We’ve been mulling over a story in the Toronto Sunday Star for a couple days now. Called “Teenagers aren’t stupid…” it was an excerpt from Toronto author Ron Clavier’s book Teen Brain, Teen Mind: What Parents Need to Know to Survive the Adolescent Years. As a former teenager, we were interested in the reassurance that eventually things (will) work out. For one thing, we hope soon to decide whether to speak in the first person singular or plural. Which is more masculine, do you think?
Back to the article. It got us thinking about society, and maturity, and peer pressure, and sure enough, car culture soon emerged as the dominant theme. Why is the pesky thing allowed in polite company?
Clavier describes the work of Jean Piaget (whom ALLDERBLOB readers may know of as “the father of developmental psychology”) in broad strokes: “In his experiments, he delineated the process of how children’s ability to think becomes increasingly complex as they get older.”
According to Piaget, an infant under two years of age is at a different stage (the “sensorimotor phase” in Piaget’s terms) than a child aged between 2-7 (the “preoperational stage”) or 7-11 (“concrete operational stage”).
As Clavier puts it:
The most noticeable development in the preoperational stage is the use of language. But despite this outward sign of sophistication, the preoperational child is still working with a relatively immature brain. While he may be able to describe the world around him, there are plenty of basic concepts that he still can’t grasp. Take reverse logic, for example. Ask a 4-year-old if he has a brother, and he’ll tell you yes. Ask what his name is, and the child may answer “Jim.” Then ask, “Does Jim have a brother?” The answer might be no.
Try it out on some kid you know. Good for some laffs, believe me. No, believe us.
Clavier goes on to describe a Piaget experiment that demonstrates the increasing sophistication of the “concrete operational stage” child. In it, two lumps of plasticene of identical size and shape are shown to the child. Then one of the lumps is rolled into a different shape, in full view of the child. The preoperational kid will tell you the amount of clay has changed, while the concrete operational kid will understand that only the shape has changed.
The older kid may even laff at the younger one. He (or she) may even call him (or her) “stupid.”
This too is normal, apparently.
In Clavier’s deathless prose:
This simple experiment demonstrates that, no matter how hard you try, you simply cannot convey an understanding of “amount” to someone whose brain is not ready. It would be like trying to explain “red” or “green” to a colour-blind person: They aren’t stupid, but they won’t get it. The best you can hope for is an awareness that other people are capable of understanding something they [younger ones] are not. But even that can be asking a lot.
The emphasis is all ours.
And we’re getting to the car question. Be patient.
While Piaget focused on the development of children, Clavier has applied the research to older youth. He asks:
Have your teenagers ever said something like this? “If you stopped bugging me so much, I’d do better in school.” “I’m not going to smoke forever, you know. I’ll stop before I get addicted.” “My teacher sucks. She doesn’t like me. She wants me to fail.”
Clavier urges us not to call such utterances “stupid:” “To characterize them as such will result only in hurt feelings, anger, and rebellion. Please understand this: It’s not stupidity in evidence here; it’s brain immaturity. ”
The owner of a teen brain is simply too immature to perceive that his beliefs are incorrect, and he certainly cannot grasp the full implications of his incorrect beliefs. You cannot convey the subtle implications of social situations like those above to someone whose brain is not ready for it.
At about this point in the Star article, which (to be frank) was starting to lose us, the editor threw in the following “pull-out quote” (as we in the newpaper biz like to say):
Inability to see consequences.
Aha! Say no more!
See, Clavier’s point is that human beings mature at different rates and along different trajectories.
And we suddenly found ourselves on a trajectory of our own: that of the inability of some people to recognize car culture for what it is; the inability to connect action (own a car) with consequence (poison the planet, pave paradise, war in Iraq, ruin the world for your children); the sheer stupidity of so many people out there.
Now let’s think about teenagers for a moment. Teenagers often seem oblivious to the possible dangers associated with their behaviour. Whether they are cutting class, using drugs or becoming sexually active, it’s as if the adolescent is unable to see the future consequences of their actions. As a result, they are unable to use that information to avoid the associated danger. In fact, that’s exactly what’s going on! The future is part of that pretty complicated fourth dimension — time. Teenagers who appear unable to grasp a full measure of comprehension of time are not unlike the younger kids who were either unable to “conserve” the amount of Plasticine, or to escape the literal meanings of proverbs. In the same way, the time-challenged teenager is being asked to grasp a concept — a dimension really — before her brain has matured sufficiently.
But for us–and for you, gentle reader–it’s not teenagers we’re concerned with, but people like Clavier. Let us ask Mr. Clavier, for example, what kind of car he drives. Is Mr. Clavier able to grasp the dimension of time in the way that we (the ALLDERBLOB and its readers) have?
The part of the brain that allows us to “see into the future” and inhibit impulsive behaviours is the prefrontal cortex. It’s a thin sheet of neurons that lies just behind our foreheads, and it’s proportionately larger in humans than in all other species. Many scientists and clinicians call it the brain’s “executive centre” because it is so instrumental in how mature humans make decisions. …In our daily lives, we all have things that we want to do. Sometimes, these are things that we could do, but we don’t. For example: Some guy cuts you off in traffic. You want to get him back by being similarly rude and dangerous. You want to … but you don’t.
Are you talking to me? ARE YOU TALKING TO ME? Because I don’t get your drift. Am I stupid? Or do I just not own a car?
Some kid wrote a letter to the editor that was printed in today’s Star. It makes a similar point to ours:
Teens stereotyped in Sunday article
Teenagers aren’t stupid
I am 15 years old and would like to express my distaste for this article and, also, my confusion as to why it was ever published. This article is not only hugely stereotypical, but also very immature and childish. I am fairly sure that I am acquainted with many more teenagers than the author of this article and I can tell you for sure that many of them are much more mature than most of the political leaders of the modern world.
As far as I am concerned, neither adults nor adolescents have the right to accuse the other of being “incorrect.” What is correct in the mind of one may very well not be correct in the mind of another. For example, according to the article all teenagers cannot see the consequences of their actions. A teenager could just as easily be correct in saying that all adults cannot live in the moment and not care about the consequences of their actions, when we all know that both of these stereotypes are incorrect. After all what were the consequences of the war in Afghanistan or Iraq?
Brian Cormier, Mississauga