Great insights, but derails in the middle - 3.5 stars
Recensito negli Stati Uniti il 25 agosto 2014
The first third of this book is well worth reading. We get a number of valuable insights into and great perspective on the biological, brain-based reasons (in easily understandable layman’s terms) for the issues and problems that commonly arise in adolescence, an understanding of how adolescence has been lengthening on both ends and why that both is and isn’t a problem. Adolescence, he demonstrates, is a period of great brain plasticity, much like that which is recognized in early childhood when infants through preschoolers are capable of learning and developing quite rapidly. The same capacity for growth exists in adolescence, but it is more of a double-edge sword because adolescence is a time when teens take many more risks, are less likely to be supervised and have much greater potential for encountering harm. The adolescent’s brain changes almost as much as a young child’s, but if that change takes place in a negative environment, negative changes can become encoded in the brain leading to life-long behavioral, cognitive and emotional problems that can, in turn, lead to school and work failure, unintended pregnancy, run-ins with the law and relationship difficulties.
Steinberg explores, through a great deal of research, exactly what the differences are between children, adolescents and adults as far as cognitive and emotional functioning. Contrary to popular belief, he demonstrates that teenagers are able to reason and make judgments about as well as adults when given adequate information and time to process it, so “immaturity” is not a direct result of deficits in judgment or understanding. He also sorts through a number of other commonly accepted “culprits” of adolescent (mis)behavior – impulsivity, self-control, peer-pressure, etc.
What he seems to find is that one of the biggest factors is that adolescents are more primed than either children or adults to respond to rewards. Brain imaging demonstrates that the reward centers of adolescents’ brains “light up” more in response to potential rewards than do either children’s or adults brains. Adolescents have as good ability as adults to judge risks and hazards of a situation or decision, but they are so much more responsive to the potential rewards that they are more likely to disregard the hazards to obtain the reward. This effect is especially heightened in the presence of their peers because adolescents are also very primed to the approval or judgment from their peers, and approval itself becomes a further reward.
Steinberg also explores how adolescence has become longer because it both starts earlier and finishes later than it historically has. He examines current and historical trends in the age of puberty on one end and the age of certain life milestones like marriage or living independently on the other. Due to factors such as improved nutrition, obesity, chemicals found in plastics and other materials, as well as social and societal structure, puberty is occurring much earlier for both girls and boys – sometimes as early as seven or eight for girls. That trend has continued downward for decades now and Steinberg fears the trend will continue. On the other end of the scale, young adults are waiting longer to get married, set up their own households, have children and other typical markers of “adulthood”.
There has been a fair amount of hand-wringing about both ends of this trend. Steinberg demonstrates that such hand-wringing (and more) is warranted in connection with the earlier onset of adolescents. The changes in the brain associated with increased attention to rewards and peer reaction are taking place earlier and earlier with the onset of puberty, but the brain changes associated with executive functions like impulse control still happen around age 16 or later. The time in between Steinberg compares to driving a car with a great accelerator but bad brakes. Young adolescents during this period need strong adult supervision to help them apply external brakes until their internal braking systems come fully on-line. But because of their seeming maturity, many adolescents at this age are allowed too much freedom and may get themselves into nearly irreparable trouble.
On the other end of adolescence, there has been much ink spilled about how “kids these days” are taking longer to “mature”. They live with their parents longer and their parents help them more with financial, social and emotional matters. Steinberg argues that this is actually a good thing. Because these young adults are still in the adolescent stage of great brain plasticity, they are still capable of learning and developing great capacities if they are properly supported such that they have opportunities to experience challenging and novel situations with proper guidance. Adolescents who are not properly supported and supervised may find themselves in situations, such as parenting or incarceration which are more “settled” and routinized which may foreclose on more stimulating experiences such as college or travel which can help the brain continue to grow.
Steinberg talks about how these changes adversely impact those who are already dealt a bad hand in life –poor/low income youth. Children of low income families are less likely to have parental supervision early in their adolescence and, hence, more likely to enter adult life patterns earlier – whether the aforementioned pregnancy or incarceration or simply having to work one or more full time jobs to earn a living. Affluent children, on the other hand, are more likely to be supported and supervised as early adolescents and as older adolescences more likely to have access to experience like college which can give them an even greater advantage over their already-disadvantaged peers.
