Grown-ups are dumb

One of the things I learned as a kid was that grown-ups are dumb. I'm fairly sure all kids work this out. They don't understand that it's puberty that does it to folk, but they do understand that grown-ups are dumb. Later, they hit puberty; but, of course, they don't see themselves as getting dumb here. Adolescents still know that grown-ups are dumb: but, by the time they get there, they know quite a lot; and so they're capable of falling into the idiotic error of considering anyone dumb who doesn't know all the things they know. After all, among their peers, only the dumb ones haven't learnd those things. So, obviously, kids (who also haven't learned those things) must be dumb. How else could they not know all the things I and my peers have learned ? d'uh – this stuff is obvious (i.e.: I learned it before grown-ups started to pretend to treat me as a grown-up).

Most forget this by the time they're grown-ups, mainly because they pass through puberty and adolescence. Grow-ups treat adolescents as not grown-up, so adolescents have no problem sustaining their undestanding that grown-ups are dumb. By the time they start to think of themselves as grown-ups, they're dumb enough to see kids as dumb, just the same way that grown-ups do (after all, the kids know little about how the world works – which (those with delusions of being) grown up tend to mistake for dumb).

Grown-ups think that not knowing stuff is evidence of being dumb. To be fair, among grown-ups, it kinda is, at least some of the time, for some (but by no means all) of the things that grown-ups expect each other to know. The problem is that grown-ups are dumb enough to extend this to kids and treat them as dumb because they don't know stuff they've had no chance to learn. Not knowing stuff you've had no chance to learn is not evidence of being dumb – but grown-ups are dumb enough to treat it as if it is. That's one of the ways that kids work out that grown-ups are dumb, in fact. You treat me as dumb because I didn't know something I had no way to have possibly learned – OK, now I know you're dumb. Since adolescents treat kids as dumb (for exactly the same reason), kids don't distinguish adolescents from grown-ups, as regards beind dumb; since adolescents are grown-up enough to buy into the grown-up view of kids as dumb, kids lump them with grown-ups; since grown-ups lump adolescents in with kids, adolescents continue knowing grown-ups are dumb; since grown-ups remember that adolescents were wrong about grown-ups, they fail to notice that adolescents were wrong about kids; so grown-ups find it easy to buy into the delusion that kids are dumb; which ensures they'll teach kids how dumb (adolescents and) grown-ups are.

I had the peculiar good fortune of helping to raise my sisters – who are more than a decade younger than me – while I was a teenager. I saw that my peers thought grown-ups were dumb; I had my reservations about that, but I noticed that the children I was looking after were smart enough to exploit how dumb the grown-ups were, so I realised the grown-ups were dumb. Not just I'm an adolescent, grown-ups don't let me do what I want, so obviously they're dumb but: I just watched you get out-smarted by my baby sister. I was also not yet grown-up (i.e. dumb) enough, or vain enough, to miss the connection that (given my delusions of being closer to grown up than the grown-ups observably acknowledged) I was probably dumb, too. In the process, I realised that my peers' contempt for grown-ups as dumb was misplaced (because my peers were just as dumb as grown-ups, and barely knew more than kids), despite their being technically correct in noticing that grown-ups were dumb. The consequent impulse, to use my brain (as opposed to my memory) more, probably did me some good. My baby ssters were the best thing that ever happened to me (and not just because they helped me to recognise how dumb I'd gotten, round about the times they were born).

But … why ?

Well, see, the thing is that kids are really smart – and they just keep getting smarter and smarter, year by year (until they hit puberty; and hereby hangs the clue). They don't know much about anything, but they're really good at processing what they have learned. That's because, somewhere back in our ancestry, the kids had to be that smart to get well-enough established in their social context to have a chance to survive as far as adolescence, much less have kids of their own. Large primate social dynamics got really complicated somewhere back in our ancestry and you needed to learn fast around those clever bastards. So we got big brains early, equipped with all the boosters for smarts that our quirky genomes could happen to stumble upon.

The problem with this was that, by the time our ancestors' contemporaries had survived a decade (and maybe a bit) around those clever bastards, they had to have gotten shockingly smart, just to get there – and, as it happens, that involves being smart enough to work out that having kids is hard work (especially for the women: the act of giving birth is agonisingly painful – and this would be particularly clear to those who've seen someone else go through it, before experiencing it personally – such compensation as biology uses to help those actually giving birth cope isn't obvious to a watcher). This would tend to put a reasonable person off doing it. Those of our ancestors who stayed that smart after they hit puberty had fewer kids than their contemporaries, so that's not who we're descended from.

Some of our ancestors' contemporaries had (relatively speaking; i.e. around a decade into their lives) late-onset defects in their ability to use their brains: specifically, dumb instincts (developing during adolescence) that made them ignore the obvious good sense of abstincence in favour of (behaviour that, in practice, lead to them) making babies. These had more descendants than their less-dumb peers. The smarter those descendants got, the stronger the countervailing dumbness of the instincts had to get for this to work. Yes, that's who we're descended from – the ones dumb enough to have kids. And that – to cut a long story short (and grossly over-simplify it) – is why grown-ups (and adolescents) are dumb.

These days, we have (mostly) reliable contraceptives: which lets us subvert those dumb insincts – we get to enjoy the rewards they use to trick us into having kids, without actually having kids – but that just means that future generations shall be descended from those who danced on the border-line between using them and, none the less, having children – but no more than they could raise so well as to give those children an advantage in relation to the children of parents too dumb to use contraceptives (and, consequently, self-condemned to raise their children in poverty). Meanwhile, those who grow up smart enough to not have kids at all are finding it much easier to enjoy their lives without having kids.

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