Teen hate, adult regrets

My friend Willem wrote an article about the profound disrespect for adolescence imbedded in our culture. He takes a piece of NPR journalism to task for perpetuating this myth while reporting on a neuroscientist’s research into adolescent brain development in a desperate attempt to “cope with” and “survive” her own teenage sons.

Willem expertly laid bare the cultural doctrine of disdain for youth, and scapegoating (teens fight wars, but old men RUN them!) hidden in this “research” and “reporting.” Rather than teen brains being “incomplete,” flawed, lacking, he says, they’re perfectly wired to take risks, which is actually vital to human culture and human survival. Children excel at Play, Teens excel at Risk, Adults excel at Providing, Elders excel at Story. It’s a vital, beautiful cycle, repeating perpetually. Willem concludes with the following assertion:

Consider that if you haven’t done these things to your fullest ability, in your own time, then you haven’t lived.

When I read those words, I wept. Seriously, literally wept.

I wept because I felt the full, crushing weight of regret that’s been growing for years, regret at having largely missed out on my younger years of risk and boldness in the name of love, passion and art. My blaming mind says bitterly that I was denied the opportunity to, in the words of the commenter Shannon on Willem’s blog, “make lots of choices, throughout life,” that this chance was squelched by continual herding and discouragement from parental and cultural authority. My SELF-blaming mind says, equally bitterly, that I squandered those days, that my time of “risk-taking” consisted largely of playing video games for hours and not doing my homework. I think both are somewhat true, but not the whole picture.

Neuroscientist Francis Jensen’s “findings” were that teenage frontal lobes are “not fully connected” and teens lack “insight” and the “capability” to consider the consequences of their actions. She says that teens being “surly, rude, selfish people” is just “the developmental stage they’re at.”

I say, rather, that the teenage passion for risk can be invaluable and enriching to our culture, IF we nurture and celebrate it. It’s when we oppress it through our cultural mythology that it finds expression in sociopathic or self-destructive ways. For instance, I was something of a “late bloomer,” and though I entertained a lot of florid romantic notions growing up, I never learned to “take risks for love” during those days of youthful exuberance. My Baptist Christian culture downplayed those traits severely in favor of prudence and chastity; dating was sorta-permissible but frowned on as irresponsible, and anyway, True Love Waits. So I very miserably but comfortably settled into a sort of romantic cowardice that never really went away. All of my relationships since my first (at 22) were with women who pursued me.

To take another personal example, I was always told I was an “artistic person” with “lots of talent,” but encouraged to use those gifts solely to reinforce the doctrinal and cultural structure of American Christendom, NEVER to express my passion. And my artistic life stagnated. I’ve struggled ever since to release my soul’s fury through that encrusted shell of spiritual scar tissue.

The bottom line is that squelching the passion of teens leads to stunted adults. At least, if I may be painfully honest, it did for me.

On Willem’s blog Jason Godesky skewered that notion with the claim that myelination, the “neural insulation” that Jensen says is “incomplete” in teens, is actually the encoding of experience, and NEVER “finishes” developing, only slows with age. We’re writing our brains until the day we die.

That gives me tremendous hope. Life isn’t “over” for me at 35; I can still live fully in this present time, especially with the friendship of bold, passionate peers like Willem to accompany my journey. The past is past, and the regrets are real, but they have all led me to this present which has opportunities enough. And I now have a piece of the puzzle I struggled with last year when my daughter Niamh was born–how to give her a life of safety AND a life of adventure? As a new father I can treasure my new role of Providing, and do so in such a way that Niamh is fully supported and celebrated in her vital phases of Play and Risk.

And truly, what greater work could I be given?



9 Responses to “Teen hate, adult regrets”

  1. March 6, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Sing it, brother! I’ve taken a lot of time letting the “dwelling perspective” that Tim Ingold deals with so academically really permeate the way I think. I still don’t know how well I can fully articulate it, but this certainly speaks to it. It sees creation as an ongoing process, rather than something that happened long ago; something we participate in at every moment, rather than something that happened to us.

