“We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there.” -Neil deGrasse Tyson
I've heard and read various things around the internet lately about what kids need more of these days. This, plus the fact that I'm thinking more and more about my own future children, has made me think about what I have learned about childhood during my studies of human evolution and biology.
What's childhood for, anyway? Why wait so long to become adults and get along with the real business of living things, reproduction? Well, obviously there are some things you've got to take care of before you start the business of reproduction. You're going to need some tools that you don't have when you're only moments out of the womb. You need a physically adult body, of course, and that takes some time to grow and develop. But other animals put on the pounds much faster than human children do, reaching a body that's just as heavy if not much heavier and more massive than ours in just a few short years. Why are we taking so long?
|Two similarly aged mammals?|
We take so long because our physical bodies are not the only tools we need. Humans need time to learn. We have knowledge we have to gather, skills we've got to develop and hone, before we can be fully functioning adults. Learning takes time. Learning requires that you go out into the world and have experiences, that you have lots of experiences that your brain can remember and collate and gather patterns from. That takes time, and that's what childhood is really for.
Does this mean children are supposed to work for their parents? I would say yes, but not in the way of employees, but in the way of apprentices. Older children in traditional cultures are definitely expected to help care for their younger siblings, to start helping the adults with the business of getting and preparing food, etc. But these are also the things those kids need to learn, how to take care of young children and how to support a family, and they're learning on the job. And even today, we all agree that learning on the job is one of the best ways to learn.
Does this mean children are not in fact supposed to play and explore? No, I don't think so. Children in traditional cultures do also spend a lot of time running about in little gangs of their peers, poking things and chasing each other around. But by doing this they are gaining real experience with their world, with their peers and what it's like to get along (or not!) with those peers. These are also things they need to know and learn. And once again, this is learning on the job. Having real in-your-face experiences is the best way to learn.
Does this mean I think we should do away with modern schools? No, I don't think that. I do think that human children aren't built to learn best by sitting in a chair and having an adult talk at them for hours every day, but there are realities of our modern world require at least some of this kind of learning. Our species has gathered so much knowledge and technology that kids need to learn a lot of stuff in order to achieve even a minimal level of awareness of all the knowledge being applied in their everyday world. They need to learn stuff that they simply can't learn by running around in the woods with their friends. You won't find trigonometry under a rock.
|Hadza children - photo courtesy of Alyssa Crittenden|
But I do think schools could use a little re-focusing. What are some skills that are key to being functioning adults in the modern world, what are the skills that are particular to the times we live in that schools are best equipped to teach kids? I think one of those skills is how to learn. How to teach yourself. How to go out and find the knowledge that you need even and especially when you don't have a convenient teacher around to answer your questions. We live in a sea of information and kids need swimming lessons.
So it seems I think kids need a little bit of everything! If it helps them learn, and especially if it helps them learn through direct experience, then yes, as a parent I know I'll try to give it to them. But there is one thing that I think parents need to be careful not to give too much of - happiness.
I know, that sounds like a horrible thing to say. I'm not saying children shouldn't be happy. What I'm saying is that children shouldn't be 100% happy 100% of the time. I'm saying parents shouldn't bend over backwards giving their children every ounce of happiness they possibly can. Because that's not what real life is like. Children need to learn what life is like - a safer, toned down, easier version of life - but they need to learn. You can't keep them in a little bubble of happiness and then expect they'll be just fine when you suddenly toss them out into the real world. Life is filled with work, with difficulty, with hardship, but what humans learn above all else is how to find happiness and joy in that life anyway. Don't let your kids lag behind in figuring out how to do that. Let them experience hardship so they can also start learning how to find their own happiness inside of it all.