Teens aren’t stupid

A Cornell University study asks, ‘Why do teens do stupid things?’ Well, not so fast. Not all teens do stupid things, nor is there anything about being young that makes stupidity inevitable. It’s true that teens don’t have the knowledge they will likely possess later in life, but this doesn’t mean that they’re stupid. The study is offensive to all teenagers who are rational and whose only weakness is a lack of experience that can only come with time.

So let’s take a look at the findings, according to Science Daily: ”Teens smoke, take drugs, have unprotected sex and ride with drunk drivers, not because they think they are invulnerable or haven’t thought about the risks…. In fact, they are more likely to ponder the risks [of] engaging in high-risk behavior than adults [do]’. It’s just that they often decide [that] the benefits — the immediate gratification or peer acceptance — outweigh the risks,’ says Valerie F. Reyna, professor of human development at Cornell.’

Several things are implied here. First, it’s not how long you ponder your decision as it is the consideration you give to the underlying premises. If a teenager operates on the premise that immediate gratification matters most, then he can think and reason all he wants, but his premise is still flawed. This suggests a fundamental error in thinking that needs to be checked and corrected.

The study also addresses the subject of parents. Most people assume, with some justification, that if a teenager makes poor decisions it must be, at least partially, the parents’ fault. Perhaps, but what exactly has the parent done wrong? In my experience with teenagers who made poor decisions, some (not all) of these parents turned out to be poor decision makers. And what about the teens who had rational and bright parents? Again, my experience suggested that the parents failed to instill in them the confidence to trust in their own (the kids’) reasoning and logic.

Parents, frustrated over their teenagers’ bad decisions, will say things like, ‘He knows better. I taught him differently.’ True, maybe, but what good does it do to lecture a young child on ‘not taking drugs’ or ‘not having sex too soon’ without emphasizing the more basic importance of living a happy life? Living a happy life includes sound decision-making and occasionally delaying gratification to get something better. School speeches and government directives aren’t nearly as effective as providing the thinking tools to confidently guide kids into adulthood.

Not everyone will interpret this study the way I did. Science Daily continues: ”interventions [about sex or smoking, for example] should help young people develop ‘gist-based’ thinking in which dangerous risks are categorically avoided rather than weighed in a rational, deliberative way.’ In other words, kids should somehow divine the ‘essence’ of right or wrong, rather than weighing the individual pros and cons. Researchers at Temple University found that adults intuitively grasp the risks vs. benefits of certain behaviors while adolescents mull them over. On the surface, this might imply that teens make bad decisions because they overanalyze, while adults make better decisions because they go on vague intuition.

So, let me get this straight: Teens think too much and this is the cause of their immature actions. If they didn’t think so much, and thought more of the ‘gist’ of a situation, they’d experience better outcomes. Thinking too much? Preposterous. To suggest that deliberative thinking is the cause of irresponsible behavior is completely irresponsible. Thinking isn’t the problem; it’s the ideas that underlie the thinking that are to blame.

For example, a woman in her 30s might recognize that just because a man shows interest in her sexually does not automatically mean that they will make good long-term partners. When she was 16, she probably wasn’t quite so wise and might have spent more time weighing the pros and cons of having sex with anyone who showed interest. In other words, at 30, her premises are more developed, so her conclusions are better.

Thinking isn’t the problem. It’s always the solution. Thinking teens, like thinking adults, have to make sure their underlying assumptions are firmly grounded in reality.