Monday, November 21, 2011

Old Enough to Vote

Living with a teenager can be like living with someone who's had too much to drink. Both think they act and speak rationally, the only difference is that one of them wakes up in the morning, hungover with regret, taking quick account of the previous night's folly and vowing to be more careful the next time. The other one forges ahead, convinced their thought process is sound and coherent. The results of these "coherent decisions" are observed in dismay by the responsible adults who scurry around, trying their best to keep their teenagers out of harm's way. According to National Geographic, in its article, The New Science of the Teenage Brain, a teenager's faulty judgement isn't their fault--something my teenagers have been telling me for years. They can't help acting irrational and inconsistent, it's their 'neural gawkiness,' according to Abigali Baird. Their brains have several more years to go until they are fully developed, mastering their impulse control, desires and ethics .

A few weeks ago my sons went on a rare shopping trip to the mall. They came home empty-handed, but since neither of them appeared bloody, I still took that to be a good sign.  My twenty-three year old flung the National Geographic with its cover of a teenager's brain onto the kitchen counter and pointed at it accusingly, "We all need to read that." 

The article says that while teenagers might be fully aware of the risk involved in drinking, they choose to do it anyway because they feel the pleasure outweighs the risk. They know speeding, or texting while driving is a stupid thing to do--they just choose to do it anyway.
The love of thrills peaks around fifteen, so if your teenager is north of that, breathe a sigh of relief. And it isn't all bad news. This same sensation seeking core often leads to the embracing of new experiences, meeting new people, and fearlessness of new situations. All of this can add up to a well-rounded, productive teenager--if you're lucky, beacuse these new, thrill-seeking ideas can also be very dangerous. These fearless interests are what lead to new experiences, and new experiences are what enhance teen brain development.  Socializing is more important than ever as teenagers build critical relationships that will most likely impact their lives for many years to come. In both good and possibly bad ways. 

So, if this late-developing frontal lobe is not up to the task of the complex challenges facing teenagers, why is it okay to allow an eighteen year old to vote or go to war? I'm glad the drinking age is twenty-one, but an eighteen year old can still go into combat and shoot a weapon.  I find that terrifying.

My son is about to turn eighteen in two weeks. He's insightful, articulate, egotistical and at times so completely capable of irrational thoughts that all I can do is stare at him and will his frontal lobe to hurry it up. We've taught him to be decent, responsible and respectful. We've told him not to talk on the phone or text while driving. We're grateful he dislikes the taste of alcohol and are proud he'll be able to cast a vote for his country in the next presidential election. And if I had to choose one of my kids to get stuck on a desert island it would probably be him, because he's still at the age where he thinks anything is possible and the world was created just for him. Yes, I trust him--at least until he comes up with the next crazy idea.

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