Marybeth: Teen brains foil good parents

Last week, our own Ursula Hennessey posted a thought-provoking essay asking if it’s possible to be a good parent, yet have kids who exhibit behavior that is precisely not what we hope for or expect.

I knew as soon as I read it that I wanted to address Ursula’s questions, but I was busy changing the passwords on all of my high schooler’s social networking sites because I discovered she had a missing Spanish assignment. We’re trying “zero tolerance” for late or missing work, (Guess what? You get really good grades this way!) and the punishment is “Amish Lockdown” (Amy’s term for “taking a break” from Facebook.)

Anyhow, back to Ursula’s rhetorical rant…

I’d rather you click over and read her blog post than summarize for you (she’s such a great writer), but in short, Ursula shared a news story about some teens engaged in after-school drinking while in a car driven by a 16-year-old friend. Though the driver had not consumed alcohol, she was going the wrong way on a turnabout (just for “fun”) and had too many passengers in the car without enough seat belts. All of the occupants of the car were charged with MIPs (Minors in Possession), and the driver was ticketed for several other moving violations, as well. The consequences for her will be serious and long-lasting.

Ursula, while admitting her parenting experiences are limited to those of a mom of three children under age eight, nonetheless posed some excellent questions, the most pointed being, “How the heck can this happen if parents are in control of their homes, vehicles, and belongings?”

She further reasoned, recalling her own teen years, that she valued her driver’s license and the freedom it gave her too much to put it in jeopardy. She earned her parents trust by being straight with them and delivering on their behavioral expectations, and in return, her parents exhibited a high level of confidence in her good sense.

But a private Facebook message I received from a friend who read Ursula’s post reminds us that even the most attentive, caring, and conscientious parents sometimes find themselves face-to-face with a teen whose stupidity and poor judgment are the stuff of legend.

As my friend pointed out, there is no argument that driving the wrong way with alcohol and friends in the car was an incredibly bad choice, but that’s the kind of thing a lot of teenagers do while they are waiting for their pre-frontal cortex to catch up to the rest of their brain. I actually wrote a column about this phenomenon six years ago, when my eldest was still a teen. Read it and tell us what you think in the comments…

There is something parents of teenagers sometimes say when faced with the reckless, thoughtless and self-absorbed behavior of their offspring.


It’s perhaps not the kindest thing we could say, but it turns out it’s entirely true.


What we say is: “For crying out loud, why don’t you use your brain?”


We pose this rhetorical question when our teens drive cars that have illuminated low-fuel warnings until the engine dies on the roadside or when they leave expensive miniature electronic devices in the pockets of bluejeans headed for the washer.


We ask this question when our teens succumb to peer pressure or lead a group of friends into a dangerous situation. We always ask it when the police are involved.


And of course, it’s the only thing to say when teens open their mouths and utter the unkind and insensitive — yet routine — comments for which adolescents are well known, such as, “You’re such a jerk,” “You’re a moron” and “I hate you” (a comment made all the more hurtful by the sound of a slamming door).


Well, it turns out “Why don’t you use your brain?” isn’t just a belittling, sarcastic, frustrated expression of parental indignation.


Separate studies by researchers at the National Institutes of Health and the University College London prove what parents have known for generations. Teens don’t use their brains.


Apparently, the part of the brain that inhibits risky behavior may not be fully developed until age 25. This explains the pricing of auto insurance.


In addition to lacking the brainpower to assess risk and act accordingly, the region of the brain associated with higher-level thinking — empathy, guilt and understanding the motivation of others — is underused by teenagers. Instead, teens rely on the posterior area of the brain — the part involved with perceiving and imagining actions.


So there it is. All this time, we’ve been asking our teens “Why don’t you use your brain?” and the answer they have been giving us — “Um … I don’t know” — turns out to be true.


Research is good, and I want to be an enlightened parent, so I’m glad to know what I reasonably should expect from my children in each developmental stage. In fact, this has been my M.O. in parenting — find out what’s considered “normal” (give or take) and then set my expectations accordingly.


I learned this strategy early in my parenting career. Katie, my oldest, was about 2 years old when my aunt came for a visit. A social worker and mother of four, she was one of my role models and mentors in parenting. I was always eager to hear Aunt Mary’s advice.


She watched Katie wandering around our back yard, eating dirt and sticking mulch in her ears (OK, I’m exaggerating about the mulch), and she said something I never forgot: “A 2-year-old should behave a lot like a well-trained golden retriever. She should feed herself, nap frequently and come when she’s called.”


Katie didn’t come when she was called, so my aunt’s insight gave me something to work on.


The point is, understanding what you can reasonably expect from a child is a good way to set your standards for appropriate behavior.


But this leaves me with a bit of a dilemma.


On the one hand, current research shows adolescents aren’t intentionally cruel to each other, rude to their parents and unable to control their impulsive (read: stupid) urges but instead haven’t developed the gray matter to think of more acceptable forms of communication and behavior.


On the other hand, am I the only one who thinks this might be a bit of a cop-out?


It seems brain research may turn out to be the perfect excuse when teens insult and exclude each other or when they deface school property or respond disrespectfully to teachers and other adults.


As the findings of this research are applied, will a lack of brain maturity become the all-purpose excuse that permits bullying and vandalism? Will this discovery keep teens out of detention hall — or worse, prohibit school administrators from applying discipline to enforce standards of conduct?


