Thinking “I told you so” is gratifying. Saying it might be crass, but thinking it feels pretty good. Reading a Wall Street Journal article entitled, What’s Wrong with the Teenage Mind? I definitely underwent an “I told you so” moment. My husband and I tried as best we could to structure our children’s upbringing according to 3,000 year old Torah principles rather than to the latest issue of Psychology Today. After all, when the newest fad passes you don’t get a chance to press “rewind”. For instance, if you teach your children to call you by your first name when the currently reigning psychologist explains how that will foster closeness, you will struggle to regain lost authority five years later when the most recently crowned psychologist rejects that reasoning.
One commonly accepted view that my husband and I disregarded was a prevalent concept of “adolescence.” We did not accept it as an inevitable stage during which our teenagers would automatically behave recklessly because their prefrontal cortex wouldn’t fully develop until a few years later. We certainly expected their judgment to improve as they matured, but we were never tempted to excuse destructive, impulsive behavior by blaming it on biology. We anticipated their making proper choices and overwhelmingly, they delivered.
The author of the WSJ article cites the latest studies showing that real life experiences drive the maturation of the impulse controlling parts of the brain. She mentions how cultural psychologist Barbara Rogoff studied Guatemalan Indians and found that their children could handle machetes quite competently. Yet western teenagers basically sit in classrooms, an activity which often starts when they are toddlers and continues for years on end. They may very well be acquiring information; they are not acquiring wisdom. Wisdom means understanding how the world really works. It comes from interacting with people and things, slowly developing a variety of skills. This is best achieved with a mentor who gradually accords his or her disciple greater independence. Information has potential value, but activating its potential means applying, practicing, testing, reassessing and utilizing the raw data.
As our children grew, we helped them develop skills. At tender years they worked in the kitchen, using the stove and sharp knives at ages which would have made Child Protective Services uneasy. They learned to read charts and check the gauges in a boat’s engine room, to care for infants and toddlers, to do their own laundry and to earn money in ways which probably didn’t meet child labor laws. In varying degrees they learned to sew and work with wood and how to use public transportation and navigate bureaucracies. They studied as well, but book learning and safe, cocooned adult-directed activities didn’t consume their entire time. As they proved themselves capable of shouldering responsibility we gave them more freedom, and for the most part their teenage years were a delight.
While discussing the later arrival of impulse-control in today’s times, the author of the above article also says, “…for reasons that are somewhat mysterious, puberty is now kicking in at an earlier and earlier age.“ For those of you who don’t have time to wait for the next psychological revelation to explain the mysterious reasons for the earlier onset of puberty, let me suggest an important component. I believe that just as our actions influence our brain development in the prefrontal cortex, they also influence our hormones.
As a society we now give our children less and less freedom to roam and ramble and to push their physical limits. We provide them with an increasing number of electronic gadgets keeping them entertained and isolated in the home rather than playing in the streets. We organize their sports, arts and learning rather than allowing them independence. We do this (in my opinion usually to a much greater degree than is necessary) in the name of protecting them from the dangers which lurk outside. But at the same time we expose them to levels of sexuality which would have ranked as pornography in earlier times. We dress five year old girls like tramps and think it’s cute when little boys learn to parrot lewd expressions. This past week I was in a hotel room and flipped through TV stations. Three minutes of a popular show aimed at pre-teenagers were so brazen that I couldn’t watch it. We force our children to lose their innocence in sexual education classes and bombard them with too much information as mommy and daddy host a revolving door through which boyfriends and girlfriends pass. We force intimate, private actions onto a public stage and we push our children into front row seats. Lacking a shared moral compass in our society we contribute to early puberty with premature and excessive exposure to sexuality.
There may be satisfaction in seeing the world come to accept something which I never doubted. But I would gladly give up that satisfaction and instead be part of a correct-thinking community. It is incredibly difficult to defy the downward gravity of a society bent on devolution. Those of us who believe in timeless truths rather than transitory trends have a hard path to hoe – preferably shoulder to shoulder with our children as we guide them along.