By Mykel Mogg
Being asked to write a column on politics from a queer youth perspective, my mind wandered to an article I read on NPR a few years ago. It told the story of a mother who wanted to understand her two teenage sonsâ€™ behavior- by turns described as â€śmaddeningly self-centered,â€ť and having â€śan exasperating assumption that somebody else will pick up their dirty clothes.â€ť
Her desire to understand the origin of such behavior led her to do some neurological research. She said that teens act the way they do because their brains are â€śnot grown up yet.â€ť Specifically, she was talking about myelin, the material that makes the connection between the frontal lobe and other parts of the brain go faster. Myelin sheaths build up gradually, peak around forty or fifty years of age, and then decline.
The author said scientists used to think human brain development was pretty complete by age 10. Or as she put it, that â€śa teenage brain is just an adult brain with fewer miles on it. But itâ€™s not.â€ť
I think this was mainly the information the article wanted to get across- teensâ€™ brains are biologically different from childrenâ€™s and adultsâ€™.
They are prone to addiction and risk-taking. I had no problem with that statement. What I did have a problem with was the blatantly offensive way scientific fact was framed. The article portrayed teens as incompetent and selfish, then made it seem like it was a biological impossibility for them to be any other way. I didnâ€™t think the â€śunderstanding teensâ€™ behaviorâ€ť angle was accurate, as it didnâ€™t take into account cultural influences, something that hugely impacts our actions.
While neurobiology is relevant, it isnâ€™t the only story here. For example, research has shown that female brains differ from male brains- things like understanding subtle social cues more easily or processing stress differently. While this influences their behavior, Iâ€™m fairly sure itâ€™s not the only reason for their actions; thereâ€™s complicated social baggage that comes with womanhood. Societyâ€™s expectations of women kept most of them from having careers other than housekeeping for a long time, and it was assumed that they were incapable of doing anything else. When a group or individual is expected to act a certain way, itâ€™s hard for them to break out of that. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a destructive cycle that proves itself right until people acknowledge the possibility of change.
The NPR article exemplifies some of the attitudes that have made teens behave in the ways described. Teens are expected to be apathetic and selfish. I believe that people rise or sink to othersâ€™ expectations of them, especially if these expectations are on a large cultural scale.
Television shows constantly portray teens as petty, bored, and criminal, and most books directed at teens are clichĂ©s given colorful cardboard covers. Itâ€™s socially acceptable and common for adults to throw around negative generalizations about teens. They are expected to fail, and are told just as much. Given this state of affairs, teen culture is obviously unbalanced towards reckless behavior.
I disagree with the concept of a â€śfinishedâ€ť brain- that teens are at a point in the lifecycle where they are perfectly developed for a certain kind of behavior. Instead, perhaps we can all draw from our inner teen, acting at times on idealism and with a sense of adventure. We need this kind of thinking as much as the wisdom of those with more experience.