It’s not simply on bad days that we feel we are running too fast; even when things are going well we just don’t have enough time to think.
Does this matter? We shouldn’t simply dismiss this by suggesting that we are just not being efficient or dedicated enough, for if we really haven’t got time to think things through we are damaging ourselves. Even more importantly, ultimately parents screw up their kids.
Let me explain. Years ago I remember hearing that anthropologists had calculated that our Stone Age ancestors spent less than 20% of their time hunting, collecting food and cleaning out their caves. For more than three-quarters of their waking time they just sat around, talked, and enjoyed themselves. I saw that when I spent time observing one of the very last remnants of such people, the Hadza out on the Savannah in Tanzania who, poverty stricken as they were in terms of western expectations, appeared to have all the time in the world to tell stories, and teach their children how to repeat them.
Cognitive scientists tell us that the brains of tiny children are a wondrous bundle of neurological possibilities, bequeathed to them genetically by their countless ancestors as preferred ways of making sense of the world. But, like a new computer operating system, they have to be activated by the challenge of being involved in the world around them. Unchallenged, they simply lie inert, whole swathes of wasted neurological opportunities. Human nature has to be activated by human culture.
Those Hadza parents, true itinerants who owned nothing (not even herds, crops, clothes or buildings) are in many ways quite excellent parents. With no written language, and no one to write things down, everything that they value is recorded in stories, and every child internalises such a wealth of culture that, years later, they retell their stories, often fables, to their own children.
English toddlers are born with the same neurological software but, as noted in a recent study by Oxford University, many children today come to school never having been told a story at home. And it is getting worse with two-thirds of teachers saying that it is worse now than ten years ago. Children whose imaginations have not been tweaked by a ‘sitting-on-a-parent’s-lap’ culture of storytelling simply fail, almost at the first hurdle, to be creative themselves.
A month ago a study from Sheffield showed that one in five of today’s teenagers are so illiterate and innumerate that they are incapable of dealing with the challenges of everyday life. In Stone Age times they simply wouldn’t have survived for they would have been pushed out of the cave as being an unnecessary burden on the rest of the tribe.
Later it was noted that many middle-class parents were too busy to take time out to be with their own children, simply enrolled them in so many out of school activities that they denied their children the opportunity to ‘go out and mooch around in the garden.’ Mooching is where creative thoughts is born – as it was with Newton when hit on the head by an apple falling from the tree, and so subsequently formulated the theory of gravity.
Earlier this month archaeologists completed an analysis of the bones from a medieval burial ground and have concluded that, in the 1400s, men only needed to work for 159 days in the year to provide for their families. Now, it seems, both parents have to work full-time to do the same thing. While that is undoubtedly true for the least well-off in our society, is that really true for the rest of us?
Running too fast may well damage your health. If so, ultimately it has to be our own fault. But it is not fair on our children if we so get our priorities wrong that we deny them the time and space to grow up in ways which naturally suited the Hadza, more than they do the unfortunate child of today with its iPhone sitting on the beach while its parents socialise in the bar.