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Not Treating Teenage Years Merely As Preparation For Adulthood In Your Novels, by Bernard Beckett

No Alarms by Bernard Beckett

It’s often mentioned that the biggest mistake we can make in our interactions with teenagers is to patronise them. This is true for teachers, for parents and for writers of teen novels. It’s a mistake in the simple sense that it defeats its own purpose. Presumably, if we are communicating with teenagers, then the aim is for them to attend to what we are saying, and almost nothing is more likely to turn someone off than the sense they are being talked down to. However, the instinct to treat teenagers as a sort of strange and deranged sub-species, or even worse, as incomplete adults-in-waiting is so ingrained in many people that it’s almost reflexive.

A good example of this adult-centricism can be seen in those enthusiasts who attempt to use neuroscience to bolster their prejudices. As a school teacher, I’ve sat through training sessions of exactly this type. I’ve listened to school principals smugly announce that the evidence is in and that teenagers are technically insane. I’ve watched policy makers on television use their partial knowledge to justify whatever new regulation of youth might win them votes. The issue has even made it to the cover of Time magazine.

The standard story goes something like this. Thanks to modern imaging techniques, we now have a far better understanding of the way the brain develops through time. We can track the almost unbelievable blossoming of neural connections (in the order of millions per second in early life) and the later periods of trimming and reorganising. We can see that teenagers typically make use of different parts of their brain than adults typically would for some tasks and that some parts of the brain which play a large part in decision making in adulthood appear less prominent in the teenage brain. I don’t wish to counter any of this, I take the experts at their word on it and it all seems plausible enough. What I do object to is the next step, where the adult commentator solemnly pronounces that this produces incontrovertible evidence that the teenage brain is not yet fully developed. The cliché has become that the brain does not fully mature until it’s well into its twenties.

There is a logical problem here, and one that betrays our inbuilt prejudice against teenagers. While it is true that the brain changes over the life cycle of the human being, our choice to see any one stage as preparation for the next is based upon nothing but narrative.  After all, the adult brain is typically different in its structure than that of an elderly person, but we don’t tend to say the adult brain is an underdeveloped version of the elderly one. To think of the teenage years as preparation for adulthood has the same logical structure as thinking of the adult years as preparation for being dead.

Because many adults are so programmed to think in teleological terms, where everything has a purpose, and because many adults are predisposed to thinking of adulthood as that purpose, the logical error occurs without many people even registering that a story has been superimposed over the facts. Neuroscientists announce, to the delight of such adults, that the teenage brain is overly influenced by hormonal balances, is prone to mood swings and bursts of irrational enthusiasm and defiance, is unable to fully think through the consequences of actions, struggles to interpret the emotional cues around it, etc, etc. The science, we are told, is in, and the teenager is defective. We are told that the very best thing we can do is keep them safe while they negotiate their way through these difficult years.

To see the flaw in this thinking more clearly, consider how a teenage neuroscientist might interpret the same data. Would they not be tempted to argue that as the teenage brain enters adulthood it begins to close down? The adult brain, they might suggest, with all their pretty brain scan images to support them, loses its capacity for spontaneity. That part of the brain responsible for shutting down excitement becomes overdeveloped and the adult becomes dull-witted and unimaginative. The adult brain loses its ability to synthesise new ideas, becoming set in its ways. The natural capacity for joy and excitement is lost as the brain loses its ability to respond adequately to hormonal signals. Fewer and fewer experiences register as fresh and the excitement of discovery steadily decreases… You get the idea.

The teenager is no more a defective adult than the adult is a defective teenager. Each stage has its advantages and each of those advantages comes with its costs. There is nothing good to come from treating the teenage years merely as preparation for adulthood. They are to be lived on their own terms, not endured but rather celebrated. The very best teen fiction, I think, understands this. Its stories focus on teenagers not because the writer wishes to help the teenager through those years but because this offers story possibilities that exist nowhere else on the human timeline.


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Writing Teen Novels

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting concept. I tend to treat my teenagers as adults and usually get more results. (Except they never clean their room!) I have a very good relationship with my teen girls. I never thought they were underdeveloped. In fact I envy their ability to learn and experience new things easily.

    August 14, 2013

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