Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: Why smart kids do not-so-smart things

History is full of intelligent people who have done stupid things. The great author W.B. Yeats was denied a post at Trinity College in Dublin for spelling “professor” wrong on the application. In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, published falsified data in a prestigious medical journal, claiming that there was a link between autism and the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and shattered the public’s trust.

Intelligence alone doesn’t guarantee logical thinking. Logic requires a set of skills that some people don’t have or don’t use. But when you are talking about adolescents, it’s a different story.

After years of study, how teenagers actually think is no longer a mystery. Outcomes support the observations of so many puzzled parents — that smart teens can make stupid decisions. But they don’t do it on purpose.

Your child may be an expert in computer programming or the effects of ancient population migrations on current world politics. So why is it so hard to find their wallet, forget to eat or find a way home?

Some parts of the adolescent brain mature later than others. In the teen brain, the two different parts of the brain that control thinking and decision making grow at different rates. The ability to problem solve or engage in deep discussion may appear by age 16. However, the ability to think rationally comes much later — since the part of the brain (frontal lobe) that controls decision making continues to develop — well into the mid 20s.

To compound the issue, teens tend to make good decisions when they aren’t distracted, stressed, or being influenced by others — all of which are uncommon in a teen’s life.

A students view: One college student commented that life is nicer when your teachers, parents, and everyone around you consider you “smart.” So how do teenagers who are very intelligent and often do well in school, do something phenomenally short-sighted, impulsive, or just plain stupid? We often associate academic intelligence or cultural literacy with other forms of intelligence, such as emotional intelligence or maturity. We expect a teen who excels in one form of intelligence to be equally advanced in others. But that is not the case.

Here are some of the key things that have an impact on adolescent decision-making:

Experience

Alina Adams, says that the safer parents make things for kids as children, the more dangerous it becomes when they get older and ultimately face those situations without prior experience. “Every time we protect a child from getting his feelings hurt, burning his finger, or falling off a tree, we are sending the message: You can’t take care of yourself. You can’t make good choices. You are helpless.”

As a result, Adams suggests that all kids learn how to:

▪ Climb a tall tree: They might slip and fall, but they’ll learn how to get down and may also see the world from a whole new perspective.

▪ Take public transportation: They need the knowledge, confidence, and, most importantly, the experience of dealing with the public transportation system on a daily basis because one day they will be on their own.

▪ Take apart an electronic device: Toy stopped working? Give your kid a screwdriver and let them open it up to see what’s wrong. They are much less likely to “put their eye out” or be knocked unconscious by an electrical jolt than they are to learn a useful skill that will sure come in handy the next time the fire alarm decides to go off in the middle of the night for want of a new battery.

▪ Hang a picture: This is a nail, that is a hammer, and you have two thumbs in case you bash one of them.

▪ Sew: You want a new outfit for your doll? Need to hem a pair of pants? The thread goes in, and the needle goes up and down, up and down. No one ever bled to death from a pin-prick.

▪ Use a kitchen knife: There is an old saying Those who don’t work don’t eat. If your kid wants to eat, they should learn to cook. Using knives and whirling blades are just part of the process.

▪ Use a stove: Let them make spaghetti. Yes, there’s a slight chance your kids might burn themselves in the process (but who hasn’t?) but there is a 100% chance that they will learn to keep themselves from starving. Which is worse?

▪ Feel bored: American children in the 21st century are the most “enriched” ever. Every moment is scheduled to be filled with an activity that’s not only engaging, but educational. Try not entertaining your kid. Try not letting the TV or computer entertain them, either. See what happens.

▪ Lose at a game: A child who doesn’t know how to deal with frustration grows up to become an adult who doesn’t know how to deal with frustration.

Friends

Friends can have a huge effect on teen decision making. For adolescents the simple presence of friends stimulates a part of the brain that is sensitive to risk and rewards so teens are much more likely to take risks in the presence of friends. That’s why the type of friends your child chooses is so important.

Hormones

Teens are typically misunderstood. It is not uncommon to hear parents refer to their children as hormonally-charged monsters. The new and powerful hormones flowing through their arteries are similar to the legs of a newborn colt — they need time to adjust — and so do we.

Invincibility

After several university students were hospitalized after overdosing on Ecstasy, two of them ended up in critical condition. A friend of theirs said that she never imagined this (overdosing) could ever happen to us.

Peggy Sapp, CEO of Informedfamilies.org says that most young people, however smart they may be, do not believe bad things will happen to them.

Pluralistic ignorance

Misperceptions can make good people behave badly. We conform, not to the world as it exists, but to the world as we think it exists.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, con artists sew the emperor an invisible suit but persuade his court that only the “unworthy” cannot see it. Although the emperor is concerned, everyone fawns over the virtual threads to prove their worthiness. As the emperor dances down the street, his subjects are confused, since everybody seems to “see” a garment, and go along. In the end, it is a child that points out that emperor is buck naked.

Derek Thompson says social psychologists call this shared delusion pluralistic ignorance. Teens are often sucked into this group-ignorant behavior where they think one thing and do another, because they are deluded about the majority’s real views and then conform to that delusion. It is the finest form of peer pressure.

Peer influence is powerful. But teens need to understand that they are typically influenced by their perception of what their peers are doing. It isn’t often real.

What parents can do

According to Sapp and other experts, parents need to:

▪ Have expectations. You affect your teen’s behaviors. Talk to them about risk, about what risks they may want to take and what risks they should avoid (unprotected sex, not obeying traffic laws, experimenting with drugs). Make the consequences very clear for taking these risks or making these choices.

Although teen bodies are developing earlier (the onset of menstruation has dropped from about 16 to almost 12 in the past 150 years), their brains mature at the same slow rate. Despite this, teens should be expected to show self-control, discipline, and good judgment, but they should not be expected to demonstrate an adult level of functioning. Our expectations — and guidance away from impulsive, uninformed, or irrational decisions — remains crucial.

▪ Teach coping mechanisms. Teens need to learn good coping mechanisms and decision making skills. Adults cant expect teens to deal with stress or frustration, or how to make wise choices without being taught how to do it. Practice decision making with your child before he or she is in a stressful situation. Teens employ healthier decision making pathways when they have cultivated strategies prior to the specific circumstance.

▪ Act as your child’s “frontal lobe” when needed. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to situations where your child may be likely to make poor decisions. One of the best things that you can do for your child during the teen years is to monitor their whereabouts and experiences.

▪ Say “yes” to opportunities that might build both the child’s healthy decision making skills and their confidence to make good choices. Even if you have to step a bit outside your own comfort zone.

▪ Be patient. A few boneheaded decisions are part of the learning process. The vast majority of young people (and their parents) survive dumb decisions and live to laugh about them later. Don’t be a tiger parent, but don’t helicopter either.

What parents should not do

▪ Think that you can protect your child forever.

▪ Think that you can ban all interaction with friends until age 25 or make all their decisions. While it’s true that successful teens do tend to have positive character traits, teenage emotional regulation, judgment and impulsiveness are usually underdeveloped at best. It’s not their fault — their brains are still developing.

Teens may be short on impulse control, but they do have a memory. That memory is what will save them.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.

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