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A boy at 13

The big news in our town recently was that a thirteen-year-old boy was shot and killed in his neighborhood. Police say the boy had gang ties, though his mother and a counselor who worked with him said he’d been turning his life around. My son is thirteen. It’s hard to look at lives like his next to lives like my son’s and make sense of it.

It sounds like the adults in his life were trying to do the right thing. But when I read the headline, with its emphasis on gangs and police, it made me think of how little sense our systems make when you compare them to what we know about brain development. I was blown away some months ago when I read the book Inspiring Middle School Minds by Judy Willis. Willis has the impressive creds of being a pediatric neurologist who changed careers to be a middle school teacher. Not only does she get kids’ brains, she gets kids.

What I learned from Willis and from other people studying and writing about brain development is that we have it all wrong when it comes to how we’re dealing with teenagers. Somewhere along the way, someone suggested that if we get harsher with them, if we push them harder, lock them up, treat them tougher, somehow this will fix the problems that teenagers cause.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Willis talks about how teens learn everything through the emotional centers of their brains. When they are experiencing pleasure, they learn. When they are experiencing negative emotions, they turn off. So when their gang friends tell them how cool they are, how grown up and tough, they feel great. They learn exactly what their gang friends want them to learn. When the police and the juvenile justice system slam them down and lecture them, lock them up and treat them as if they should view life just like a 30-year-old does, they shut off. They literally don’t learn.

On top of that, every single piece of scientific evidence about the development of the human brain points to decision-making as the very last piece that settles into the puzzle. The average person’s decision-making capability is in place by the age of 25—this means that some people take longer than that to attain their full capacity to make rational decisions. So what does that say about how we deal with teens? Our entire approach is just dead wrong. We can’t treat them more like adults—we need to treat them more like children.

My son has never had to deal with the juvenile justice system, but like all kids, he has done wrong things. When he makes a mistake, we tell him. But at the same time, he almost always hears loving words, accepting words, and he always gets a hug, a shoulder squeezed, a smile. And our son doesn’t have to make life-changing decisions yet. Hopefully, he’ll trust us enough to consult us, just as we did our parents, well into his 20’s when making important decisions.

But many 13-year-old boys are put into situations where they have to resist the pull of gang life, which makes them feel validated and important, and where they have to make life-or-death decisions on a daily basis. I know there’s no way to solve this problem for everyone—life is, at its core, not fair. But there is a way for us to make more rational decisions about how to deal with teens in our social systems. When I read about the juvenile justice system, about the way the police and social workers deal with teens, about how families deal with their difficult teens, I wish over and over that we would trust more in what our scientists are telling us.

Teens are still kids. Yes, it’s true that we shouldn’t treat them like babies. But no, we shouldn’t expect them to have the capabilities of adults. They don’t, and no matter how we treat them like adults, they won’t. They’re still kids, and they need love, support, and encouragement from adults who care about them.

I’m so sorry that a family lost their 13-year-old boy. I hope it reminds all of us to hug our teens, love them, and remember that they can’t be anything more than their biology lets them be.

Posted in Culture, Parenting, Psychology.

4 Responses

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  1. Susan Bruckner says

    One of the best books on this very topic is Barbara Strauch’s The Primal Teen in which she interviews the scientists behind teen studies and explains the latest research and its pertinence to educators & parents.

    • Suki says

      Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll check it out.

  2. SLH says

    You might want to take a look at the innovative practices and efforts Santa Cruz County has explored in its approach to juvenile justice before lumping local practice with the “slam them down and lecture them, lock them up” approach.

    The Annie E. Casey Foundation has been supporting alternative approaches here. Our schools, courts, police and groups supporting youth are much more inclined to treat the child as a developing human than as a hardened criminal.

    • Suki says

      It’s not surprising to hear that Santa Cruz is more enlightened! I would hope that people would look at the evidence — harsher, earlier, and longer punishments have made no dent — and be supportive of helping kids rather than punishing them. But people’s opinions are so swayed by the latest dramatic incident. It just takes one teen doing a horrible deed that makes the evening news for everyone to abandon reason and think that teens should be treated the same as adults.

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