Monday, November 30, 2009

Debunking the Adolescence Myths

I have a deep respect for Dr. Lawrence Steinberg. Having spent long hours through college reading his textbook "Adolescence," I never found him missing an opportunity to debunk the common myths associated with adolescence in current day society. He seemed very vocal against how they are all too often painted into a box by experts, media, and the criminal justice system alike.

You've heard a hundred times over how adolescents are "troublemakers" and "emotional," and how every waking moment with them is nothing but "storm and stress." Well, Steinberg doesn't want to settle on these misleading characterizations of adolescents in order to sell books to parents like so many experts and those in the media do. Instead, his whole thing is that as an age group there isn't anything abnormal about them, they're just different from adults. This is part of an lengthier interview from the New York Times:

Q. You hear parents sometimes say, "I'm living with an insane person! My child is a teenager." Are they being hyperbolic?

A. I’m not one of those people who labels adolescence as some sort of mental illness. Teenagers are not crazy. They’re different.

When it comes to crime, they are less responsible for their behavior than adults. And typically, in the law, we don’t punish people as much who are less responsible. We know from our lab that adolescents are more impulsive, thrill-seeking, drawn to the rewards of a risky decision than adults. They tend to not focus very much on costs. They are more easily coerced to do things they know are wrong. These factors, under the law, make people less responsible for criminal acts. The issue is: as a class, should we treat adolescents differently?

Q. Is the criminal justice system beginning to take these differences into account during sentencing?

A. It’s been coming up in cases. I went to Washington in November to watch the oral arguments in two related cases before the Supreme Court that ask: should someone who committed a crime as a teen be subjected to life imprisonment without a chance for parole, ever?

With these cases, and another in 2005 where the high court threw out the death penalty for adolescents, I was scientific consultant to the American Psychological Association on its amicus brief. What we said in the death penalty case — and now — was that we have considerable evidence showing that adolescents are different from adults in ways that mitigate their criminal responsibility. But since 2005, there’s been a lot of new scientific evidence supporting this position.

Q. What is the new evidence?

A. In the last five years, as neuroscience has moved forward with functional magnetic resonance imaging and with research on animals, there have been dozens of new studies of adolescent brain development. These show that the brain systems providing for impulse control are still maturing during adolescence. Neuroscientists have shown that the part of the brain that improves most during adolescence is the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in complicated decision-making, thinking ahead, planning, comparing risks and rewards. And the neuroscientific research is showing that over the course of adolescence and into the 20s, there is this continued maturation of this part of the brain. So now, we have brain evidence that supports behavioral studies.

Moreover, we’re seeing that behavior can change once the brain more fully matures. Take thrill-seeking, for instance. What happens is that when people move out of adolescence, they become less interested in it. For example, I can’t stand riding on a roller-coaster now. I liked it as a teenager. I can’t stand driving fast now. I liked driving fast when I was a teenager. What has changed? I’m not as driven today by this thrill-seeking sensation. And in our studies, we’ve shown that there is a kind of normative decline in sensation-seeking after middle adolescence. A lot of adolescent crime is driven by thrill-seeking.

Q. How does this new information lead to concluding that courts shouldn't sentence some adolescents to life in prison without parole?

A. Given the fact that we know that there will be a developmental change in most people, the science says that we should give them a chance to mature out of it. No one is saying that kids who commit horrific crimes shouldn’t be punished. But most in the scientific community think that we know that since this person is likely to change, why not revisit this when he’s an adult and see what he’s like?

Read the rest at the New York Times site here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kids in a World of Predator Panic

Not every effort taken in the name of protecting kids is good. If there's anything this blog wants to disillusion our fear-run society of, it's this simple fact. Furthermore, just because one is opposed to the methods by which our current society has chosen to protect kids does not mean that one is opposed to safeguards and protections, or is siding with the predators on the issue.

