long time ago, people think Sun was God(god? whatever), Moon was God, mountains were god, everything they cannot explain or understand is God.
    Later on, wise guys created separate entity as God of every other gods.
    Oh! why my comment is about God too?

    Great job!

  2. First up, an excellent post that will leave many thinking. Well done Steve and it sounds as though you’re both learning from each other.

    Next, it seems that most people are missing the point entirely and taking an adult approach to a childs question.

    Number 4 wasn’t about whether or not God exists or how to tell children what happens when someone or something dies, it’s about not being afraid to ask big questions (as the title explained).

    Too many of us just accept our beliefs, whether they’re on religion, politics, music, fashion or anything else without questioning them. Steve’s brilliant post is just reminding us that we should question them and keep asking big questions.

  3. I am a non-superstitous person, so I do not include any superstitious instruction in the raising of my six-year-old son. Since we live in the USA and there are lots of Chrsitians around us, my son has been exposed to people who believe in a god and tell him about it. My son has asked me, “Is God real?” I answer, “Some people think he is.” He asks, “Do you believe in God?” I answer, “No, I don’t believe in God.” For a while, he would say, “I believe in God,” but rececenlty, he has decide that he does not. I have told him, “It’s okay to believe in God or to not believe in God.” It’s his choice, and I think the individual belief in a god is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things.

    What I am stridently opposed to is the zealous and fervent belief in superstitous and baseless ideas to the point where it compels one to think that they can make moral decisions for EVERYONE. And this behavior is NOT merely limited to Evangelical Christians. I see this behavior in hateful “progressives” and fundamentalist Muslims all the time. It is dangerous, harmful, pompous, and arrogant, and it certainly does need to die and ugly and painful death. The poster above who wrote about “stupid Americans” is a prime example of the “progressive” version of a wicked Evangelical Christian zealot.

  4. Cool Steve – I enjoyed reading it 🙂

    Mike G and co. – you’re oblivious to the truth as all fanatics are, be they religious or atheist. Its easy to elevate the status of your so called rationality when you compare it to childish interpretations of religion. I strongly doubt you know enough about life to make any assertions on what does or does not happen after death.

  5. wer Says:
    October 2nd, 2006 at 1:43 pm

    LOL you mean you BELIEVE god does exist….but there is no proof of that and until there is, science rules that there is NO god. maybe someday we’ll be proven wrong, but until then…..


    You’re exactly right wer – and that’s exactly what Steve said. Go back and R-E-A-D #4 . . .

    “I had to admit to him that I didn’t know how you get to heaven, I just BELIEVE in it. ” [emphasis mine]


    Keep up the good work Steve, you’re raising a wonderful man.

  6. I personally envy people who can believe in God because I think it gives them a lot of comfort. I have tried, but I keep finding the idea of God to be highly unlikely, and I can’t bring myself to believe in something so unlikely.

    There is a danger in fantasy as it makes decision-making unreliable. People who say things like, “It must have been God’s will” when a gunman kills 5 girls in an Amish school house will probably have difficulty making correct decisions.

    The key to navigating through life successfully is to have a realistic internal conception of the way the world works. Then you can model various actions in your head before undertaking them. Sort of like having a test server where a website can be debugged prior to going live. People whose internal models are flawed are going to make flawed decisions. I have decided that including most forms of God in one’s internal model is a serious flaw.

    But, then again, I could be wrong.

    I do believe in being good to other people, but I don’t do it because I worry about any particular punishment. The Golden Rule seems like enough of a moral compass, and introducing God as enforcer just doesn’t appeal to me.

    I believe that the God that comforts most people is just an internal mental construct that possibly serves as a pipe between lower levels of cognitive processing and what we call consciousness. This allows people to tap into deep mental resources that might otherwise be unavailable to them.

    I do think it is bad form to insult other people’s beliefs, especially since no one can be sure they are right, but I did enjoy the discussion.

  7. My child recently asked me about heaven and I said that it was something that Christians believed in but I didn’t. I also mentioned the Buddhist idea of reincarnation. My kid is no dummy, he got the message: NOBODY KNOWS.

  8. I loved this post. I forwarded it to all my friends. Steve’s kid is really bright – that is obvious. I am an atheist and so are most of my friends – but we can see beyond whether people agree with our point of view or not. Steve’s kid is bright enough to figure it out for himself. Its going to be a while before he makes any important decisious about life.

  9. This is a wonderful article, I wish my father was so reflective on his experiences as I was a child. I think we could have both learned a lot more.

    As for the “heaven” comment, I gather saying the kitty is going to heaven was the easy answer he thought he was supposed to give to his 4yr old, and this is where he learned there are questions that none of us can really answer truthfully, and he was reminded by his son to “ask the big questions.” Hopefully as the years go by they will both talk about these types of questions more & learn about what they believe, whatever that happens to be.

