Parenting Help

If Teenagers Only Had a Brain

Last night Fox aired the Teen Choice Awards.

Teen Choice … is that an oxymoron? Are teenagers really equipped to make good choices?

My son turned 12 a few months ago. Now when we go to restaurants, movie theatres, theme Park or any place that wants our money-he’s an “adult.” And those of us who have worked with teens and tweens know that some of these kids look like adults and talk like adults … and many of them think they are adults. But are they?

I’ll never forget the day when I came home from wrestling practice my freshman year of high school and my dad asked me if I wanted to show him what I learned. I pinned him in less than 20 seconds-a landmark moment in my teen years. I felt like a man. I had “pinned” the very man that had spanked me all those years! I figured “Maybe now that I was as big as a man … I was an adult!”

Teenagers can look like adults, they can try to talk like adults … but can they make decisions like adults?

All the articles we’ve been reading lately say “no.” If you haven’t heard the skinny, the National Institute of Mental Health has confirmed what youth workers have known for years-that the teenage brain isn’t fully developed until people reach their late teens or early 20’s.

Alexander Stevens, Asst. Professor at the Oregon Health and Science University, explains that a teenage brain is a “work in progress.” In the past, some people believed that teenager’s brains processed information much the same as adult’s brains do. But recent research is finding that teenagers lack neural circuitry in the frontal lobe necessary for decision-making. And the circuitry is not in place until they are in their early 20s. The last part of the brain to mature is the frontal cortex, the executive brain – responsible for planning, problem solving and reason. (Teens’ Brains Not Fully Wired for Reason, by Gabrielle Glaser, The Oregonian, February 21, 2005, p. C1)

So teenagers haven’t just been learning the “live for the moment” philosophy from MTV and “50 Cent.” Their brains actually don’t fully consider negative outcomes. They don’t process decisions like adults (some adults anyway), weighing the consequences. Hence … “live for the moment.”

Research shows that teenagers make the majority of their decisions based on emotion instead of reason. “It helps explain so much risk-taking behavior,” says psychiatrist Dr. Charles Staunton, associate medical director for Child and Adolescent Services at Butler Hospital in Providence. (SUSAN KUSHNER RESNICK, Providence Journal, Published 1:50 pm PDT Thursday, July 21, 2005)

But, despite an inability to fully reason, teens still want choice. “Emotion instead of reason” hasn’t stopped them before. So how do we respond?

The media’s response is to cash in on this opportunity. Give em’ the Teen Choice Awards, give em’ movies that show how stupid adults are and how smart kids are, give em’ music that catalysts their emotion of “live for the moment.” After all … that’s what they want to hear.

We don’t need research to tell us that teenagers “make decisions based on emotion instead of reason.” Just check out Billboard’s top 5 right now. (Yes, whether we like it or not, these are the 5 top songs our kids are listening to right now.) What do you see? Songs about emotions, feelings, impulses, “living for the moment” and emotional reactions … or good solid reasoning?

1. We Belong Together, Mariah Carey (LYRICS EXCERPT: “The feeling that I’m feeling, Now that I don’t hear your voice, Or have your touch and kiss your lips …”)

2. Don’t Cha, The Pussycat Dolls Featuring Busta Rhymes (LYRICS EXCERPT: “I know you want it, It’s easy to see, And in the back of your mind, I know you should be f***ing me -CHORUS- Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me? Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me? …”)

3. Pon de Replay, Rihanna (LYRICS EXCERPT: “Come Mr. DJ won’t you turn the music up, All the gyal pon the dancefloor wantin some more what, Come Mr. DJ won’t you turn the music up …”)

4. Let Me Hold You, Bow Wow Featuring Omarion (LYRICS EXCERPT: “Put you in the range all black, With the rims to match, Phone attached, TVs in the back, How you gon say no to that? Huh, Let me Hold You …”)

5. Lose Control, Missy Elliott Featuring Ciara & Fat Man Scoop (LYRICS EXCERPT: ” Do ma thang muthaf***s, ma rose royce lamborghini, blu madina alwayz beamin, ragtop chrome pipes … make dat money tho it n, booty bouncin gon hit, everybody here get it outta control … we gon make u lose control, and let it go 4 u kno, u gon hit tha flo … )

I’ve always told my kids, “Use your brain!” I guess I need to amend that.