It's hard to believe, but people do make this assumption all the time. How can they not when they've been essentially programmed by news articles like the following, that invariably link "parental control" with "protection" as if the first necessarily determines the last. The topic of this article concerned the roundup of some kids' online contacts:

The force said the numbers represented the tip of the iceberg and urged parents to exercise greater control.

There, in one short sentence, is the reason that this whole hysteria exists and why it's a control freak's wet dream. Interesting that there's no mention of educating kids on how to be safer, it's just "parents need to exert more control."

Friday, November 6, 2009

On Kids Walking to School

One Florida girl Somer Thompson, and her family die because she was allowed to walk to school and this mom thinks no kid should be allowed to walk to school again. At least she admits she's being paranoid, but it'd be nice to see her go the next step and just admit already that her decision to keep her children from walking to school seems to have more to do with quelling her own paranoia than it does with keeping them safe. Here's her argument:

115 children are kidnapped by strangers each year, according to federal statistics. There are 73.7 million children in the U.S. YES, I realize that the odds are slim that the worst could happen. But tell that to Diena Thompson, Somer's mom. The odds were just as slim for her, and it happened.

First of all, I should say nobody can or should fault any parent for wanting to keep their children safe. That's not what I'm intending to do here, because nobody can possibly make an argument against keeping children safe. The fact is we're all for keeping children safe--in fact, we don't even have to say it. But obviously there are disagreements as to what constitutes "keeping children safe."

Some people believe that in order to truly keep children safe they have to restrict the kid from doing anything by themselves. Others believe that all that is necessary is to teach the child common sense and baby-step them (carefully balance out what they are allowed and not allowed to do on their own and work them towards self-sufficiency). I fall into the second category--I don't believe we ought to be letting 5 year old preschoolers walk to school all by themselves, but I also don't believe 13 year olds should be barred from doing it when the school is right down the block.

There is no question that the incident she refers to was a real tragedy, and as our hearts go out to the family, we really need to remember to keep our heads and actually learn from this. One's own children are no more in jeopardy after this tragedy than they were beforehand. All one can really do as a parent is exercise good judgment and take the opportunity to teach children about possible dangers and what to do and not to do when walking to school. By restricting a child from doing it completely because it makes you as a parent feel like they are safer, you're in fact choosing not to exercise any judgment whatsoever. A cautious parent holds back no matter what. A good parent teaches children to be cautious. The difference? Teaching takes work whereas holding back doesn't.

If you want to restrict them from these things to spare yourself your paranoia, then it's easy. If you want to make sure kids are safe and have a degree of self-reliance, then it's going to take some work.

Yes, I know my kids are much more likely to get into a car wreck on the way to school than be abducted while walking home. I get it. But Somer didn't die in a car crash. She died after being abducted, while walking home from school. And, as a parent, that is something I believe you could never get over -- never in a million years.

Once again, nobody is disagreeing that for those involved that event is an unthinkable tragedy. What is not making sense though here is that if statistically kids are more likely to be harmed while riding in cars than they are walking to school, that each and every one of those car accidents where a child is life threatened is itself also a tragedy for those involved. Just because car accidents happen more frequently doesn't diminish the profound effect that they can have. Likewise, just because kidnappings happen so infrequently that when they do they usually hit the news doesn't make them more profound.

If you were concerned with safety of kids based purely on the frequency of possible threats, then letting them walk to school would be one of the more safer things you could have them doing. But then again, reducing the issue to simple heuristics isn't practicing good judgment as a parent. The fact is both scenarios entail risk, what you have to do as a parent is make sure your bases are covered beforehand either way.

Call me paranoid all you want. But letting my kids walk alone is just not a risk I'm willing to take.
Okay. You ma'am, are paranoid.

On a side note, I've tackled the issue of paranoia over walkers recently with this post. In reality, unless you live in a major city where crime is rampant, chances are your kids aren't any less safer walking to school in this day in age than they were back in the 1960's and 70's when there weren't as many safeguards out there as there are these days. In fact, they're probably safer. The only change is that people are more aware of the dangers than they were back then.