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Photograph by Kourosh Keshiri; MacLean's Magazine, January 4, 2015

Photographs by Kourosh Keshiri; MacLean’s Magazine, January 4, 2015

Let me begin by admitting I have limited authority to give advice on parenting. My sample size are the three offspring I have parented, and with whom I now mentor and inter-relate. Despite my personal lack of great confidence about parenting, I have something to say for this age of confusion.

Inside the Teenage Brain

Tamsin McMahon wrote “Inside your teenager’s scary brain” almost to sensationalize how “new research shows incredible cognitive potential—and vulnerability—during adolescence. For parents, the stakes couldn’t be higher.” In deed, that has always been the case.

Anna Maria Tremonti picks up on this as she interviews two researchers who look at the teenage experience from different angles in “The Teenage Brain: Uniquely powerful and vulnerable enigmas.”  Professor of Neurology at Penn Medical, Dr.Frances Jensen speaks to the neurology of the brain that allegedly gives rise to vulnerabilities and “senseless risk-taking.” I say allegedly, because Dr. Robert Epstein – a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behaviour Research & Technology, contradicts Jensen based on research from a wider array of disciplines.

Whereas Dr. Jensen identifies research about the role addictions and disciplines have in the development of teenagers from a brain mechanism point of view, Dr. Epstein reacts with the awareness that most non-western cultures do not have this teenager-adult dichotomy (some languages don’t even have a word for “adolescence“).  He suggests that western culture sets up the opportunity for teenagers to fail by creating these two conditions:

  1. When we infantilize teenagers by continually making decisions for them, and artificially keeping them from difficult choices.
  2. When we isolate teens from responsible adults by “trapping them with their peers.”

Learn wisdom from the wise; don’t learn foolishness from fools.

The Process of Maturity

When my children were teens, I would calm myself with a kind of mantra:

I do not expect maturity from the immature… but I expect the immature to become mature.

Of course the burden is on parents to help their children mature. Though my children were in public school and on various sports teams, etc, I resisted the trend to have them isolated – being trapped with their peers as their primary source of information on the world and life (as Dr. Epstein decries). I saw myself as a kind of coach into maturity that would actually benefit my children, despite my insecurities about the status of my own maturity (I literally coached all my children at different phases of their sports, but that is by way of analogy).

I have seen and heard parents talk about “letting their children learn from their own mistakes,” or “letting their children become street smart” as a way of taking their hands off the rudder. To use that sailing metaphor, parents ought not give the rudder to those who have little experience or wisdom about how to navigate. The goal is to help our children learn to navigate, to learn to take the rudder under the best of conditions so they will learn how to steer under the worst.

Again, despite my own insecurity about how I was parenting, I thought a laissez-faire attitude was reckless and foolish to the extreme. Though I wanted my children to learn from their mistakes, in no way was I interested in setting them up for failure that could have permanent negative consequences. Parents bless their children with helping them develop boundaries and self disciplines.

The goal of discipline is to help your children develop self-discipline. Setting safe boundaries is a temporary fence that will never hold them in; it merely gives them clues to the goodness of wise living that they will have to accept or reject as they mature.

For example, neuroscientists point out that over-consumption of alcohol and being introduced to addictions during the teenage years actually permanently injures the brain, setting-up the ongoing synaptic predisposition to these behaviours. As ubiquitous as alcohol consumption is, the goal is to learn self-discipline; this can very nearly never be learned when teens are trapped with their peers at binge drinking parties. Teens learn self discipline by parental modelling, valuing, and boundary setting.

Maturity is a term that has almost lost its currency in the modern discussion of parenting. It’s almost like we’re supposed to be embarrassed that teens are immature, or that this assessment is a judgment rather than simple discernment. In fact, the failure to recognize the need to mature is to condemn the immature to failure.

Jensen argues in her new book, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, the teenage years comprise one of the brain’s most critical periods for development—likely every bit as crucial as early childhood. “That seven years in their life is, in a way, as important as their first seven years of life,” Jensen says. “It is probably one of the most important seven-year [periods] in their entire life.”

Emerging brain development science is changing the way we view teen behaviour: why teens can seem so moody and disorganized, why they sometimes make such short-sighted decisions and why many serious mental illnesses begin to emerge in adolescence.

Maturity and Identity

Herein lies the connection to identity about which I have regularly written. When a child comes to their parents and indicates they think they have a same sex or fetish attraction, or think they are the gender they are not, it is the mature (parents) in the relationship who continue to help establish the basis for identity. It is folly to think that a child is anything but questioning everything in the process of maturity. The fact that a child would question their gender or sexuality may be natural; what is unnatural is modernity’s refusal to guide a child through this.

It is a nice coincidence that I quoted “The Teenage Brain: Uniquely powerful and vulnerable enigmas” since the discussion captures my interest to explore a certain kind of mystery. While researchers debate many aspects of brain development as it relates to teenagers – they agree that the teenage brain is vulnerable. However, it is not as though the brain is alienated from the person, as reductionistic western science would suggest. It is the teenage person who is vulnerable, and they need wise and loving parents to be teachable and teaching; to be available and to make their wisdom available.

No one should read into this an absence of my personal empathy for parents who have children who are confused about their gender, sexuality, or anything for that matter. Nor should anyone mistake that parents abdicate themselves from their greatest task: to guide their child toward their identity found in the One who made us for Himself.

I welcome comments from parents who have had to walk through this age of confusion with their children.