Arrival of the Fittest—childhood evolving

A reader sent me a link to a Salon interview by Thomas Rogers of Melvin Konner about his new book The Evolution of Childhood.  A few things stood out to me; Rogers asks, “What’s the evolutionary purpose of adolescent rebellion?”

Konner replies, “In our culture, we give kids the message that at a certain point they’re going to be on their own and that involves breaking emotional ties with their parents. So it’s kind of like, ‘OK, you’re going to kick me out soon, so I’m going to reject you before you get a chance.’ But one of the big discoveries in the last decade in child development research is that there’s a lot of brain development after puberty, approximately between age 12 to 20. The brain, especially the frontal lobes of the brain, which are involved in suppressing impulses and organizing behavior in a rational and mature way, continues to develop during that time.

But now the age of puberty is two to three years younger than it used to be — it used to be 15, but now it’s about 12 and a half, or 13. We’re walking away from the evolutionary background that we had. Now the surge of testosterone that occurs in both girls and boys at that time, which facilitates aggression, is happening against the background of the less developed brain. Many psychologists are sensibly, I think, arguing that we should take this into account in criminal cases that involve teenagers and the judgments they make. They just don’t have the brain to make decisions in the same the way that an adult does.”

Rogers follows up with:  “So teenagers really are becoming more obnoxious,” to which Konner concedes, “I think it’s fair to say.”

Now I wouldn’t argue with the facts here—kids expecting to be kicked out of the nest and puberty coming on earlier, however, I would call into question why we have a cultural expectation that kids leave the nest and live independently.  Doesn’t this essentially lead to anxiety, alienation and poor allocation of resources (i.e. people living in separate places, driving alone in vehicles that seat five or more people)?  Really, I see so much loneliness amongst people, clients and otherwise, that I find myself calling into question our over-valuation of independence at the cost of inter-dependence and well-being.

Rogers follows up with a fair question:  “Why is puberty happening at younger ages?”

Konner:  “The likely reason is improvements in nutrition that have allowed our children to grow faster and taller. There’s also some new evidence that suggests that children who grow up in more hostile environments, where they’re being neglected or abused, but are getting enough to eat — the evolutionary theory is that they grow up faster. They get out of their childhood environment faster and start their own reproductive life sooner.”

Okay, so does this mean that later bloomers are growing up in less hostile environments.  Either way, as a culture, we are increasingly stressed and alienated; this leads to hostile environments for our most intimate family members (the ones in front of whom we most thoroughly drop our guards, our manners and our restraints).

Conversely, wouldn’t a kinder and more inter-connected society tap the breaks on puberty (and with it, that spike in aggressive-inducing testosterone)?  Science keeps imagining that it can study children and families without accounting for how that scientific, rational, goal-directed thinking influences (if not drives) that materialistic, survival of the fittest, competitive, anxiety fomenting mind-set that has gotten us into the mess of a polluted world with collapsing markets and little trust in governments, banks, corporations and media.

Maybe the scarcest resource of all is attention, the very lifeblood of love (remember, we must feel accurately known before we can feel truly loved) and, in turn, calm and pro-social relatedness.

Bear in mind our notions of the Virtual Salon and the kindness we are cultivating in this corner of the blogging world as you read on of the last interchanges in the interview:

Rogers:  “There’s been a lot of talk lately about how the Internet age is warping children — by making them more impatient and more prone to multitasking. Does this have the potential to fundamentally change human childhood, or is it just the human brain adapting to new technology?”

Konner:  “One of the interesting things that happened over the last three or four generations is that IQ has been increasing. Some people say that it’s because of technology and increasing access to information. But early in our evolution we lived in small face-to-face groups, where people were talking to each other all the time, all day and well into the night, and where relationships were critical. In some ways things like Facebook are a return to the very strong connectedness of communities that we evolved but lost. Kids are recovering it through technology; it’s very interesting. I think it’ll be interesting to see how future human evolution will be affected by it.”

Keeping in mind that IQ is a disputed measure (i.e. it is fraught with cultural bias) that might be going up because our culture is reinforcing its own (possibly misguided) values.  If a culture ends up valuing analytic thinking over compassion and kindness, is that truly a reflection of how much smarter we are getting?

Maybe it’s more than just cool to be kind; maybe it’s also smart to be kind?

