Why do young people of roughly the same age and background turn out so differently?
Recently I attended a large family reunion and talked to a lot of young people I hadn’t met before. The conversations I had with two different 22-year-old young men left me wondering.
Shane seemed like a loner in this crowd. He didn’t relate to the younger kids, and he seemed uncomfortable mingling with the adults. I saw him sitting on a folding chair, staring off into evening sky, so I sat down next to him.
After I got the conversation going, the overall impression struck me: this is a boy, not yet a man. He had dropped out of community college and was living at home. I asked him, “If you could make a living at it, what would you like to do most?”
His reply: “Ride my dirt bike.”
“Do you think you could make a living at it? Like go pro or something?”
“No, I’m not that good. Only a couple guys make money on the racing circuit. They’re on a whole other level.”
I met the other young man while dropping off some luggage for my brother-in-law. Chris waved from the front door and skipped down the steps to meet me. “Sir, let me take that for you. I have a place for it.”
His energy level, confidence and strong sense of self-esteem contrasted with my impression of the other young man. I was wearing my Duke Basketball t-shirt, so I grinned and said, “I hope you don’t mind. I went to school there and I’m a big fan.”
“I just graduated from UNC, but that’s no problem. I’ve applied to the Duke graduate school. I want to get into their Environmental Science program.” Clearly, he had a vision for his future and had set goals for himself. This dude was a man with a mission!
Both these fellows were 22 years old and came from solid middle class families; but they had followed different paths growing up, and their journeys had taken them to two different places in life.
I was reminded of this experience as I read the San Antonio Express-News recently. Staff writer Ann Ley’s front-page article: “Teen driver charged with manslaughter.”
According to witnesses, 19-year old Antonio Flores was racing another vehicle when he sped into a left-turn lane to pass a truck. He hit the truck and slammed into a utility pole. Three high-school girls were with Flores. The two in the back weren’t wearing seat belts and were killed. Flores’ previous arrests included assault causing bodily injury and assault on a public servant causing bodily injury.
In another section of the paper was a story about Joshua Gonzalez, who had recently returned from an exciting trip to Turkey. According to Emily Miller’s feature, “Trip to Turkey life-changing adventure for S.A. musicians,” he and his friends had learned about Turkey from a former school teacher. Determined to visit Turkey, the boys started raising money. They took Turkish language courses 20 hours a week, formed a band and played for tips on the street, sold snacks and got a few corporate sponsors. They paid for the trip themselves and had the experience of a lifetime.
Once again, the contrast between Antonio and Joshua is remarkable. Both were about the same age and were raised in Hispanic families in the same city; but once again the life journeys of two adolescents had brought them to two different destinations.
I’m the kind of guy who reads these stories for more than entertainment. I ask “why” a lot.
So why? Why do young people of roughly the same age and background turn out so differently?
Of course we can’t know the whole answer for sure.
But here’s my guess. Kids learn to think by doing a lot of thinking. This is where parents, teachers and other adult mentors come in. Some boys, during early-to-middle adolescence are stimulated by parents, teachers, coaches and other caring adults to THINK. Boys who think a lot are exercising their prefrontal cortex, which is still under development. As they do this, they are wiring their brains to create a foundation for critical thinking, judgment and impulse control.
Boys who are growing up without this stimulation are not acquiring the same level of mental skill. They end up not being able to connect the dots so well, reacting to life emotionally and going with their impulses.
This aspect of adolescent development has been the focus of my research and development for several years now. My goal is to make parents everywhere aware of this dynamic of the teen brain and what parents can do to help their kids achieve greater mental capacity.