Here’s a simple arithmetic question: “A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”
The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs 10 cents. This answer is both incredibly obvious and utterly wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and $1.05 for the bat.) What’s most impressive is that education doesn’t really help; more than 50% of students at Harvard, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology routinely give the incorrect answer.
Fortunately I’m past actually raising teenagers, although I have grandchildren heading that way. This National Geographic piece on Teenage Brains is a bit scary, but instructive. An excerpt:
This adaptive-adolescence view, however accurate, can be tricky to come to terms with—the more so for parents dealing with teens in their most trying, contrary, or flat-out scary moments. It’s reassuring to recast worrisome aspects as signs of an organism learning how to negotiate its surroundings. But natural selection swings a sharp edge, and the teen’s sloppier moments can bring unbearable consequences. We may not run the risk of being killed in ritualistic battles or being eaten by leopards, but drugs, drinking, driving, and crime take a mighty toll. My son lives, and thrives, sans car, at college. Some of his high school friends, however, died during their driving experiments. Our children wield their adaptive plasticity amid small but horrific risks.
We parents, of course, often stumble too, as we try to walk the blurry line between helping and hindering our kids as they adapt to adulthood. The United States spends about a billion dollars a year on programs to counsel adolescents on violence, gangs, suicide, sex, substance abuse, and other potential pitfalls. Few of them work.
Maybe we should do something other than spend billions on programs that don’t work.
Yet we can and do help. We can ward off some of the world’s worst hazards and nudge adolescents toward appropriate responses to the rest. Studies show that when parents engage and guide their teens with a light but steady hand, staying connected but allowing independence, their kids generally do much better in life. Adolescents want to learn primarily, but not entirely, from their friends. At some level and at some times (and it’s the parent’s job to spot when), the teen recognizes that the parent can offer certain kernels of wisdom—knowledge valued not because it comes from parental authority but because it comes from the parent’s own struggles to learn how the world turns. The teen rightly perceives that she must understand not just her parents’ world but also the one she is entering. Yet if allowed to, she can appreciate that her parents once faced the same problems and may remember a few things worth knowing.
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
The title of this boston.com article, The Power of Lonely, is in my opinion, a misnomer. Being lonely doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with being alone, which is what the article is actually about. (They address this much later, but why the misleading title?) It states, “…an emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking.”
Well now, I’m certainly pleased that “research” has confirmed something I’ve known my entire life. Truth is, I need time alone.
A recent article in the New York Times titled, How Meditation May Change the Brain, made me realize, once again, that I do not do this well. I mean that I cannot conjure up new wisdom, will something to happen through meditative techniques. I admit that I don’t give it much of a chance—don’t have the patience—and it feels silly to one with practical sensibilities. Also, there are times when I might be thinking quietly and some moment of remarkable insight flashes into my brain, but I then want to stop and write it down—it sort of breaks the concentration, not that I was trying to concentrate. Further clarification: any time I can recall where anything meditative-like, or even prayer-like, has happened to me, I was alone and I wasn’t trying—it was effortless and a surprise.
As the article says: “Relatively little is known about the brain and the psychological mechanisms about how this is being done.”