“I really like Lucy. Maybe I’ll marry her when I grow up.”
“Oh, yes? And will you have children?”
“Of course” (of course is what he replies to everything, lately. “Would you like a glass of milk?” “Of course.” “Would you like to get into the bath?” “Of course not.”)
“How many children would you like.”
“I think we’ll start with one.”
(Chortles from me).
“But we’ll know not to eat them.”
(At which point I nearly veer off the road).
The other night, Owen and I watched part of a documentary called Walking with Dinosaurs. I think I had underestimated how much its evolutionary perspective made it deal pretty harshly with survival (or its reverse). Owen was initially concerned that he would see all the dinosaurs become extinct, and I assured him that no – that they had millions of years to live and change yet. As to the fate of individual dinosaurs, however, I could not be so certain.
In the episode we watched, a group of Diplodocus burns up in a forest fire because they are too slow to outrun it: they are so heavy that they must always have three legs on the ground. The surviving young Diplodocus join the herd of adults only once they have proved their ability to survive on their own — the adults abandon their eggs but are programmed to respond to juvenile cries of distress.
In the same episode, another pre-mammalian reptile couple (whose babies hatch from eggs but drink from milk glands on the mother’s stomach) eat their own offspring when hunted by a larger reptile (to deny the predator food and to improve its own chances of survival). This was a pretty shocking idea to Owen. Frankly, had I known that this was going to happen, I never would have suggested that we watch this video. He turned to me, eyes wide, half laughing, half fearful.
“But you won’t eat me, will you? . . . And Daddy won’t eat me?”
“No, of course not. We’re people. We don’t eat other people.” (I elected not to mention cannibalism here).
“And no one I know will eat me?”
“No, honey. No one you know will eat you. Of course not.”
“Of course they won’t eat me.”
We finished watching the video, but we won’t watch any more. Our conversation in the car showed me that he’s still processing the idea.
He was trying to wrap his head around why some animals would eat their young and others wouldn’t.
“You won’t eat me because you love me? Because people love their children?”
“Yes,” I said. “People have to love their children because their children can’t survive without grownups.”
It is strange to me that A) I would actually say this to my four-year-old… but also B) that this would be true: that love is something we have evolved to keep our children safe from harm – so that they can grow into adulthood and make new babies to perpetuate the species. I love that boy with a breathless, clutching hurt. With apologies to Maurice Sandak, I want to eat him up I love him so. The fact that we have evolved to love (and not eat) our children does not make that love any less real, but it’s jarring to think of love as a survival strategy.