It’s ironic that there are still some people who seem to believe that the faster you can move children through childhood, the more advanced they’ll be.
Science, on the other hand, shows us examples of the opposite.
Across animal species, the length of a species’ typical childhood period correlates with how intelligent that species tends to be and how innovative they are, as well as their brain size relative to their body size.
Psychologist and philosopher Dr. Alison Gopnik compared two birds in her fascinating TED Talk, What Do Babies Think? , as one of my favorite illustrations of this fact. She first points to the crow, which has a childhood of two years (quite long for a bird), and is considered to be rather intelligent. In fact, crows are often the subjects of scientific studies and observations focused on exploring animal intellect. As a second example, she introduces the domesticated chicken, which matures in just a matter of months, and well…it’s just not that bright. The disparity in childhood, she says, is the reason why “the crows end up on the cover of Science, and the chickens end up in the soup pot.”
In her book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, Gopnik goes on to explain that sophisticated birds like the crow and other corvids are adept at many complicated tasks and unique in their ability to think outside of the box, even devising and using tools to accomplish their goals. In contrast, birds that mature quickly (referred to as precocial species) like chickens and turkeys are particularly good only at those few skills that sustained them from their hatching, namely walking around pecking at food. These domesticated birds become independent quickly and display mastery of a small set of narrowly-focused skills very early. They may be precocious, or even advanced by some measures; they are not, however, particularly intelligent.
Whether a more advanced brain requires a longer childhood period or a longer childhood period leads to a more advanced brain is a bit of — if you’ll pardon the pun — a chicken and egg question.
Gopnik and other evolutionary theorists argue that what makes corvids so intelligent is the interplay between the developing brain and the childhood period. A complex brain will require time to develop, that seems logical enough. What is also required, however, and more likely to be overlooked, is a protected childhood period that includes the scaffolding of caring adults in order for the young to continue to develop and learn.
While corvids remain dependent on their parents and community for an extended period when compared to other bird species, this “protected period” does not simply refer to their physical protection but also a safe and supported environment for learning. During this childhood period, corvids are being mentored by the adults around them, and each successive generation of adults is passing on the core knowledge — the sum of the entire community’s experiences, innovations, and adaptations. A protected childhood period means the young members of the species have time to experience, explore, innovate, observe, practice, fail, and learn under that guidance. It isn’t the brain design and size alone that accounts for their superior intelligence. It’s also the experiences afforded by their childhood.
I can’t help but see an allegory in this story.
Chickens are considered advanced at a very early age when measured only by a narrow skillset – in their case mobility and pecking. Crows, despite the fact that they could be considered “behind” on these skills when measured too early, are undisputedly more intelligent overall. The importance of mobility and eating is not overlooked- they certainly build those skills – but their childhood period is extended to allow them to build those skills along with problem-solving, innovation, and social abilities through guided exploration and experience. They are simply meant for more.
We can speed children along if we want to focus on only a few, narrowly-defined skills. We can give the appearance of precocity. We can raise them to be like chickens. But the reality of their design is more like the crow. They are meant for more. They are meant to have an extended, supported childhood.
There are no extra points for circumventing childhood. Our species’ extended period of childhood, in and of itself, is a gift. As Gopnik writes: “Childhood is for learning — that’s what children are designed to do.”