It may come as a surprise to you (if you have never watched a movie or television show, listened to music or radio programs, or raised or known a child) that adolescents are not perfect. In fact, it is not uncommon for high schoolers to make mistakes. Teenagers are impulsive. Societies have been aware of this from time immemorial. Look at Cain. Adolescents lack internal governors on their behavior. Ask any insurance agent. Adolescent males can be extremely aggressive. Witness the usual makeup of armed forces anywhere in the world. There’s a reason for all of this.
During adolescence (roughly from puberty until age 25 or so), the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive, planner, regulator, weigher of consequences, is still under construction. That thing in adults that causes us to think twice before saying exactly what we would like to say to an overbearing boss or that realizes that riding a skateboard down a flight of concrete stairs probably won’t end well, is virtually non-existent in teenagers. As hormones bombard the brain’s receptors with more input than they can reasonably process, the prefrontal cortex is saying, “Let me think about that and get back to you in a decade or so.”
And what about those hormones? Teenage boys can experience five to seven surges of testosterone every single day during adolescence. I know what you’re thinking, but that’s not where I’m going with this. Testosterone is not responsible only for sexual urges. It also triggers anger, aggression and a need for dominance among other things. And what part of the brain is loaded with testosterone receptors? The amygdala. What’s that, you ask? It is the seat of emotion, especially the emotions of fear and anger. When you’re walking down a dark hallway and someone jumps out at you yelling, “Boo!” it’s the amygdala that responds. The input of your eyes and ears bypasses all the reasoning parts of your brain and goes immediately to the fear center. Now, eventually, our brains become wired to rapidly sort through known experiences, compare them to the current one and realize that it’s just good ole Uncle Marvin trying to scare us (again), not the bogey monster. But the amygdala of adolescent boys, juicing, as it is, on testosterone and without other governors, often responds to input with aggression and dominance rather than a reasoned intellectual response.
I’m not leaving girls out, I promise. It’s just that the topic of today’s blog is adolescent boys and their transgressions. And anyway, the part of the brain that has multiple receptors for estrogen isn’t the emotion center, it’s the hippocampus—the memory center. Ask a teenage girl to tell you what happened on a given day, and she can quote exact exchanges of dialogue from any given moment. She might not remember how to conjugate the verb vivre, but she recalls every nuance of the conversation at lunch. This isn’t to say that teenage girls aren’t emotional, far from it, but that’s a topic for another day.
Where adolescent boys are concerned, the job of parents and schools is to provide a container. I don’t mean a straightjacket, but rather a loving structure that sets the limits that boys are unable to set on their own. Clearly articulated expectations and consequences, which are then followed through on, provide the kind of limits and boundaries which can literally mean the difference between life and death. A boy who can say, “I can’t do X because my parents will kill me if they find out” might live to have teenagers of his own. The one who goes to a school where “Boys will be boys” is a code to live by may eventually develop governors, but I wouldn’t bet on his moral fiber.
I know a man whose parents were so laissez-faire they never called him to task on anything. The stories of his teenage driving make my hair stand on end. Driving too fast to make a turn and going airborne, landing miraculously on the other side of a drainage ditch in a vegetable field. Backing up carelessly in a church parking lot and rear ending the minister’s sedan. Flying along the road at a hundred miles an hour, weaving in and out of traffic. When he recounts these stories, he laughs ruefully. He learned from his mistakes, not because his parents helped him to, but because he reflected on them as an adult. Today, he’s a thoughtful, loving person and an excellent driver, though I still put my foot through the passenger side floorboards now and then, stomping on an imaginary brake.
I know a boy, fourteen, who simply cannot control his impulses. This year alone he has spilled a carton of yogurt all over a school bench as a practical joke, dumped a bowl of ramen on a fellow student in a fit of pique and shoved several Wheat Thins into the dollar bill receiver of a snack machine. After the last episode, he sat in my office in tears. “I just don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he moaned. “I can’t stop myself. I never think how stupid something I’m doing is till after I’ve done it.” Sure, most kids get it a bit faster than he has. The threat of having to sit down in my office and explain themselves can be a great governor of their behavior. But I don’t despair for this boy. The fact that he is reflecting on his actions and that he regrets his harmful impulsive behavior convinces me that he will learn, he will grow into a creative and constructive man.
But I am terrified of a man who can claim that he does not remember chasing a younger boy down and, with a pack of friends, pinning him to the ground and cutting off his hair while the boy sobbed and cried for help. I don’t believe that anyone could forget doing such a thing, but if a person refuses to own it, refuses to confront his actions, how can he possibly learn from it?
That a teenage boy could find it funny to walk his blind teacher into a set of closed doors doesn’t surprise me. As I’ve been saying, teenage boys do some stupid things. But the idea that this teenage boy thought he could, with impunity, treat an elder, a teacher, a disabled person with such disrespect just makes me wonder: Where were his parents? Where was his school?