As parents, we need to realize that our kids aren’t playing with a full deck, they’re a few sandwiches short of a picnic … they’re a few fries short of a Happy Meal. Okay, maybe that’s a little too condescending. But let’s be real: they still need instruction, boundaries and discipline. If we set our kids free to do what they want … we set them up for failure.

Check out THIS current research:

Proverbs 1:8-9 (NLT)
Listen, my child, to what your father teaches you. Don’t neglect your mother’s teaching. [9] What you learn from them will crown you with grace and clothe you with honor.

Proverbs 2:1-8 (NLT)
My child, listen to me and treasure my instructions. [2] Tune your ears to wisdom, and concentrate on understanding. [3] Cry out for insight and understanding. [4] Search for them as you would for lost money or hidden treasure. [5] Then you will understand what it means to fear the Lord, and you will gain knowledge of God. [6] For the Lord grants wisdom! From his mouth come knowledge and understanding. [7] He grants a treasure of good sense to the godly. He is their shield, protecting those who walk with integrity. [8] He guards the paths of justice and protects those who are faithful to him.

God wants our children to learn wisdom. We need to teach them how to make decisions. This isn’t instantaneous, and it sure isn’t easy. This is a process that might take … oh, about 20 years or so.

And guess who our kids will learn God’s wisdom from?

From us.

Yes, as adults, both parents and youth workers, we have the responsibility to not just speak God’s wisdom … but to live it. Kids will see Christ in us more than they’ll ever hear anything we say.

As a youth worker we can be encouraged by the results of this research for two reasons:

1. We’re not insane; the little punks really aren’t using their heads!

Okay … seriously now.

2. God wants to use us to make a difference.

Teenagers are emotional creatures making some of the biggest choices of their lives; and, even though they don’t know it, they need help. Many of them are standing at the crossroads, staring at life-altering decisions … and they can’t do it alone.

God wants to use us to make an eternal difference in the lives of 21st century teenagers. We can do this by keeping our ministry RELATIONAL, REAL, and RELEVANT.

Part of being an emotional teenager is the desire for relationships. We need to keep our youth ministry RELATIONAL, providing a place for teenagers to “hang out” and get to know people that care about them. Our number one goal in youth ministry should be loving kids and getting to know them. This means that we also need to be proactive about recruiting volunteers to help us in this mission. And our volunteers’ number one goal should be loving kids, not being mere “chaperones.”

As we get to know teenagers today, we can help them get to know a God that loves them and wants a relationship with them (EVANGELISM). We can teach them Godly wisdom and day to day decision making (GROWTH). We can prepare them to be used by God for a unique purpose and to impact others around them (LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT).

But to do this, our ministry needs to be REAL and RELEVANT. As we get to know kids, know their struggles, know what’s influencing them, know their thoughts and desires … only then will we be able to really make an impact that affects them where they are at.

So we need to keep an eye on youth culture. But just an eye … because you know what Jesus told us to do with our eye if it causes us to stumble.

I stay current by watching the Teen Choice Awards every year. I watch MTV twice a year: the video music awards, and the movie awards. These shows and all the commercials in-between keep me pretty current with the brainwashing that our kids are experiencing.

I regularly check out the billboard charts and look up the lyrics of the top songs kids are listening to. When my kids aren’t in the car, I flick through the popular radio stations and listen to the DJ’s and the song selections.

Web sites like Walt Mueller’s and magazines like the YOUTHWORKER JOURNAL help me stay current. They also help me to become culturally aware … not immersed.

Teenagers may not have completely developed brains … but we do. Let’s use them. Use the time, energy and resources that God has given you to do His work.

You can make a difference in the life of that “kid with half a brain” that lives down the street.

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Jonathan McKee

Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Guy's Guide to FOUR BATTLES Every Young Man Must Face; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for parents on his website Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

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