Why kids want to stay up late

posted in: History, How to human | 0

It took me a hell of a long time to figure out why 2-10 year olds absolutely insist on staying up way beyond what adults would consider a reasonable hour.

“Nooo I don’t wanna go to sleep!”

Surely, that’s maladaptive – all kinds of predators are out at night. The lands of our ancestors teemed with sabretoothed hedgehogs and dormice, or worse, other human tribes. Evolution should have made kids black out at 6 PM sharp.

But no – it’s the opposite. Given half a chance, the indefatigible blighters insist on being up forever.

Where did that come from? How can staying up late be good for kids? What possible evolutionary advantage could it have?

For one, the kids can join their parents at evening communal gatherings. This means the parents don’t have to choose between staying at home, isolating themselves from the group for years with potentially catastrophic social consequences, and leaving the child behind in a hut with barely useful siblings, a frail elderly relative, or even alone. This is safer in the event of a sabretoothed dormouse attack, or a neighbouring tribe fancying a spot of murder, cannibalism or slave raiding, as is the common fokloric practice.

Also, parents occupied with a restless child tend to be much less likely to have the opportunity (or energy) to produce a little competitor for resources, which was the first thing that came to the mind of a new mother when I raised the topic.

But I think there’s a bigger reason.

Imagine the primordial state of humanity. Hunters and gatherers in a tightly-knit (but not necessarily harmonious) band of a few dozen people.

Dusk covers the virginal lands, still barely trampled by human feet. As the first stars light up the sky, so do the fires of the humans light up the Earth. The mists roll out, everything grows still (except the prowling beasts in the undergrowth), and the crickets and the owls begin their nocturnal concerto.

The band gathers at the fires.

The little ones don’t want to go to sleep. Now the fun begins! They join the adults to absorb the tribe’s culture, pick up useful skills, and endear themselves to people who are not their parents. This is all of supreme importance, and there is no better occassion to do it.

From the inside, it feels like wanting to be included and not sent off just as the interesting stuff is starting to happen. The evolutionary function is socialization, and transmission of knowledge.

The tribe feasts, sings and dances – and perhaps most important of all, talks. Elders relay myths and tales from the past. People share stories, locations of the good blueberry patches, and gossip. Bonding. Hunters present their exploits to gasping awe or incredulous laughter. They share their experience and skills, and discuss plans for the next day. For most of the day, they’re out of the camp, and this is both a parliament and an evening school. Dominance hierarchies are established, challenged, revised and recognized. People fix up their things, and make new ones – spears, clothes, art. The kids watch. Gradually, they get involved.

If their parents have personality issues, exposure to a broader social group is an antidote.

The kids also need to get people who have no direct stake in their existence to like them. That’s a very different game from getting what they want from mum and dad. It’s how a child learns to be acceptable and socially interact with others on standard transactional terms – something many people who haven’t been properly socialized resent into adulthood – without the unconditional hormonal drugging his parents are temporarily under to not throw him off a cliff.

It’s really hard to get away with being an annoying kid around people who aren’t your parents.

Kids raised by the tribe have to be agreeable, and are socialized by definition. Mom alone, or mom and weak dad, raise narcissistic little monsters. Jordan Peterson is right. Look around you.

If you’re shitty and annoying and self-centered, either the rest of the tribe will feedback it out of you, or you’re fucked – and just as well.

But if you’re cool, people will teach you things, tell you things, show you things, they’ll want to spend time with and pay attention to you, and you’ll get a foot on the social hierarchy ladder. Later, you’ll get help and mentorship and allies for all sorts of stuff. You’re part of the tribe, and can transact with others on the generally understood terms. You’re able to play the game, to human.

This is where civilization begins.

It really takes a village to raise a child.

You can be a helpful member of the tribe here.