Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Teenage Brain

I stir sugar into my hot tea with a knife. {Oh please, no college student washes silverware until the very last utensil is dirty}. Today I was surprised to see the graceful explosion of tea leaves swirling around in my mug. I was raking a serrated metal edge against a thin, wet tea bag. What did I expect to happen? Somehow, not that.

Then I got to thinking.

The human brain doesn't effectively factor in consequences until it's 25. We watch videos in health class about how eating badly can cause diabetes, and tanning can cause melanoma, and smoking increases risk of lung cancer, but there's a disconnect in our heads. Our subconscious definitions of "relevant" are exceptionally narrow.

Researchers say that this is just the way young adult brains work. It's a scientific fact. It's not that we CAN'T make the better choice, it's that we don't fully understand why it's better.

So what? Is it not our fault that we have bad judgment? Should we be exempt from blame when we make stupid choices?

My immediate response was, "No, of course not. Even a three-year-old is expected to follow rules." Don't hit people; use your inside voice; don't leave the front yard. If toddlers are legitimately subjected to rules, teenagers should not have a My-Brain-Hasn't-Developed-That-Far-Yet card to play.

So yes, teenagers should be expected to follow rules. But that's not quite the question I had originally asked myself. "Following rules" and "making choices" are two radically different things. Rules result from authority; the option to make a choice results from having authority yourself.

During the teen years, people are given more authority over themselves. They get more freedom, and, of course, with freedom comes responsibility. It's not just about following rules anymore; it's about choosing our own rules, drawing our own boundaries.

But as soon as we're allowed to make our own choices, our brains become ill-equipped to make good ones. What are we do to, then?

I think it depends on what kind of person you are. Some teens are perfectly content to seek out authority figures and ask them for advice. They continue to follow the rules that have been set for them, and ask mentors to help make new choices.

But then you have the other kind of person, the kind of person who wants to see for herself; the kind of person who wants to find out WHY that rule exists before she chooses to follow it, or builds her choices on that rule.

The first situation is ideal, I guess. Best case scenario, teens listen to their mentors until their own brains develop enough to make good judgment calls. There is definitely honor in this approach, and I'm sure it prevents a lot of heartache.

However, I mostly wouldn't know, because I am Kind of Person Number Two.

I'm an advocate for freedom of decision:  freedom to make stupid choices with the knowledge that consequences--good or bad--will follow. I think your conviction to do right becomes stronger once you truly understand wrong.

{Experience also makes you undeniably more convincing and better able to advise Kind of Person Number One. Number Two probably isn't going to listen to you anyway.}

But getting back to the original question:  Can teens be held accountable for their choices if their brains are scientifically not conducive to good decision-making?

Absolutely. And they should be.

But instead of condemning them for making the "wrong" choices, we should remember that they couldn't see it coming quite the same way, and that their "screw-up," no matter how devastating, is ultimately one more step on the road to true understanding.



  1. I agree! I'm not sure if you read the National Geographic article, too (because it's so related to this) but it mentioned the same thing. It mentioned that as yung'uns we just weight things differently. What is perhaps the most ignorant is when people use it as an excuse, though. A few kids got my brother to roll down a steep hill in a barrel and when I protested they said "it's okay, we're kids!" (Needless to say, it didn't end well.) So, anyway, I agree :)


  2. oh my gosh i am so person number two it's not even funny. you can talk at me all day long and tell me that what i'm doing might not make any sense whatsoever, but until i see the bad results or benefits for myself, i'm probably just mostly going to ignore you. there are things i treasure advice on in my life, but also i don't always listen to that advice.

    part of growing up is learning to make decisions and even though their brains aren't fully equipped for good judgement calls, if they aren't allowed to try their hand at it then what happens when they are 'ready' and lack the experience that other's may have received? failing is a part of growth. you learn the stove is hot when your mom says don't touch it and you do anyway. (i was totally that toddler.)

  3. I agree with you mostly, though I don't think we have to do wrong to understand right or have stronger convictions regarding right, nor do I think not doing wrong means a person lacks freedom of speech when giving advice to others. I definitely do agree though that we are accountable for our actions and everyone should be held accountable, at least to a certain degree, no matter what. That being said I think most parents could do a better job of teaching their children to think ahead a bit. Maybe I was an odd child but I had a strong grasp that when I was following my grandpa around while he operated farm equipment, I'd better stay out of the way or I'd get hurt really bad. I also think people rely on the cliche "I have to make my own mistakes" as a way to excuse bad judgment, which is the easier path to take.

    A stupid person learns from his mistakes. A smart person learns from watching the stupid one.