    It’s interesting how such a small comment has brought all this animosity on both sides out of the woodwork. I’m sure more than a few atheists in this world who let their children believe in Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth fairy, and even Heaven, and only explain the truth as they see it, when the children are older. As an atheist, I can’t say I’d explain it to a 4yr old child any different. I was taught heaven & god, & I still made up my own mind.

    In the U.S. everyone is entitled to teach their children whatever they wish, which can be good or bad depending on your point of view. It’s just nice to be reminded how much children teach us as well.

  10. Holy pizza on a stick! Steve posts about things he learn from his kids and all most of you did was read to number 4, read about “God” and Heaven and jumped straight to bitching. Get a grip!

    Do I believe in God? No, what will I tell my kid when they ask where you go when you die? Heaven. Why? None of your damn business, it’s my kid, it’s my choice get bent.

    Steve, great post, it made *me* rethink how I react and look at things.

  11. Loundry:

    Perhaps if you adopted Jesus as your personal savior, He would help proofread your posts and edit out your spelling mistakes.

  12. Steve,

    isn’t it sad how relating even the simplest story about explaining some of life’s mysteries will degenerate into a religious argument? I am a devout Christian, but not nearly arrogant enough to think that I have the end word on exactly how it all works. I am impressed with your desire to teach your child the value of being honest, even in those things that can’t be readily explained. The fact that you are actually giving your child some training based on what you hold to be important should cause those criticizing you to think about why they are holding onto their beliefs (for and against) so tightly that they would rather lash out at someone being real than to look at their own motives.

    I enjoy your outlook on life- keep posting!

  13. I love the post. You obviously love your boy. I have four boys and love learning from them, too.

    Everyone go read “The Case For A Creator” by Lee Strobel and revel in the evidence for Intelligent Design. Six branches of science are examined — cosmology. physics, astronomy, DNA, biochemistry, and Consciousness — backed by Nobel Laureates, scientists, journalists, and more — and see if you can ever again doubt the magnificent, intelligent creativity packed into our beautiful universe.

    Sorry, athiests — I love you dearly, but this universe is too amazing and too irreducibly complex for Darwinian evolution to stand a chance in the face of what modern science now knows. Go read the book if you can bear to have your world view turned upside down. 🙂

    And i LOVE the love of this father for his son.

  14. Andrew,

    Wow, modern science really “knows” all that?? I guess that PhD I earned sure was inadequate!

    Scientists are the first people to tell you they don’t “know” things for sure – they’ve just deduced what’s the likely cause. Religious fanatics are the ones who claim to be *so sure* about our origins. Even Mike G – who got this flame war going – called the God hypothesis “pretty unlikely.” That’s not nearly as definitively stated as your faulty rationale. Nice try.

  15. Steve, loved your post here. Especially the parts about God – I find my kids ask many of the same questions.

    Almost every scientific discipline I know begins hypothesis with some ‘premonition’ or belief about reality. We test it, and eventually find out whether it’s true or not. People who believe in God fall into one-of-two camps: they either believe or they know that God exists.

    The ones that know have done what it takes to get to know God on a personal level–the same way a scientist experiments to discover a scientific truth. The ones that believe are typically on their way to ‘knowing’ God eventually.

    The only ones who seem to be left in the dark are the atheists. They remind of me of the kids who used to say ‘math is stupid – when am I ever going to use it?’ – and eventually out of neglect, they never discover how beautiful / amazing this discipline really is.

    Keep up the good work!

  16. Great post, great personality. Perfect brainfood. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    And -let’s say- ‘interessting’ how many people consider giving their four year old children university-strength lectures about a bouquet of religions in the face of a deceased cat.

    And a last word to all the critics of #4: atheism is just another believe until ‘proven by science’.

    And I rather believe in something than not to believe in anything.

  17. Thank you Rebecca, seems you the author Steve his son and one or two others are the only sane elements left on this comentary planet all the others want to spoil a great Dads story with rantings on religion. Now pay attention those lessons from your kids they see it like it is!!

  18. The bible was actually first written down hundreds of years after Jesus and all the disciples were dead, based on campfire tales. I think the first compilation was around 1200? Then it was edited for hundreds of years by politically motivated religious leaders for their own political and financial gain. What we have now is the result of a very long game of telephone, and you know how that usually ends up. Loads of laughs!

    Posted by: Canada at September 19, 2006 01:21 PM
    In response to: Daniel Dennett On The Pope’s Remarks
    Advice Goddess Blog

    Which intellegent human believes this crap? the Bible should be burnt for brainwashing us!!!