Can’t you just hear some high school senior’s attorney arguing in court, “But your Honor, my client must graduate with his class. It’s not his fault his brain has yet to develop the capacity to understand it was inappropriate to shout obscenities at his chemistry teacher while using a blowtorch to explore the combustive properties of nitroglycerin.”


If you think this isn’t coming, you don’t read the paper much.


Neuroscience or not, I still think the age of reason comes at about 7. This is the age when I expect my children to understand that it’s rude to be rude, it’s unkind to be unkind, and it’s dangerous to be dangerous.


I have to admit, however, that learning about the developing brain of teenagers gives me hope. (This probably is why the parents of young adults keep reassuring me that things get better.)


In the meantime, I’m going to keep requiring that the teens around my house use what brain they have — or expect to answer that ridiculous question we parents can’t help but ask.



About Marybeth Hicks

Marybeth Hicks is an author and speaker on media, parenting, and the culture. Find her at

03. December 2012 by
Categories: American Teens, Family, Parenting, Values | 4 comments

Comments (4)

  1. Ursula Hennessey

    Ahh, the wisdom of Marybeth. Thanks, my dear, for the response.

    I actually vividly recall those studies about teens’/pre-teens’ brains and had really absorbed them as I taught middle schoolers. It did help me to be a bit more understanding of some behaviors, especially behaviors that were totally wacky but were followed with true remorse after some reflection. Maybe this is happening now in the homes of those girls. Hope so.

    I guess this is the key phrase for me from above: “… this has been my M.O. in parenting — find out what’s considered “normal” (give or take) and then set my expectations accordingly.”

    The story I referenced just had so many elements of being way outside ‘normal’ poor teen choice behavior (in my admittedly very, VERY novice parenting view) that I felt that another factor had to certainly be involved. Poor parenting? Who knows? Maybe one of the girls has a family or family member in crisis and is not getting the attention she needs. Maybe there’s more to the story.

    Maybe as I age along with my kids, I’ll start to see the “normal” shift. But I sometimes feel that I’ll always have pretty high behavioral expectations for my kids. Maybe that’ll be a bad choice, and I’ll push my kids away toward the very dangerous places I’m hoping to steer them from. We’ll see.

    Even now, I see that my expected “normal” for my own children doesn’t often mesh with others’ “normal” for their similarly-aged children. For example, talking back in a rude tone to any teacher, parent, or adult comes with some serious consequences in our house. I don’t see many other parents caring too much about that kind of thing anymore. In fact, I’m shocked at the way moms I know allow their children to speak to them. I’m shocked at the way other children totally disregard our house rules when they are here on a playdate — even when they’ve been kindly but explicitly stated more than once.

    When I was a kid, TOV (Tone of Voice) crimes were met with chilly stares (in public) and certain discussion + punishment at home. I also somehow bought into a basic level of respect for other parents and the rules they might have, however different, at their homes. But I don’t see this anymore.

    Maybe I’m being all 1700s-era-parenting here? Maybe I need to get out more.

    Sorry for the tangent. Thanks for the reply, Marybeth. Lots to think about. Lots to learn.

  2. Marybeth Hicks

    It’s come to this, Ursula… we are commenting back and forth on our own blog!

    You make so many great points in the comment above, as you did in the original blog pos, that I can hardly keep up. My response-blog was only meant to address one aspect of your original essay — the rhetorical question about why kids of good parents would take risks and exhibit bad behavior. Short answer: Because they’re kids. ( I have a friend who is a mom of ten children ages 3-22. She says, “Never ask why!”)

    You conveyed a sense in both your original post and in this comment about the larger issue about which I have been writing and speaking for several years: What I have declared a “parenting crisis” — not only in America but in the West. (We use the word “crisis” for nearly everything. This really is one!)

    What you posit is essentially true. Parents used to be more consistent, forceful, authoritative, demanding, and successful in instilling a sense of values in their children. They used to expect and receive a certain level of obedience in young children and cooperation in older ones. They formerly understood themselves to be distinct from their children — the adults in the home — rather than focused on forging a “friendship” which cannot ultimately be relied on when the authority of a parent is what’s required. And most importantly, parents in the past were not so insecure about the affections of their children that they viewed the harmony of their parent/child relationships as more important than the outcome — that being, the character of the children.

    Obviously, having been a middle school teacher, much of this was already obvious to you. But I do think our eyes are opened in new ways when, as parents, we begin to see the judgment (or lack thereof) of others and the impact parental style and decision making has on children. The permissiveness that took hold of the parents of The Greatest Generation (awesome warriors; not great parents), and which defines the parenting style of the Boomer generation, has achieved a new standard of mediocrity in our current culture. We don’t expect much from kids, and sure enough, we don’t get it.

    Does it seem this comment flies in the face of my post above? I made a case for knowing what to reasonably expect, and allowing for the physical and emotional maturity (or immaturity) that might explain the behaviors we see exhibited by teens. Behaviors that can only be defined as stupid, I might add!

    I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t think I’m inconsistent. Because while we must know what is typical for kids of all ages, we also should strive to set the bar of our expectations as high as we can. If I’ve learned anything in 23 years of parenting in the trenches, it’s that children will generally meet you where you expect to find them.

  3. Pingback: Marybeth and Ursula: A commentary | On The Culture

  4. Pingback: Ursula: Moms of teens? Help me out, Part II | On The Culture

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