Youth and Those Crazy Hormones

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by: danah boyd

When discussing the plight of teenagers with adults, i'm often chastised for viewing teens as mature humans capable of making reasonable decisions. All too often, people point to all that psychological research that indicates that teens are experiencing extensive hormonal rushes that impair their judgment.

And then i go home to my 30-something friends who see a baby and start cooing as their biological clock begs for attention. And then i talk to people my mom's age going through menopause and being about as coo-coo as they come. And then i get calls from my older male friends who are experiencing their midlife crisis and think that trading in their wife for people my age is a good idea. I don't think that teenagers are the only population facing impaired judgment. In fact, i'm curious at what age one's judgment is really all that functional.

What fascinates me in watching teens is to see biology and culture at complete odds. Their bodies are screaming SEX! REPRODUCTION! NOW! while adults are screaming abstinence. Evolution does not think that waiting until you have your career settled before giving birth is a good idea regardless of what culture says. Personally, i think teens are doing an astounding job at quelching bodily urges in favor of societal norms. I think we should give them a lot of credit for their strength!

I'm not saying that teens are all-so-mature but as one of my colleagues points out, the best part of being a 30-something year old guy in today's age is that it's assumed that you still haven't matured beyond fart jokes. Maturation is a progression – we build on things we've learned in the past in order to grow. Every significant experience teaches us something as we grow older. Hopefully, we won't throw away those lessons and regress to bullying and gossip mongering but sadly, many do. The problem is that we need to face those challenges in order to learn from them. The more that we're coddled, the less we learn. I have to admit that when it comes to teaching in a college classroom, i far prefer the street kids to the protected ones. At least the street kids know why they're in school and it's not simply to get away from their parents. Their experiences have been rough but they've learned a lot and it shows. Even worse than protected college students in the classrooms is spoiled ones in a foreign country. ::shudder:: That's when it becomes painfully obvious how little freedom we've given our youth compared to other cultures.

As best as i can tell, the last big cognitive issue is the ability to think abstractly, negotiate social categories, and recognize that there are multiple possibilities to a situation based on your actions. Ideally, you should be able to get that there are multiple interpretations to a situation but i don't think that most adults get this so i doubt that i can hold that as a standard for maturation even though it would be nice. Once you get this around adolescence/puberty, it's building time from that point forward. Experience, risk-taking, and consequences matter. The crazy hormones surge at all different times to get in your way but like external crises, you gotta learn to recognize and deal with hormones. Locking up folks who are going through hormone rushes is never a good idea even if i had the urge to lock mom up for a few years.

There should be a list of things that youth should learn as young as possible to be a part of society. If i were to start a list, it would probably include:

  • Learn to manage your own money including situations where you don't have enough money for something really important;
  • Work to make your own money;
  • Learn how to come up with money for monthly bills;
  • Learn how to cook, clean, and do laundry;
  • Learn how to take care of small children;
  • Learn how to handle sickness and doctors;
  • Learn how to travel (airplane, bus, etc.) on your own;
  • Learn to travel respectfully to foreign cultures;
  • Learn how to handle being drunk;
  • Experience being bullied, embarrassed, ridiculed, taunted, beaten up;
  • Be exposed to people really different than you and learn tolerance and respect;
  • Face failure and learn disappointment + face success and learn humility;
  • Experience heartbreak;
  • Manage significant emotional or physical pain;
  • Handle the death of someone close to you.  

Obviously, some of these are taboo and others really shouldn't be planned for but still, i have to say, this is what i'd want my child to know before being on their own. I have to give my mom props for making certain i knew many of these things. My favorite was the fact that she made me work in fast food to learn why i was getting a college education. Anyone else have favorite lessons that they wish all young people learned?

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