Spock, Kirk, and the adolescent brain

A friend sent me an NPR piece about the adolescent brain’s constant struggle between the impulsiveness of the limbic system (think Captain Kirk), and the reason of the prefrontal cortex (that’s Mr. Spock). We all know about the wild side of teenagers, but apparently, it’s worse than we thought. It all starts around age 12, and can last for a decade.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Researchers at Temple University uncovered a twist. When adolescents are with other adolescents, they’re significantly more likely to engage in risky behavior. As the article puts it, an adolescent’s weakness is actually other adolescents.

Duh, you may be thinking. It’s called peer pressure, right? Wrong. The experiment’s findings indicate that simply being with other adolescents makes adolescents more impulsive.

I’ve observed the phenomenon the researchers are talking about in my own kids and in young people I’ve known over the years. When adolescents get together, they behave differently than when they’re alone, or with adults, or in an inter-generational group.

As a homeschooling parent, my opportunity to witness these dynamics was perhaps greater than parents whose kids go to school. I could see, in action, kids behaving more or less impulsively or maturely depending on the setting, and here’s my conclusion. I think providing adolescents with chances to interact with peers and adults in various numbers and combinations is a really good way for them to practice using and modulating the Kirk and Spock parts of their brains.

The NPR piece says that 12-year-olds get a high from being with each other, and that “They’re wired to seek each other out and develop the skills they’ll need to leave their parents, feed and protect themselves, and raise children.”

Are they really wired to seek each other out, or are they just herded together in age-segregated schools? In my experience with homeschoolers, they’re drawn as much to adults they admire and want to learn from as they are to their age-mates.

While youths have always been more prone to risk-taking, not all cultures segregate youth to the extent that we do, and that seems wise. It makes sense that being with mixed ages can provide a safety cushion to temper risky behavior. Kids can get the “high” of being with each other, while also getting the benefit of the wisdom of their elders (which is, after all, where they’re getting their primary information about how to be adults).

With more and more science revealing key aspects of adolescent brain development, it’s looking more and more like some of the key components of school are misguided. We know now for certain that teenagers need more sleep than adults, so keeping them up late with reams of homework and getting them up at the crack of dawn for another school day doesn’t seem like such a good plan. Now It also looks like excessive peer contact isn’t the greatest idea, either.

Homeschooling offers another model, one that has been proven to work. More time to sleep, small classes, finding mentors, volunteerism and work opportunities, and interaction in the community are advantages homeschoolers have enjoyed for years. If schools reformers choose to look our way for ideas, they’ll find them.


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