Childhood is a unique stage in the life history of human beings. Prior to the late 1980s standard "textbook" explanations for the value of childhood held that it provides "extra" time for brain development and learning. This is true, but advances in life history theory and analysis of the fossil record of human evolution are now used to associate the initial selective value of childhood more closely to parental strategies to give birth to new offspring and provide care for existing dependent young. Additionally, the childhood stage allows for increased developmental plasticity and fitness for the young. The dependency of childhood also entails risks. Deviant behavior by older individuals, social groups, and political institutions can adversely and permanently affect children.
A troubled childhood has long-term consequences. The problems of adults who were abused, neglected, subjected to warfare, or poverty as children are often cited. Less openly discussed are undernutrition in the poor nations and overnutrition in the wealthy nations. These are, arguably, the major health threats to the world's children. Both types of malnutrition often lead to severe and costly physical and psychological complications in adulthood. To paraphrase William Wordsworth, the child is father and mother to the adult. It is certainly easier to produce physically healthy and psychologically well-adjusted adults if their development conforms to the bio-culturally based needs of infancy, childhood, and the other stages of human life history. Medical anthropology has the resources to elucidate the needs of children and the responsibility to promulgate them widely.
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