Put kids to work to fix the problem of delayed adolescence

by Grace

Reason for delayed adolescence is that prefontal lobes aren’t properly exercised
Psychology professor Alison Gopnik offers a solution for the problem of delayed adolescence among young people, many of whom are spending their twenties in directionless and unproductive activities.  Here’s the root of  the problem.

 … contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they’ll have to perform as grown-ups

The solution
We need to treat kids more like grownups in giving them the kinds of experiences they will face as adults.  Experiences where they must achieve a real goal in real time.  School apparently is not doing this for most kids, so we must give give them other tasks such as cooking, caregiving, and even jobs.

A Berkeley professor and Newt Gingrich agree that we should make children work?  Amazing.

Instead of simply giving adolescents more and more school experiences—those extra hours of after-school classes and homework—we could try to arrange more opportunities for apprenticeship. AmeriCorps, the federal community-service program for youth, is an excellent example, since it provides both challenging real-life experiences and a degree of protection and supervision.

Nature vs nurture – The argument is that experience can significantly alter the development of the prefontal lobes, thereby playing an important role in reversing this trend of delayed adulthood.

This new explanation also illustrates two really important and often overlooked facts about the mind and brain. First, experience shapes the brain. People often think that if some ability is located in a particular part of the brain, that must mean that it’s “hard-wired” and inflexible. But, in fact, the brain is so powerful precisely because it is so sensitive to experience. It’s as true to say that our experience of controlling our impulses make the prefrontal cortex develop as it is to say that prefrontal development makes us better at controlling our impulses. Our social and cultural life shapes our biology.

Second, development plays a crucial role in explaining human nature. The old “evolutionary psychology” picture was that genes were directly responsible for some particular pattern of adult behavior—a “module.” In fact, there is more and more evidence that genes are just the first step in complex developmental sequences, cascades of interactions between organism and environment, and that those developmental processes shape the adult brain. Even small changes in developmental timing can lead to big changes in who we become.

The role of schools
No doubt our expectations and actions often infantilize children.  I do think that part of this is in reaction to the academic pressure coming from misguided public school policies.  For example, pushing developmentally-inappropriate literacy skills down to younger grades can cause parents to become over-involved and overprotective of their  children.  Similarly, assigning elementary students projects requiring advanced Internet skills and organizational abilities can establish a trend for excessive parental involvement in their children’s school work.

In a similar vein, Brett Nelson at Forbes proposes  “grownup training”  to help young people on their road to maturity.

… Specifically: six months spent working in a factory, six in a restaurant, six on a farm and six in the military or performing another public service such as building houses, teaching algebra or changing bedpans. (Of course, mandated military or civil service between high school and college is nothing new. Austria, Brazil, Finland, Greece, Russia, Turkey and Vietnam all require between six months and two years of service. Israel demands three years from its men and two from its women, after which many would-be undergrads take what the English call a “gap year” to travel the globe before heading off to college.)

HT Joanne Jacobs

6 Comments to “Put kids to work to fix the problem of delayed adolescence”

  1. Thought-provoking and interesting. I hate to put more pressure on kids–I think part of the problem is that we don’t let them have enough play time anymore. The Americorps program is a great one and it definitely gives great life experience.


  2. My 14 yo daughter is in her second year of a program that is called an apprenticeship at a nearby science/engineering museum/project palace. Sorry for the slashes, the place doesn’t fit well into typical categories. The program is more limited than a true, full-time apprenticeship, consists of a minimum 5 hr a week commitment year-round plus two weeks during the summer. The work done includes shop work, cleaning, assembly of kits, helping kids with projects, camp counselor, and learning to do those things. I’ve probably forgotten some things. Significant time is spent teaching the apprentices how to use tools and do the various tasks they’re assigned.

    Although it has sometimes been difficult to fit this in, we have all seen big benefits to the program. My daughter has learned how to do a lot of things that she wouldn’t have otherwise, in spite of our house having lots of equipment and on-going projects. Sometimes it’s helpful to have an adult outside the family giving direction, setting expectations, and recognizing successes. I think she gets a lot of satisfaction out of the work, even if there are days that don’t turn out great, and she’s found some tasks that she is good at and enjoys doing.

    In some ways, the jobs I had as a teen provided the same benefits, but it’s difficult to find a young teen around here with a job. In many ways, the apprenticeship program is better because it has been set up with the intent of teaching skills and habits to the teens involved. (Plus, the museum is a far cooler place than I ever worked.)

    All of this is to say, I believe there is a lot of worth in the idea of providing teens the opportunity for real-world responsibility. My family believes in it so much that we’re making sure our kids have the time available for it.


  3. kcab, the program you describe sounds great. It seems like the right amount of work for a young teen, although I’m sure fitting in 5 hours a week can sometimes be challenging. Between high unemployment rates and kids spending so much more time on extracurricular activities, many teens never get work experience.

    I don’t support any type of mandated service for young people, but I think the idea of “grown-up” experiences could make a positive difference in shaping children.


  4. I learned a lot from my high school and college jobs, much of it about getting along and keeping a job. I think my oldest has learned similar things. I wonder if jobs are even more important nowadays because the school environment, despite their talk about teaching “real world” skills, is actually so different from the real world.


  5. Yeah, I worked fast food for a year and it was not much fun. I did learn a few things about getting along with people and about the work that goes into keeping a place like that running. Mostly I learned that I never, ever wanted to work in food service again. The year I worked as a store clerk was probably more educational. Oddly enough, I considered working at a chicken farm for awhile. That was a bit too far out of town for me & my bike.

    The program my daughter is in is unusual and highly influenced by the personality and beliefs of the people running it. One of the first times I met the director we had a long conversation about how important he thinks it is for adolescents to have “grown-up” experiences and that those are scarce around here (suburban CT).


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