19 February 2011

Time to Explain

© Bree DeRoche 

My son has recently become obsessed with the “olden days”, having just realised that time existed before he was born … and even in places when he’s not in the room.

This must be a ripe topic for the under-sevens as it’s on his school curriculum for his Grade 1 year. They had a brainstorming session in class, having to raise their hands to tell the teacher what did and didn’t exist in the olden days.

“They didn’t have cars!”

“They didn’t have TVs!”

“They didn’t have laptops!”

My little man put his hand up so many times, one of his classmates asked him if he was “a scientist” – much to my son’s delight – as he seemed to be so knowledgeable about bygone days. This, plus the extra house points he earned his school team for all his hand-raising, has not only boosted his confidence, but also piqued his interest, and the questions are coming at me at the speed of light.

Yet, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to explain what did and didn’t exist in the olden days to a six-year-old who can’t yet grasp the chronology of time.

I made the mistake a couple of years ago – solely for self-amusement – of describing the era of my own childhood as the olden days.

“In the olden days, when I was a kid, we didn’t have Xbox 360.”

“Oh my god! Really?! And did you ride around in a horse and buggy?!”

I sniggered uncontrollably at this. “No, we had cars, babe, just no Xbox or Wii. But we didn’t have DVDs.”


Over the past couple of years his awareness has grown as he tacks together snippets of accumulated information in his mind, like a mental scrapbook of ticket stubs and faded postcards, to create his own overview of the olden days. This mental scrapbook is made up largely of Titanic, Sweeney Todd, The Nightmare Before Christmas and dinosaurs. Throw in a couple of UFOs and the odd headless horseman, and the picture begins to truly flesh out into his own unique version of the spacetime continuum.

Yet, as with any researcher, he realises: the more he learns, the less he knows. So he continues to bombard me with increasingly-complex, and someone baffling, questions.

“But, where are the dinosaurs in Sweeney Todd?”

“Well, they existed in a much, much earlier time.”

“What do you mean? Like really early in the morning?”

“No, in another era. A time long, long ago.”

“Like when Nani was a kid?”

“No, even earlier than that.”

“How could you have had TVs and cars when you were a kid in the olden days?”

“Well, that was 30 years ago and those things had been invented.

“Then where were the TVs on the Titanic?”

“They hadn’t been invented yet in 1912.”

“What’s 1912?”

He drills me day and night, like I’m his walking encyclopedia. And while I love a good discussion about abstract concepts, I’m realising this conversation will go around and around in circles until I can explain to him the linear nature of time itself, and the fact that different things happened at different times history … and some overlap … and some repeat … and – hell – some wonder if time exists at all and if the entirety of existence is not happening simultaneously.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I drew him a timeline of events, starting with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. Then I penciled in the dinosaur, followed by apes, then cavemen (my timeline was quickly looking seriously off scale), then the industrial revolution, then the Xbox. His eyes glazed over, but, bless him, I could see his brain ticking over and desperately trying to grasp what I was explaining. He even asked if he could keep the timeline, which he then Blu-Tack’d to his bedroom wall and makes constant reference to, double-checking dates to remind himself if the T-Rex existed before or after the aeroplane.

I feel like I’m failing him with my glaring omissions. How can I explain the existence of dinosaurs without also going into the billions of years that passed between the birth of planet Earth and the manifestation of the first single-celled organisms? How can I explain the invention of the motorcar without first explaining the invention of the wheel? How can I explain the Xbox without going into Darwin's theory of evolution?

My brain simply isn’t big enough to keep up with his fresh, ever-expanding cerebellum. He’s asking questions that never even occurred to me, and he’s asking them at a rate faster than I can Google.

I heard Stephen Hawking has published an illustrated Brief History of Time. Time, indeed, for me to place an order.


  1. Love it Bree. What an amazing sponge the child's brain is. Whenever the question bombardment begins, you become acutely aware of just how much you don't know.

  2. Great post. I can picture his cerebellum expanding at rapid pace. Might be time to teach him to Google things for himself?