The Science of Childhood – a philosopher’s perspective

There is lots in the news these days about children, helicopter parenting, living with teens. Listen to this neurologist and research scientist from Philly, whose children affectionately referred to her as Captain Obvious. (Sorry, if that’s a spoiler)

Here is another spoiler for concerned Moms:  continue to inform, repeat (a.k.a. nag), manage (a.k.a. be ridiculously controlling, from their perspective), and require (a.k.a. set unreasonable limits, again from their perspective).

The teenage brain is uniquely positioned to learn a lot and very fast. We can take advantage of this biological window to load them up with good things.  Let’s make sure they are rich, challenging and worthwhile things.

But what the research doesn’t say and can’t say is that many of our teens arrive at these years already burnt out and de-motivated by too much control and teaching in the early and middle years. They have not had their wild time, their developmental time. They have already been overburdened. This is the fallacy of too much education and not enough play from ages 3 – 12.  See Dr. Peter Gray in his excellent Ted Talk.

The science doesn’t say this definitively yet, but some poets and philosophers do. Nietzche wrote about the developmental cycle as a transformation of the lion to a camel to a child that says yes. Joseph Campbell interpreted the parable thus: children are lions, wild, hungry and lazy too. Teens are the camels that can be loaded down with the burdens of the culture. (Captain Obvious would agree, I think.) Somewhere in the desert – as the story goes – the camel is transformed into a child that is a human being, youthful by nature, playful by nature. (The science of neoteny would support this view.) The burdens have become consciousness – a child who can choose, say yes to some things, go forth. To me,  this sounds like what the neurologists call “the necessary pruning” of the adult brain.

But in the first dozen years of our prolonged human childhood, our kids must be allowed to be the little lions that they are, dependent but wildly playful, hungry, ruthless, exploring the savannah in their packs, practicing their hunting, nipping at their mother’s bodies until she gathers them to sleep and dream of future conquests.  If not all day for the human child, then at least for a few long hours, every day.  

And let’s remember that studies and the questions they ask have their origins in those hours of deep reverie shared by poets, philosopher’s and scientists alike.

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