Infantilising Young People

Brain sciences have stimulated many fascinating debates in recent years as our knowledge about the brain’s working and it’s development is enhanced through new scientific techniques. One of the most fascinating areas coming out of this research is our understanding and attempts to unravel the intriguing mysteries of the ‘adolescent brain’.

Of course, we have to face up to the sad reality that few in education have even noticed that these debates have moved on, while most continue to focus on paradigms of control, teaching (filling empty vessels) and various mixes of externally imposed discipline and extraneous motivation.

This is a debate that touches on many aspects of how we organise our societies. This BBC article reviews some of the current thinking, both in terms of what the brain science is telling us and a variety of views and opinions about how we should respond.

BBC Article – Is 25 the New Cut-off Point for Adulthood?

Of course, such matters are quite culturally specific. I well remember some years ago a prominent Bollywood film star in his sixties who felt there was nothing strange about taking his father’s permission before he agreed to take on any new film role (his father never achieved anything like the role or expertise he has in film acting). I have to say, as a Westerner who willingly moved out of my home at 18 to make my own way in the world and funded myself through education this will always remain beyond my understanding.

One of the key, critical things i believe we should be doing in education is bringing the brain’s working out in to the open to a far greater extent for all pupils. Young people should know and understand more about how their minds work, so that they can have a far better understanding of what is going on when they make certain decisions or judgements and also so that they understand better when their wishes clash with the views and expectations of their elders.

What I certainly wouldn’t want to see is the brain science being used as even more excuses for parents, care givers and educators to reinforce beliefs that young people are incapable of making sound decisions and taking even more of the responsibility for life choices away from them. We cannot wrap adolescents i safety blankets, nor can we deny them the learning inherent in personal responsibility. In fact, the learning that comes out of direct accountability for my own actions can start long before adolescence, so that young people see direct causal links between their actions and outcomes. Only then can we provide the environment for young people to grow in to healthy, effective responsible adults.

Conspiracy theorists might note that there are forces in society that benefit from the infantilisation – companies that market passive leisure based services and products, future employers of many young people and people like the advertising industry. The latter, for example, targets most of its efforts at those in the age range 14 – 35, despite the fact that there’s a growing older population with a far greater share of the financial cake in their hands. However, what they also know is that young people who have a long term perspective; saving, working hard towards longer term goals etc. don’t spend freely. Infantisised youngsters persuaded to extend their adolescence indefinitely can far more easily be parted from their money on hedonistic pleasures – spend and enjoy today, for one day later I’ll be forced to grow up and pay the price.

This has vast implications for everything from school cultures to family structures and responsibilities in the home. Should people under 25 be marrying (in any culture?), how can adolescents be given the tools and knowledge to be active decision makers, should under 25’s have the vote? When people are going to live longer, be economically productive until later in their lives etc. do we need to restructure the whole way education is approached? Are we being grossly unfair to young people making key parts of their lives dependent upon artificial assessment processes forced on them at Age 16 or 18?

I don’t believe we have simple answers for any of these questions. However, i believe educators are failing in their duties if they’re not properly active in the debates.

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