    I understand what you mean about the crushing weight of remorse and regret, but for me, topics relating to rewilding like this have always presented me with a two-edged sword. On the one hand, I often feel overwhelming regret like you describe. On the other, I also feel a surge of hope, because it also means that starting at this very moment, I can begin to live differently.

  2. 2 Joel
    March 8, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Jason, I hear you on the double-edged sword of regret and hope. It fits nicely into my continual quest for authenticity; I’m not gonna paint my life bright and sunny and pretend that I’ve never failed myself, but neither am I going to wallow in that failure and buy the lie that it’s all that I am! The world that I’m creating moment by moment includes all those highs and lows.

    That was what I discovered in this process, and your perspective on the scientific findings was part of what brought me there. Thank you so much!

  3. March 8, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    Nice. Is this what inspired the Labyrinth game?

  4. 4 Susano-wo
    March 8, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    This will be hard to unpack, but I’ll give it a quick shot and come back to it tomorrow. I find the article absurd, not for degrading youths as incomplete, but trying to excuse unacceptable behavior.

    Its not a function of the teen brain to be ungrateful, to be rude and surly. Its a function of the assumption that teens are going to be that way. If you expect intelligence in anyone, you will start to get it, as long as desire and expectation to be intelligent exceeds desire and expectation to be unintelligent. So the more one assumes and expects others to be reasonable, intelligent beings the more they will fulfill those expectations up and to their actual capabilities, which few of us really reach.

    The article does do a nice and shitty job of lumping all “TEEN BEHAAAAVIOOOORS” unto a big ol pot. TO upack *That*, they are referring to at least 3 discreet things. 1. Irresponsibility. 2. Spontaneous behavior (what Willem refers to as risk taking), and 3. Surliness/self-centeredness
    To address them,
    1. Irresponsibility/poor decision making is something that is a natural state of “youth”, though of course the forms and areas vary from person to person. It is a result of development, though its a cultural misnomer that development should ever stop. As a person makes choices and mistakes and learns from them, they become more and more able to be an adult, which I would loosely define as someone capable of…damn, I’m not sure really how to put it. Basically its a benchmark or responsibility and maturity.

    2.Spontaneous Behavior only comes more naturally in the young because they have not been taught by a disfunctional culture to fit themselves into a mold. Or, in our Enlightened Age, to fit themselves in a certain number of approved molds. I’ll address here Willem’s cycle of life model, since it pertains to this point mainly.
    I find it very mythical..as in it doesn’t necessarily exist. It might be the pattern of a persons life, but its hardly universal, even functionally normal.
    “Play,” to use the term, is practiced and flows freely from everyone. What do you think a poker night, or a game of hearts, or DnD is all about? It about having fun with friends, with greater goal.
    Risk taking. Like little Billy/Suzy climbing the tree and then realizing he/she can’t get down, since that wasn’t so important at the time? You mean like moving to a new city, changing jobs, or any of the other things adults are known to do from time to time? I have to agree that the elderly seem to decrease this risk taking behavior, though I’m sure you’d find plenty of risks that they take if one were to look hard enough.
    Providing. The young do not provide because they are unable to. Though that is not even true. They provide as much as they are able to. Just ask any child who stands up to someone bullying his friends, or who shares his lunch because another child lost his, or dropped his, or did not have one to begin with. And the elderly also provide what they can. To my chagrin, my wife’s grandparents have provided when we were in need more than once.
    Stories. We all know those who’s stories we would listen to day in and day out, regardless of age. As well as those older folks who you would rather have dental work done without anesthesia before you listened to another won of their damned stories!

    Wow, what a tangent. Now we return you to our regularly scheduled critique. There is no excuse to bad behavior. Surliness and self-centeredness are not things people grow out of. They are things that people engage in to the level their natural inclination/learned cultural response within the bounds of what they are taught/what people allow them to get away with. I know plenty of surly adults and selfless teenagers.

