Teens: Check your premises. It’s good for you.

A Cornell University study asks, “Why do teens do stupid things?” My response: “Well, not so fast.” Not all teens do stupid things. There’s nothing about being young that makes stupidity inevitable. It’s true that teens don’t have the knowledge they will possess later in life, but this doesn’t mean they’re stupid. The study is offensive to teenagers who are rational and whose only weakness is a lack of worldly experience.

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. First, it’s not how long you ponder a 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 reason all he wants, but his premise is still flawed. This is a fundamental error in thinking that needs to be checked.

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, some of the parents of teenagers who made poor decisions turned out to be poor decision makers themselves. And what about the wayward teens who had rational and bright parents? Again, my experience suggests that the parents failed to instill in their kids the confidence to trust their own reasoning and logic.

Frustrated over their teenagers’ bad decision, parents will say things like, “He knows better. I taught him differently.” Well, 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 concept of living a happy life? Living a happy life includes sound decision-making and occasional delayed gratification to get something better. School speeches and ridiculous government directives can never provide the thinking tools that can guide kids into confident 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 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 about the “gist” of a situation, they’d experience better outcomes. Preposterous. To suggest that deliberative thinking is the cause of irresponsible behavior is itself 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. But it’s always the solution. Thinking teens and adults have to make sure their underlying assumptions are firmly grounded in reality.