Thursday, August 5, 2010

Teen 2.0 (Chapter 7)

This is a chapter about thinking and developmental psychology, with some fascinating findings. Whenever I've thought about the cognitive abilities of teens, it always comes back to that shift from concrete to abstract thinking at the onset of puberty, what Piaget called "formal operations." Epstein argues in chapter 7 of Teen 2.0 that teens are not only capable of adult thinking, they are actually better at thinking like adults than most adults are. In the research Epstein cites, formal operations appears to peak at around age fifteen, with a decline in our cognitive abilities beginning in our twenties and continuing throughout our lives. From Piaget (cognitive development) to Kohlberg (moral development) to Wechsler (intelligence measurement), not to mention memory, judgment, and creative innovation, the age of 15 seems to be the magic number of peak intelligence and thinking capabilities.

So why do so many teens appear...well...unintelligent? Epstein once again suggests that an American teen's environment--isolation from adults, saturation with media, the negative impact of peers--all play a part in their apparent lack of intellect and judgment. So when Barbara Strauch suggests in The Primal Teen that parts of the teenage brain housing judgment and reasoning aren't fully developed, Epstein would respond that our culture has stunted their brain's growth. If they were in a culture where their cognitive abilities were utilized and challenged, they'd be up to the task. Teens are as capable of making intelligent decisions as adults, but performance doesn't equal capability.

It may not matter much whether Strauch or Epstein are correct here--when it comes to everyday ministry to teens, we can disciple them with the view that their cognitive abilities need to be stretched and worked out. Much like a spiritual personal trainer, parents and youth workers need to be helping teens use cognitive muscles that they haven't used yet, regardless of why they haven't used them. Giving them responsibilities that require deep cognitive reasoning skills might be one step out of infantilization.

For myself, I was given the responsibility to lead a small group of my peers my sophomore year of high school; I was 15 years old. That role involved organizing schedules, leading my peers spiritually, leading discussions, and thinking deeper about my faith than I ever had before. Was it a risk to challenge a 15 year old to lead fellow high school students spiritually? Absolutely. I owe my own spiritual growth and subsequent call to vocational ministry to that risk. Epstein clearly believes that environment plays a much bigger role than simple biology, saying that the idea of a "teen brain" is simply false, and that much of the studies presented in the media on the brain activities of teenagers is misleading.

Epstein brings up a volatile subject midway through the chapter: abortion.
Given that teens are capable of making sound decisions, especially when it comes to medical matters, shouldn't minors be allowed to get abortions without the consent of their parents, and perhaps even without the consent of a court? (pg. 191)
Citing numerous studies and reports about inconsistencies in parental notification laws, as well as potential detrimental outcomes to such laws, Epstein makes a case for young people to have full authority of their own medical care. without parental consent. Especially compelling for his case are the inconsistencies for the rights of teen mothers:
Even though a young mother is fully responsible for raising her child, she's not allowed to drive the child to the hospital in an emergency, nor to get a full-time job to support the child. And even though she can make medical decisions for her child, she's not allowed to make many of those same decisions when it comes to her own medical care. (pg. 193)
Do you think teens are capable of thinking equally or better than adults? What are your thoughts on teen abortion and parental consent laws?

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