    Our culture does not devalue youth. At least it does not devalue youth any more than it devalues humans in general. Ih glorifies youth, basks in its light. Oh to be in your 20s or teens again, that glorious time of beauty, no responsibility. IN fact, I dare say that 21 is the ideal age of our culture. Old enough to do whatever you want, young enough that its ok, or at least only mildly disapproved of to do so.

    • 5 Annie
      March 9, 2010 at 12:08 am

      Hi there Matt. I’m interested to hear what you do relate to, and what value you’ve found in Joel’s and Willem’s perspectives; or explore the questions this has brought up for you. I’ve already gotten a lot out of Willem’s line of thought and Joel’s response, and I’d like to continue it. However, there’s something going on with your comment that makes it difficult to dialog with you: the point-by-point refutation by example.

      Generalizations and arch-types have exceptions, LOTS of exceptions. Therefore, I don’t need to challenge your stated exceptions up to “prove” Willem’s life-fazes wrong, because it doesn’t need to be proven “right”. Either it “rings true” to an individual, or it doesn’t; That’s all. I see some truth in it, and yesterday it was helping me understand myself and the world around me better. If you don’t find it useful, that’s fine, you’re not offending anyone. I’m pretty sure Willem’s not out to convert you… at least he hasn’t tried it on me yet.

      Second, as a woman, I can say that a person can be both worshiped and devalued, elevated and oppressed–and by the same people! Women are seen in history as both weaker and more pure: Eve was created last–the crowning achievement of creation–but was deceived… because her husband wasn’t around to stop her. “Love your mother” and “mother’s day” and flowers and gifts and paying for dinner… all of these are based on age-old tradition, and yet women have struggled under oppression. If you really want to crawl inside what it feels like to live in this gilded cage, read Ellen Kay’s Pathedy of Manners.

      I think something similar applies to youth. We idealize childhood and extend it as long as possible. Even though kidnappings are no more frequent than in the 70’s, kids are kept inside. Colleges now have to deal with what they’ve termed “helicopter parents”. We protect them because we love them, but it’s also oppressive. Give me any example in which 7, 16, or 21-year-old “child” is elevated and worshiped, and I’ll show you it’s oppressive flip-side. These modern-day gifts we give our kids come with some pretty heavy obligations.

  5. 6 Joel
    March 8, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Pete (Scout): No, but it IS related!I started working on the game concept, about troubled youth working out their adolescent trauma through a fairytale quest, last fall. The concepts and procedures recently came together for me. I find it an interesting synchronicity that within days of that breakthrough, I encountered this thoughtstream that illuminated my own relationship with my adolescence!

  6. 7 Christina
    March 9, 2010 at 7:40 am

    It’s early AM and I haven’t had the cognitive ability to read through all these thoughtful responses. From skimming, I see much worth going back to when I have time for a more complet read. Forgive me if someone’s already made these points:

    I’m following in Joel and Annie’s steps as a 1st time parent to a little girl. So my mind is on the parenting role. There’s so much SAFETY information bombarding parents, so much terror thanks (in part) to our media culture and every company’s desire to sell the latest thing: baby-proofing contraptions to internet filters. You’d think rearing a child was a scrabble for survival! Now, I’ve banned the crib blankies and my backseat boasts an enormous rear-facing car seat, but I don’t think parenting is about that stuff.

    It’s about teaching, modeling and doing it all with the goal of preparing a baby for girlhood, the girl for youth, the teenager for womanhood. It’s about infusing power and independence and equiping the kid with tools to use her power well. It IS true that teens have frontal lobes the size of raisins (to quote that guy from Bones -forgive me). Kids DO need guidance and sometimes they need limits. I know this – I teach impulse control for a living. But that should be in the context of a lot of “yesses” and a million incidents when the parent cheers the child on to take a risk on growth. And experience the consequences of that risk. We also must avoid our society’s disgusting attitude towards teens. Utter disrespect much of the time.