  19. numlok: your argument is moot. I did not defend or attack God or science. You missed my point. Please do a search for my name on this page and read my comment once more. I am on neither side and yet I am. My point was if you cannot prove that God does exist then you surely cannot disprove Gods existence. My point in the end was quite simple. If a father teaches his son a positive belief, why counter that with something in which you have no proof? Think about it 🙂

  20. Wow! I can’t believe how many negative remarks there are! I think people missed the WHOLE point of this blog, so sad. I thought this was very touching, thank you.

  21. As the father of another four year old, kudos for a great post and a great perspective, Steve. My takeaway is to remember that a father and a son exist by the interaction of their lives.

    As far as the God and heaven thing, I can’t wait until he ask the question “where do babies come from?” to see how many of these folks expect an explanation that includes an explanation of the chemical structures of DNA and RNA. Jeez!

  22. Pingback: Akkam’s Razor
  23. Good Job, Just the fact that you spend time and make time and love your 4 year old gets a cheer from me. What I have learned by raising my 7 children 2 grand children. (2-29) is that not only have they taught me in their innocents and purity. The one thing they remember is the LOVE and the TIME spent with them.. So if the argument is God verses No God …or oraganized religon.. Bottomline is God is Love and your actions speak louder then words . I think you are doing a wonderful job

  24. I was raised cristian, and i guess i learned some good morale from it. But after getting some life experience i learned that religion is nothing you really can count on. God never does anything concrete when I have a bad day. I have never really experienced that “God is good”. God has never stopped anybody’s personal ego and ambitions to promote themself by kicking other asses (and there alot of those people), and he never will.

    I would learn my son that he can only count on himself for happines and try to be a good and open person, religios or not. Than life will threat you well.

  25. Very nice post, steve.
    I am literally living through it. I have a 3 year old daughter, and watching her closely has been a very educative and inspiring experience. The world they dwell in is far saner, much simpler. Oh what a loss it would be, to have little kids directed and conditioned to sustain themselves in the world we adults live in.
    The very best of my wishes to your boy and the excellent dad you are trying to be.

  26. I thought this was a fabulous post as seen through the eyes of a parent. I have a 4 year old daughter and the things I learn from her amaze me daily. We take for granted everything around us asd we get older and after raising a young child, you begin to see everything in a new light. Children have this amazing way of taking you out of your comfort zone while they question and second guess everything you know. There have been many times my daughter has actually left me speechless because I didn’t know how to answer her questions. That is a feat for anyone as I usually have a comment for everything. We have had several pets that have either died, given to new homes, or just disappeared. It’s very hard to explain to a child (at least for me) why their cat “Boots” is never coming back. As far as the several floating fish, I just tell her they got very sick and died. As far as where they go when they die, I’m not quite sure I recall if she asked that question. Her father is a hunter so the death of animals is not real foreign to her, but there is little to no talk about heaven and the like. Not because I’m an unbeliever, because I am a believer, but because I haven’t been blessed with that conversation as yet. I am a firm believer in the blatent honest truth. There is very little sugar coating involved in my explanations of things. I’m not brutal, but am very frank. So the day the conversation of religion comes up, I guess I will then find out how I’m going to answer. But it is the parent’s perogative on how/what they teach their children about God and Heaven and they should not be judged on those beliefs. Believing there isn’t a God is still a belief none the less.

  27. My mom sent this to me to share in the wonderful experiences this father and son are having. I loved the stories about your son, Steve. Mostly though, I loved that a father is so in touch with his son’s day-to-day life and is able to see and appreciate all the powerful lessons he has to teach. Previous generations of dads were not allowed, or encouraged, to be this sensitive and in touch with their kids. I think everyone suffered for it and I’m so glad to know that things have changed dramatically. Good for you, Steve, for being an engaged father. I don’t have any kids, but all the lessons your son taught you will now, thanks to your willingness to share, be valuable lessons for me as well. Thank you.

    As for all the religious comments, I found those equally intriguing. This story was about lessons learned and there are lessons contained in the comment section as well. I was raised Christian. I attended Lutheran elementary school and a radical Catholic high school because my mom thought I’d get a better education than I could in public school. We weren’t Lutheran or Catholic, in fact my mom was very interested in metaphysics and Science of MInd (which is not Christian Science). So, I’d had a lot of exposure to many different ideas about God and religion by the time I was 18.

    Until very recently, I accepted my belief in God without much pain or struggle. However, since high school I believed organized religion was bogus. When I was a student at Catholic school I was very inquisitive and I had questions about God. My religion teacher did not appreciate my questions (basic stuff like: If God loves us why does God let bad stuff happen to us? or If God is true, why can’t he just make it easy and tell us he exists? or If God created everyone on the planet, why would he allow some of us to believe in some religions that aren’t true only to penalize us for it when we get to heaven? or How do we figure out if Christianity is better, or righter, than Buddhism or any other religion in existence?). Anyway, rather than answer my questions, or be embarrassed by my asking in front of the other kids, he sent me to the Dean’s office everyday. Everyday!

