What Purpose Does Childhood Serve?

Most animals have self preservation instincts that kick in not long after birth. They are likely to stay hidden from predators and be silent unless they think a parent is nearby. Many mammals are able to walk minutes after they take their first breaths. Evolutionarily, it seems to make sense for offspring to attain maturity as quickly as possible to increase their chances of survival. Humans are very different in this respect. We have one of the longest childhoods in the animal kingdom lasting between 16 and 25 years depending on who defines it. At either end of that range it is a very long time which begs the question, what purpose does childhood serve? Here in this paper are some of the answers.


Human society is more complex than the one most animals are born into. Children need to be taught certain intricate skills like literacy and numeracy to increase their chances of thriving as adults. These cannot be passed down through instincts and without mastering them, marginalization is a very likely result.


Some of the things that children learn come from a much less structured environment. By playing they absorb some of the more subtle rules of society. They begin to understand that others like you less when they suspect you of cheating or have caught you in the act. Through their alliances they learn the feeling of inclusion and exclusion and these shape future interactions.


The human brain is fairly large compared to the size of the rest of the body in comparison with the brains of most other mammals. Babies are born helpless because they might grow too large for their mothers if they were to pend more time in utero. Through childhood they are allowed to gain their full height and put on considerable muscle mass under the protection of their parents before being forced to survive on their own.


As children, bonds can begin to be formed between members of the group so that they feel fully ingrained into societies as adults. This makes it easier to find mated, jobs and other important markers of success. If we were born adults it would be much harder to engage in those first awkward steps.

Childhood is a big part of the reason that humans have been this planet’s dominant species for so long. As much as the concept is changing it remains a vital aspect of who we are.