    Is it possible that parents of teens freeze up when they face the enormously serious consequenes of teenage risk-taking because they spent a life time protecting, protecting from every new an possibly painful experience? They’d have little confidence in their child’s wisdom or resiliance and not much credibility when they do need to intervene in the young adult’s naive choice. So, in terror they respond with excessive force and the dysfunctional communication spirals out of control!

    Gotta admit, for all my enlightened educated attitude, I quake at the thought of my 3 month old hitting adolescence. But by that point, if I’ve done my job, she will be a wise young woman who sees me as ally in her quest for independence. Not a jailer. It’s too late for that to “POOF” happen when she turns 13 … we need to start laying the path NOW.

  7. 8 DonnaV.
    March 12, 2010 at 5:55 am

    Hey Joel!
    Thanks for the link to this, sorry it has taken me so long to get to it! It’s really interesting to me how the brain works and I find the concept for this article fascinating.
    I loved riding motorcycles when I was a teen, the faster I could go on a curvier road the better, I will never forget the day when I was in my 30’s and got back on a bike for the first time in years… all I could do was look at the ground and think about how much it would hurt if I hit it. I was surprised that I had never thought that before! In that respect I can sure see how the wiring in my own brain has changed!! I have an article around here somewhere that Chuck brought home from an engineering magazine, it was linking the lack of young engineers to the safety of how kids play today compared to 30yrs ago… it kind of goes with the thread here.
    I am glad you got to mourn your teen years a bit… I think it’s a seriously healthy thing to do… now to find you something risky to get into!! :) I don’t think you are past that stage yet!!

  8. 9 Joel
    March 16, 2010 at 12:24 am

    Hi, folks. I didn’t mean to let the conversation lapse this long, but let my try to briefly address everyone’s input for posterity’s sake.

    Donna, thanks for the story! That’s a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about, and really resonates with me. Part of what I’m lamenting is that at this point in my life I don’t have the sheer nerve to take risks as I might have as a younger man. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; for one thing, my circumstances as a husband and father mean that some kinds of risk-taking would be terribly selfish and destructive of me. But I still crave a certain boldness, a warrior’s joy if you will, and I’m going to have to figure out a different form for that to express itself than I would have as a free and unfettered youth.

    Which is OK! The past is the past, live in the now, and so forth. But it IS an adjustment, and requires a surrender of sorts.

    Christina, I’m not surprised that you’re feeling this issue in the same area that I am. When I look at my little girl and see all the possibility present in her, it fills me with awe, but sometimes with terror. Already at 15 months I can see the effects my behavior has on her, and the thought of all the forces that will guide her through the stages of life is massively daunting to contemplate. I’m striving to internalize principles, not rules, that will allow me to guide, help and love her while allowing her to become who SHE is at all these steps in the cycle.

    Matt (Susa), I appreciate the vulnerable place you seem to be at with your thoughts laid bare for everyone to see and critique. I know all too well it’s tricky to “tell your own story” (see the link at the top of the page) when it includes strong feelings about someone else’s. But I thank you for being honest and I’d like to keep working toward understanding.

    My most essential response to you is: of course all people at all ages can and do play, take risks, tell stories, and so on. The key word for me in Willem’s example was excel. Each of our developmental stages gives us unique tools to engage in a particular facet of what make us human. It seems to me that far from pigeonholing us by role, each of these stages enriches the whole–elders passing down story give us an example by which to share story ourselves, children playing invite adults to also add wonder and joy to their serious, “provider” lives, and on and on. That’s what I got out of the idea that all of us at each stage of existence have a vital part in the survival and enrichment of our community.

    And I guess the bottom line for me, as Annie mentioned, is that the idea either resonates or it doesn’t. There could be all kinds of reasons it doesn’t resonate, without even getting into whether it’s “wrong” or not. I won’t speculate. I can only say with certainty the reasons it DID resonate with me–mainly because it spoke directly to an ache in my heart, and didn’t feel like it merely indulged or medicated that ache, but told me a personal truth about it that gave me new and challenging perspective.

    Anyone who wishes, feel free to keep commenting here. The thread’s lying dormant but it doesn’t need to die if it’s still got life for someone.


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