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Supercharged Teens
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Photo: MorgueFile
Q:
  During a recent talk show appearance, a psychologist said that runaway hormone levels often cause the rational part of the teenage brain to shut down, resulting in all manner of exaggerated emotional displays. What do you think of this theory?

A:  Not much. The historical record clearly indicates that the “emotionally supercharged” teen is a relatively recent phenomenon. Alexis de Toqueville, the nineteenth century Frenchman who wrote Democracy in America, was impressed with the maturity of American teens—their willingness to shoulder responsibility, their poise, and so on.

Until recently, in nearly every culture, the 13-year-old was regarded as no longer a child. Nor was he or she an “adolescent,” as we today refer to the teenager. There was childhood, which effectively ended at 13, and there was adulthood. Granted, the teen years were a period of apprenticeship, but teens were expected to behave responsibly, and they did.

What we call adolescence is actually the product of child labor and compulsory education laws. These laws were certainly good, but every “good” thing has a down side. In this case, they extended the dependency of children by a good six years.

In days not so long ago, the teenager might have still been living at home, but in many, if not most cases, he or she was no longer a dependent. For example, both my father and my father-in-law were teenagers during the Great Depression, and they helped support their families. So did many of their friends. And their sisters were accepting equivalent responsibilities at home.

Prolonging Childhood, Prolongs Immaturity

Prolonging childhood is equivalent to prolonging immaturity, and indeed, much of the behavior today regarded as “typical” of teens is looked upon by people my parents’ age and older as more than simply immature. It’s bizarre. I’m referring here to the tantrums, unpredictable mood swings, exaggerated emotional reactions to disappointment or frustration, and the generally dramatic “take” teens have concerning their own lives. In days not so long ago, only pampered children of the rich acted in such self-centered ways.

And there we have yet another clue. Whereas once only children of the upper classes were pampered (not all of them, mind you), even today’s lower middle-class child is pampered, at least by the standards that governed my father’s young life. Extend a child’s dependency indefinitely and pamper, indulge, and otherwise “spoil” the child throughout his or her extended dependency, and you’re likely to wind up with a toddler in a teenage body.

I see no evidence to support the notion that biochemical upsurges periodically shut down the rational portion of the teenager’s brain. If these upsurges occur, then it’s obvious that by the teen years, the typical child of some 60 years ago had developed self-control sufficient to override them.

So have plenty of teens in our own time. A teacher from South Africa told me that there, teenagers rarely need to be disciplined, that is, punished for inappropriate behavior. By their teens, a South African is self-disciplined, well-mannered, respectful, and responsible. Are we to believe that teens in South Africa—which, like the United States, is an ethnic melting pot—have different biochemistry than North American teens?

No, the crucial difference between teens here and there is not physiology. It’s today’s parents, who give a lot and expect relatively little. It’s a media that encourages the young to view life as a culture that enables teen irresponsibility. In the latter are included “experts” who tell us that we really have no right to expect mature behavior from teenagers.

Our children deserve more than this. Don’t they?

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By John Rosemond. Reprinted with persmission from Signs of the Times, January 2007. Copyright © 2007 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.


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