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The myth of the ‘teenage brain’

Is it true that your offspring will not be capable of a mature decision until he or she is 25?
Thomas Lickona | 17 December 2007
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There are lots of enemies of chastity education today. They include media-driven hedonism that makes sex the centre of the universe; a phony ethic of tolerance that is completely non-judgmental about any kind of sexual behaviour but highly intolerant of politically incorrect beliefs and traditional sexual morality; and the philosophical subjectivism that denies the existence of objective moral truth.

Then there is the cultural relativism that began with Margaret Mead's now discredited Coming of Age in Samoa (see the devastating critique by Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman, reported in detail in W. Michael Jones's book, Degenerate Moderns) that seemed to reveal a sexual paradise where no kind of sex was taboo; the multiculturalism, dominant in our universities, that still promotes cultural relativism and inhibits moral judgment of others' values or behaviours; and the pragmatism that is always ready to compromise moral principles and lower the standards of what we expect from people.

When I was in high school, I didn't have sex with my girlfriend not because of my state of brain maturity but because of my values.

(We all know the pragmatic argument in sex education: "Teach abstinence as the best way, but be realistic and teach condom use as well." Our response to that should be: "When we teach abstinence from illegal drugs, do we also teach students how to practice 'safe drug use'? If we believe a behaviour is harmful to self and others, as sex outside marriage clearly is, do we teach students how to do it anyway, or do we teach what we believe is truly in their best interest and that of society?)

As if this panoply of opposition weren't enough, there is, I fear, a new enemy of chastity education loose in the world that threatens to do much to undermine not only educating for chaste behaviour, but even common sense. This new threat is the myth of "the teenage brain". I am currently reading a book titled, The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries About the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids. It quotes "brain experts" making statements such as, "Adolescents have bigger passions . . . but no brakes, and they may not get good brakes -- meaning the maturation of the prefrontal cortex needed to inhibit impulsive behaviour -- until they are twenty-five." A few months ago I spoke at an abstinence conference that included a workshop on the implications of ‚the new brain research. After my presentation, a physician who was on the board of the host group stood up and said, "All these logical arguments for abstinence are well and good, but how effective are they with a teenage brain that isn't going to be fully developed for another ten years?"

I responded that if we brought 100 randomly selected 15-year-olds into the room, we could line them up on a continuum -- from those who have never had sex or done anything reckless to those who are having sex several times a week and engaging in a lot of other high-risk behaviours. Their brains would all be 15 years old and roughly the same in their prefrontal cortical maturity. Why, then, the great variability in behaviours that call for the regulation of impulse? I added that when I was in high school, I didn't have sex with my girlfriend not because of my state of brain maturity but because of my values. Among other things, I believed it was a mortal sin, and I wasn't willing to gamble with my immortal soul.

In fact, statistics show that, compared to teens, American adults ages 35 to 54 are much more likely to engage in a wide range of risky behaviours. Middle-aged adults are much more likely to have fatal car accidents, commit suicide, engage in binge drinking, and require hospital treatment for overdosing on drugs. Scientific critiques of the brain-research claims are beginning to appear. This September, The New York Times carried an op-ed column by Mike Males, a senior researcher for the Centre on Juvenile Justice (and founder of Youthfacts.org). Males wrote:

A spate of news reports have breathlessly announced that science can explain why adults have such trouble dealing with teenagers: adolescents possess ‚"immature", "undeveloped" brains that drive them to risky, obnoxious, parent-vexing behaviours. But the handful of experts and officials making these claims are themselves guilty of reckless overstatement. More responsible brain researchers -- like Daniel Siegel of the University of California at Los Angeles and Kurt Fischer at Harvard's Mind, Brain and Education Program -- caution that scientists are just beginning to identify how systems in the brain work. "People naturally want to use brain science to inform policy and practice, but our limited knowledge of the brain places extreme limits on that effort," Dr. Siegel said. "There can be no 'brain-based education' or 'brain-based parenting' at this early point in the history of neuroscience." 

Robert Epstein, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today and a contributing editor for Scientific American, offered this rebuttal to the brain-research claims:

Teenagers are as competent as adults across a wide range of adult abilities. Research has shown that they are actually superior to adults on tests of memory, intelligence, and perception. The assertion that teenagers have an "immature brain" that necessarily causes turmoil is completely invalidated when we look at anthropological research from around the world. Anthropologists have identified more than 100 contemporary societies in which teenage turmoil is completely absent; most of these societies don't even have terms for adolescence.

Even more compelling, long-term anthropological studies at Harvard in the 1980s show that teenage turmoil begins to appear in societies within a few years after those societies adopt Western schooling practices and are exposed to Western media. Finally, a wealth of data show that when young people are given meaningful responsibility and contact with adults, they quickly rise to the challenge, and their "inner adult" appears. 

The worst mistake we can make in education-certainly the worst mistake in character and chastity education-is to underestimate the capacities of our students. I have a friend who is now a leader in the abstinence education movement. She says that when she was a teenager, she was promiscuous. Her home life was so abusive it drove her to committing petty crimes so she could enjoy the relative safety of jail. There a counsellor visited her, and she told him of her reckless sexual life style. His response was to reach out in love and challenge her toward greater self-respect and discipline. Today she is a happily married wife, mother, and respected educational leader. She says, "What would have happened if that counsellor had handed me a condom instead of believing in me?"

Human beings, given the right support, tend to rise to meet high expectations. Chastity is difficult, but so is most of what is truly worthwhile in life. It is time for all of us, schools and parents, to raise the bar.

Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and Professor of Education at the State University of New York at Cortland, where he directs the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect and Responsibility). The above article is part of a paper prepared for the Second International Congress on Education in Life, Sex and Love, held in Manila, the Philippines, last month. The full article, Educating For Character In the Sexual Domain, can be downloaded from http://www.cortland.edu/character ("Sex and Character" tab).

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