What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?

Article By ALISON GOPNIK
Read the Wall Street Journal

Brain research is often taken to mean that adolescents are really just defective adults—grown-ups with a missing part. Public policy debates about teenagers thus often turn on the question of when, exactly, certain areas of the brain develop, and so at what age children should be allowed to drive or marry or vote—or be held fully responsible for crimes. But the new view of the adolescent brain isn’t that the prefrontal lobes just fail to show up; it’s that they aren’t properly instructed and exercised.

Simply increasing the driving age by a year or two doesn’t have much influence on the accident rate, for example. What does make a difference is having a graduated system in which teenagers slowly acquire both more skill and more freedom—a driving apprenticeship.

Instead of simply giving adolescents more and more school experiences—those extra hours of after-school classes and homework—we could try to arrange more opportunities for apprenticeship. AmeriCorps, the federal community-service program for youth, is an excellent example, since it provides both challenging real-life experiences and a degree of protection and supervision.

The solution offered here seems to involve getting teenagers involved with more real life activity through apprenticeship. That is a standard practice of “Democratic Free” schools. My son is 11 and already requesting an opportunity to work. I am deeply interested in child development and how it figures into the modern day. With all the media influence, and economic imbalance we are living with, what does the future hold for our offspring?

My sense is that the landscape is in such flux, the old rules no longer apply. In fact, it is the old rules that have got us to this point. And it isn’t pretty.

I am encouraged though by the constant stream of articles which support my own view. From teachers to psychologists, there is an emerging view of education that has begun to rethink the impact of traditional institutional influences. And to call them traditional, is actually a mistake. The views of a century old institution, does not make a tradition.

Lately, I have been pondering my early years a lot. Basically, I am mining my past for story ideas which will be included in my current graphic novel project. But this is also accompanied in trying to understand how my life was as a preteen and teenager. From 11 years old on, I had a series of work experiences that helped to educate me, in a way that was not possible in a school environment. Early on, my dad offered me the boxes of soda that were stored in our garage (my dad was a seltzerman.) He encouraged me to join him on spring and summer weekends, at the handball courts where he played regularly with other men in his age group. I would fill a large aluminum cooler with cans of soda and ice. We would load this in the car and I would sit at a corner of the courts and sell sodas to the sweaty handball players for 25¢. The weekend would net me about $15 spending cash. My dad allowed me to keep the full profit.

When I turned 13, I was able to get a paper route with the Long Island Press. My route had 70 customers, and I built it to 90 by the time I switched routes. The job was 7 days a week, rain or shine. I remember dragging my bike through serious snow drifts in order to get people their Sunday papers. Sunday papers, which were heavy, had to be delivered early in the morning. I would leave my house by 6:30 AM every weekend. Paper routes also required to collect fees and tips two nights a week, many times, in the freezing cold. I kept a book for those who paid or who didn’t. There was a fee I had to cover every week for the papers. Though I am not what you would call financially savvy, this experience gave me insight on how to run a business. Two years later, I took on two routes for the Daily News after my failed attempt to work under supervision at the local supermarket. I realized early on that I preferred to work independently.

What the attached article describes so well is a dilemma. But it is one that can easily be worked out of. What I appreciate about this is that it does not only pose a problem, but offers a simple solution. The answer: there is a pile of dishes in the sink and somebody has to wash them. My dad thought that that was what kids were made for. At this stage, it is hard to disagree with him.


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