Teenage Brains

This morning, at the breakfast table, K.J. picked up the newspaper – yes, we still take the newsprint version – and noticed that an exhibit on the Titanic was coming to town. He announced, “I want to go to this. It’s on April 6th.”

“How long will it be here? When do you want to go?” I questioned. K.J. seemed puzzled – thinking he had already answered my question. I tried again, “Where will you be on April 6th?”

Silence, as K.J. thinks.  Then: “Choir tour?” John, sitting across the table from K.J., responds, “The choir tour is this summer. Is April a summer month?” K.J. says, “No.”

More silence. I try again, “Where will YOU be on April 6th?” No response. Then John provides a clue: “The first week of April is your spring break.” K.J. finally gets it: “I’ll be in Nebraska!” – a trip to visit his and Emily’s birth families that he helped to plan.

What struck me was how completely clueless he was about the calendar, even as it pertained to him, even as he had had a hand in deciding what he would do and where he would go. When, exactly, does a person begin to “own” the schedule of their life?

John and I attend a Sunday school class for parents of teens and tweens. We’ve read some books about teen faith and spirituality, but, frankly, we spend a lot of time discussing the latest incident or crisis in our teens’ lives and how best to handle their behavior from a practical point of view. We often ask a version of the questions: “What are they thinking? How are they thinking?” The workings of teenage brains monopolize our conversations. By the way, there are quite a few good articles out there about the development of kids’ brains. The information is scarier than it is reassuring.

I don’t remember thinking so much about my toddler’s or child’s brain. Oh, I read books and articles. But, really, it boiled down to MY learning how to control their behavior in a certain phase of development. I was in charge. With teens, my role – our role as parents, is less clear. These young people who live with us begin to look and sound like adults, and we want them to act the part. Sometimes they say very insightful things. They demand independence and show signs of being able to make well-thought-out decisions. At other times, they demonstrate the exact opposite. What is a parent to do?

After this morning’s exchange with K.J., I began thinking about my own adolescence. When did I first start taking responsibility for getting myself to school on time? When did the sense of urgency for showing up to a commitment I had made – be it a basketball practice or a volunteer assignment or a paid job – kick in? John says he doesn’t remember NOT getting himself up and ready for school on his own. And I have no recollection that my parents were responsible for making sure I made it to school, or did my homework, or showed up for an afterschool activity. Am I mis-remembering? Or is there something different about this generation of kids?

I sound so OLD when I say this, but – “Back in the day,” I came home from school, did my homework (if I had not already done it at school) and went out to play until dinnertime. Who I played with and how I played was my responsibility. I might be in the woods behind some neighbor’s house or gathered with a group of the kids down the block for a game of kickball. I also needed to get myself back home at the appointed time to eat with my family. There were no cell phones to remind me and no digital clocks – only watches with hands that showed the passage of time.

For this generation, all playtime is scheduled and monitored. Our kids “play” on teams with adult supervision. We drive them at the appointed time and bring them home at the conclusion of their activity. If they play in the neighborhood, it is with children whose parents we know and in places we have approved. If we are not there to supervise, our older children have cell phones so we can remind them of their schedules. And often, they are at home, occupied with advanced technological devices we have provided for them. These devices require no sense of time either. We parents announce when they must be turned off so that the next activity or meal can begin.

I have tried to counter this trend toward timelessness by holding family meetings. During the meetings, I expect the children to bring their agendas or calendars or phones to take down the appointments and practices, etc. that are scheduled for them that week. But, other than preventing the proclamation: “I didn’t know! You didn’t tell me I had to do [such and such],” I’m not sure the meeting accomplishes much. I still do the reminding at the beginning of each day: “Take your practice clothes because… I’ll be picking you up from school today. Don’t get on the bus… Try to get some of your homework done during school because you won’t be home until bedtime…”

Will Emily be able to wake herself up in time for classes next year at college? Will K.J. someday learn to record his assignments in a way that will jog his memory to complete them on time? Will Skye ever learn to go to bed early enough to prevent her protest the next morning that she didn’t get enough sleep (and it’s MOM’S fault)? Will Journey ever remember to make her lunch or go to weekly tutorial?

How can we coax them into being masters of their own fates when we’ve done so much to protect them from claiming that responsibility? I almost wish I didn’t know so much about teenage brains – what lousy decision-makers they are. But time keeps marching on. Someday, our teens will be chronological adults. Someday, they will have to get to a class or a game or a job on time and we won’t be there to help them. I’ve heard it said that failure teaches more than success. I wish I could believe they will learn from their mistakes. I wish it were as simple as that.

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One thought on “Teenage Brains

  1. I promise they will all take control of their own schedules- when it becomes important to them. Try to enjoy the part you get to play in their lives now because when they do become so independent you might just miss saying ” don’t forget to….”

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