Up to this point, this book is truly valuable for its insights into brain development and the implications for raising adolescents. But as Steinberg tries to apply a lot of these insights, he goes off the rails, especially in terms of education. Steinberg buys into the current (since 1983) canard raised in the “A Nation At Risk” paper that American schools – and American students – are “failing”. We don’t, according to Steinberg, have enough “highly-educated people” to fill jobs that required higher education (which, I’m sure is news to the hundreds of thousands if not millions of highly experienced people with bachelors’ degrees and higher who are stocking retail shelves, manning cash registers or simply trying to exist on unemployment after their jobs were “downsized”). “A Nation At Risk” has been (and even was at the time) debunked many times. The fact is that American students have never scored well on standardized tests compared to some of our foreign competition, but this relatively poor showing has had absolutely no correlation with American ingenuity, industry or any other economic indicator. Test scores are basically just a measure of how well students take tests – they measure nothing in the way of the creativity or innovation necessary to develop and sustain a thriving economy/democracy/society. For a full discussion of this issue, I highly recommend Diane Ravitch’s REIGN OF ERROR.
From there Steinberg goes full-throttle Paul Tough emphasizing “grit”, self-control, discipline and perseverance. He, like Tough, argues that such “non-cognitive” skills should be taught in schools and he (also like Tough) holds up the KIPP charter schools as a model of such teaching. I have to roll my eyes whenever people start talking about “grit”, especially in connection with low income and minority children. I just finished reading THE OTHER WES MOORE, in which the author, a very successful Rhodes Scholar, learns about a murder committed by someone who shared his same name and who grew up very close to where he did. Both the author and the other Wes Moore were on a path toward lives of crime when the author was sent to military school where he pulled himself together. I suppose some would see that as evidence that the “grit” he learned in military school was what saved him. But the other Wes Moore had his own thriving drug business before he was even a teenager. He had to keep track of an intricate web of suppliers and customers and he rose to leadership in a complicated and vicious hierarchy of foot soldiers through kingpins. Now, I’m not trying to claim that drug dealing is a noble or pro-social pursuit in line with military school or being a Rhodes Scholar, but I would say that it’s evidence that “grit” is not what the other Wes Moore lacked.
Most kids who fail at school, in fact, have some pursuit which requires discipline, concentration, impulse control, perseverance and “grit”, whether sports or role playing/video games or some other hobby. “Grit”, perseverance and discipline are by-products of interest and relevance. If you really want to see “grit”, perseverance and discipline, watch a young child playing a pretend game or creating an art project or other pursuit of their choosing. Most people lack “grit” for things they perceive as boring, mundane and/or irrelevant to their lives. When education fails to lead many low income youth out of poverty, it is no wonder that so many low income youth perceive education to be boring and/or irrelevant and lose their “grit” in connection with it. Forcing students into “no excuses” drill-and-kill schools like KIPP which are strictly regimented and controlled is not likely to develop “grit”. What most likely saved the Rhodes Scholar Wes Moore isn’t so much the “grit” he developed at military school as it was the people at military school who cared enough about him to help him (and the mother who cared enough to sacrifice to send him there). For a further discussion of “grit” (and a very different view of the ubiquitous “marshmallow experiment” which purportedly demonstrates the virtue of self-control) I recommend Alfie Kohn’s THE MYTH OF THE SPOILED CHILD (or pretty much anything else by Kohn.
Steinberg does get back on track in the last couple chapters of the book in which he talks about situations in which adolescents can and should be treated like adults and allowed to make their own decisions and situations in which they may need more support and even restriction. He talks about the distinction between “hot” cognition vs. “cold” cognition. Hot cognition is when decisions need to be made quickly, often under pressure and often influenced by peers. He gives the example of driving, which requires rapid response and which has been demonstrated that teens perform significantly less well on when in the presence of their peers. Drinking, drug use and military combat are similarly potentially dangerous “hot” situations which may require support/restriction (Steinberg points out the contradiction of allowing 17 year olds to sign up for the military but not allowing them to drink until age 21). On the other hand, he argues that a decision like whether or not to have an abortion is “cold” cognition because the girl/woman has the time to reason through the decision. Teens have been shown to handle “cold” cognition as well as adults, so Steinberg sees no reason to restrict teens’ access to abortion, especially beyond the waiting periods and counseling requirements that are already in place. He also talks about the application of the science of adolescent brain development to the juvenile death penalty and juvenile criminal culpability in general (crime being generally “hot” cognition involving spur-of-the-moment decisions). Basically, Steinberg says that when they have reasonable chance to think, teens are just as capable as adults. But the problem with adolescence is often that teens simply don’t think – the pull of the immediate reward and the desire to impress peers simply overrides any conscious decision making or even the reasonable possibility of such. Until teens learn to “brake” their “overactive engines”, they need the support, guidance and sympathetic understanding that affluent youth have always had.
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