    Seeing the rise of religious fanaticism in the past years has been alarming and it’s caused me to take a look at my relationship with God and religion. I also have a partner who was raised Mormon and was proud of his utter commitment to the _true church of God_. He was the very best Mormon he could be. Until he just couldn’t do it anymore. I see how much pain he struggles with from the damage done by the church and that too has made me question the rightness of imposing religion on children.

    I also had a friend die recently from _cancer_. At his funeral (put on by his friends, not his family) it came out that he was a Christian Scientist. People started putting things together and realized if he’d never been to a doctor, he probably didn’t have _cancer_. In fact, it was widely accepted that he likely had HIV/AIDS. It was at this point that we all began to consider the stories of his 7-year old brother that died from _cancer_ when they were children. In the name of religion at least 2 members of his family died when they likely could have been kept alive with the assistance of some doctors.

    In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that religion is a man-made thing and man is imperfect. I lean now toward the same kind of thinking that Trevor illustrated. The Bible was a giant game of Telephone that took place over hundreds of years, with thousands of players, many that could neither read or write. It’s also important to remember that politics played a huge role and religion was a wonderful tool for organizing and exploiting the masses. Given the historical beginnings of the Bible, it only seems reasonable to question people who choose to take its words literally. Seriously, try playing a game of telephone tonight with your family and see if it doesn’t make you think about the weight given to the Bible.

    I’m not worried about Steve telling his child about Heaven when their cat died. I am intrigued though by how many people wanted to critique or discuss it. What that says to me is that we as a people are craving this discussion on a larger scale. And that is very promising. We can only get to know and understand each other through conversation and sharing and right now we have far too many folks willing to dismiss those unlike themselves. We’ve got to do what we can to turn this around and actively seek out ways to move closer together instead of perpetuating the moving apart toward utter isolation and dangerous extremes in thinking.

    Thanks again Steve for a very thoughtful morning!

  28. I found that just explaining to a 3 years old that dying is ceasing to exist and never coming back is just accepted as is.
    It’s nature and it’s how nature works. She was actually introduced to death the first time she crushed an ant at the age of 3 and stopped to think about what just happened. It’s that natural, no need to introduce heaven and fairy tales.
    For them, as a toy breaks and ceases to work, so do live things. If you just explain that things are no longer and will never be again, kids accept that easily.
    If you go the heaven way, you are in for trouble as none of us can really explain the heaven concept even if we beileve in it.

    As for god, I took the approach of god as a powerful force controlling the bigger things around us (the sun, the moon, the sky, the trees). Forseeing the problems in the byblical god concept, I explained that god can hear us but does not answer, I also explained that god does not “decide” on people and what they do. We are too small for him.

    Both explanations worked wonderfully, BTW.

  29. Derek: “I can never remember the sources for stufflike this but didn’t someone like Pascal have a “wager” argument that said “If we believe in God and it ends up untrue then when we die it doesn’t matter, and if it is true then we believed in something that does matter.”



    You’re right, it is “Pascal’s Wager”, and where it falls apart in its line of reasoning is that it necessitates a definition of the word “God”.

    No matter your definition, it is still one of an infinite number that can be imagined (at least one for every current and forgotten world religion) , so the only way you could truly engage the wager is to believe in EVERY god in existence, which, I believe, invalidates the point the argument was intending to make.

    Add to this the fact that almost all religions have some rule excluding belief in other “false religions”, and you’ll see that being a pantheist isn’t likely to win your eternal “big money” either.

    Also, assuming this is the same God who knows your every thought, don’t you think believing in order to “hedge your bets” would be a fairly transparent approach? The God I’m thinking of has definitely damned/smote for less…

    The only way the wager makes any sense at all is if you enter into it assuming that YOUR specific god exists, and that YOUR specific interpretation is correct. Without any evidence demonstrating a probability that a god of ANY kind exists, and that there are a finite number of interpretations of that god that are not mutually exclusive, there can be no validity behind your claim.

    The argument is weak both logically and theologically… and reminds me of a joke:

    I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”
    “Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
    I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
    “Like what?”
    “Well … are you religious or atheist?”
    “Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?”
    “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
    “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
    “Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
    “Baptist Church of God.”
    “Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
    “Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
    “Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”
    “Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!”
    To which I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.

  30. As a dad of two young daughters, I loved this article. Very positive and good fun too. I’m not a believer in any faith, but I’ve also always strongly felt that it’s a father’s prerogative to fill his child’s head full of nonsense.

  31. Steve,

    Great article. Love your perspective on learning from parenting.


    Best response to religious ‘debates’ I have ever read online. All your experiences and conclusions match my life to date.

    Live long and prosper.

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