We don’t want to use science to justify unhappy and stressed kids, telling them, “Of course you’re nasty, evolution made you that way.”  Such defeatist cop-outs only perpetuate the decline of things and fail to push us to take personal responsibility.  We must support each other to be calmer and kinder and to recognize that whatever nastiness we are experiencing, and our children are experiencing (personally and at societal and global levels) represents the effects of our own worldviews and behaviors.  If we adjust our consciousness this may have a kindness enhancing effect on our teens and on our world.

So, perhaps we might dedicate today to thinking for ourselves, thinking with heart-minds and asking ourselves, “How might we cultivate love and compassion?” placing our efforts consciously in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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7 Responses to “Arrival of the Fittest—childhood evolving”

  1. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry when I learn of everything that science can explain.

    I certainly went through a rebellious phase in my own adolescence, although it was fairly benign on the rebellion scale. My parents and I look back on it as the moment in our relationship in which we didn’t like each other all that much. Nowadays, I cry whenever I leave them or they depart after a visit. So maybe there is something to that whole correlation between close parent-child attachments and a tendency to stay put. (Of course I didn’t stay put – never moved back home again after college – but I still miss it like crazy.)

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Maybe it’s in the laughing through our tears that we feel most alive.

      I didn’t stay put either, but I sure would be happy if after all the wandering and exploring my kids decided to live in my neighborhood (or at least my city… wherever that will be by the time they might be choosing a place if it isn’t our current one).

      On the other hand, “place” seems to be shrinking in some ways, so maybe we’ll all start to trust that we’re each in the right part of the world, at least for now.

  2. Kelly Says:

    This is fascinating. I definitely grew up in a hostile environment and learned to fight or be beaten early on. I was on my own at 16 and sexually active way before that. I totally see the correlation, though I am but one piece of anecdotal evidence.

    Therefore, this post is a bit !!! for me. I am raising my children in the exact opposite environment and they know nothing of having the hairs raise on the backs of their necks when they enter a room or practicing your punch on a wall because you know you need to be stronger and quicker. I hope and pray that our efforts will at least encourage and promote some wallflower characteristics in our children.

    So much to process here, but such cool information!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Kelly, I am so sorry that you grew up with suffering, abuse and terror. In breaking that chain you make a huge difference in the world, and hopefully that giving what you did not get is also healing for you.

      It is heartbreaking how many children still suffer as you did, and I thank you for your comment so that we can all send you extra healing energy and because it raises awareness of the many kids who we can only hope will manage to grow up to be like you.

      What is it that you think allowed you to go in the direction of love and courage when so many just continue the cycle?

  3. joely Says:

    Reading your blog reminded me of a topic that has been discussed around Pennsylvania:

    Last year, Jordan Brown, now 12, was charged with murdering Kenzie Houk, his father’s eight-and-a-half month pregnant fiancee while she was asleep. Police say Brown walked into his father’s bedroom, shot his future stepmom with a hunting rifle and then boarded a bus for elementary school.

    A Pennsylvania judge ruled last month that the boy will be tried as an adult. If convicted, he could become the youngest person in U.S. history to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

    I know this crime is horrific but I do agree with you, his mind does not comprehend his actions. My husband and I have discussed this case over and over, he agrees with the court ruling and I do not. It is fascinating that science can now prove the adolescent mind continues to develop after puberty, but will it change the court systems?

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Such a case is tragic no matter which side you fall on. I do not know the facts, but a child who does that is either severely disturbed and was not identified as needing help, and/or they may have been abused in some manner that lead to such an act.

      One could explore the dynamics of crime, environment and neurology/psychopathology, but I tend to suspect that our extreme murder rates have something to do with the values (or lack thereof) in our culture. Even corporal punishment has been show to have little effect in terms of deterence, and I’ve worked with kids in the system, some of them sociopathic (i.e. lacking in all remorse).

      As to what to do with them or for them, I think greater awareness might lead to greater funding/research into what really causes such behavior and perhaps some developments in what might ameliorate it.

      Having met kids who had murdered, the great majority of them had suffered extreme situations of poverty, neglect, abuse and violence. With those who were violent without such obvious backgrounds, they still insisted to me that there was real craziness in their caregivers that drove them as children to the brink (and sometimes meeting those caregivers did little to make me think these children were off base).

      Before we can heal these families and children, perhaps it would serve us to look in the mirror as a society and ask ourselves, “are we a bit under the weather, if not rather ill?”

      If all kids really are our collective children, then the rare child who murders needs to be truly understood at the very least, I suspect they might have some chilling things to tell us about ourselves.

  4. krk Says:

    kudos to Kelly whose courage , strength and love is encouraging. To be able
    to rise away from abuse and sadness must be an overwhelming journey.
    Namaste,krk

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