The Benefits of a Long Childhood

In his essay “The Benefits of a Long Childhood,” Ethan Remmel reviews “Why Youth Is Not Wasted on the Young: Immaturity in Human Development” by David F. Bjorklund.

Children’s thinking differs from that of adults, and people tend to view those differences as deficits that need to be overcome-the sooner the better. Bjorklund argues, though, that some aspects of children’s immature cognition are actually adaptive, both in preparing them for adulthood and in allowing them to flourish in childhood. He gives several examples: Children typically overestimate their own abilities, which may maintain their motivation in the face of failure and lead to eventual success. Their limited information-processing capacity may help them learn language, because it forces them to focus on constituent components and build upward from there, whereas adult language learners skip straight to semantics, often failing to master underlying grammatical structures. And play in childhood may promote later social competence, as neuroscientist Sergio Pellis has demonstrated in rats.

Bjorklund finds implications that will interest parents and educators. Parents often want their children to be the first among their peers to reach every developmental milestone, but Bjorklund points out that earlier is not always better and may sometimes be worse.

For example, abnormally early visual experience in birds disrupts development of the auditory system. Also, in a classic study published in American Scientist in 1959, “The Development of Learning in the Rhesus Monkey,” psychologist Harry Harlow found that the ability of rhesus monkeys to discriminate objects on various dimensions such as shape was impaired by starting the training too early in life—the monkeys who started training at older ages reached higher peak levels of performance. In a 1977 study by developmental psychologist Hanus Papousek, human infants who started learning to turn their heads to specific sounds at 31 days of age mastered the task, on average, at 71 days of age, whereas infants who started learning to do so at birth did not master the task, on average, until the age of 128 days.

Bjorklund’s message is that human development takes as long as it does for good reasons and that experiences should be introduced only when children are cognitively ready for them. Early education should foster a love of learning, which will pay dividends in the long run, rather than a fear of falling behind, which increases stress and decreases motivation. He acknowledges that schooling is necessary for success in the modern world and that direct instruction is sometimes useful. But as much as possible, he believes, we should let children enjoy childhood. We should even seek to maintain some “immature” qualities, such as curiosity and playfulness, into adulthood. As Aldous Huxley observed, “The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.”

This may be a contributing factor to why Finnish kids by age of 15 — who start school 2-3 years later at age 7 than students in other countries — outperform their peers on international standardized tests conducted by the OECD.

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