Friday, November 29, 2013

"Irresponsible Teenagers": an oxymoron?

Dubois then turned to me. "I told you that `juvenile delinquent' is a contradiction in terms. `Delinquent' means `failing in duty.' But duty is an adult virtue -- indeed a juvenile becomes an adult when, and only when, he acquires a knowledge of duty and embraces it as dearer than the self-love he was born with. There never was, there cannot be a `juvenile delinquent.'" Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers
I hear a lot from my colleagues about making teenagers be responsible, and indeed I think that's a really important (primary?) goal of high school. But the thing we as teachers often fail to realize is that teenagers aren't responsible.  They're not really capable of planning ahead long-term, they often make poor decisions for reasons that, more and more, we understand as weaknesses in brain development, a mismatch between the complexity and long-term consequences of what kids can do on the one hand and their brain's inability to think through complex decisions with long-term consequences on the other.  (See here for one of many scholarly articles on the subject.)

So when we give kids a long-term project that we don't help them break down into pieces--and I think there's a huge distinction between handing it to them, all sliced into pieces, and walking through the planning process with them--or make passing or failing a single test a huge piece of their grades, or create any other single point of failure, we're really playing into the thing that we know they can't do.  And then when they don't do it, we call them irresponsible.

The thing is, if kids can't really be responsible (yet), they can't really be irresponsible, either.  It only makes sense to talk about irresponsibility in the context of something that we can reasonably expect someone to be responsible for.  Kids can be responsible for lots of things with short-term consequences, and they can be taught (helped) to see the connection between lots of short-term decisions and long-term consequences.  But those lessons are hard ones to learn, and the process often mirrors a saying attributed to Mark Twain:  "Good judgment comes from experience.  Experience mostly comes from bad judgement."  What that saying suggests is that we need to create and preserve opportunities for kids to fail safely and learn from those failures, rather than making those failures catastrophic.  And we need to be right there so that the kid can connect the dots between what he or she did or didn't do, and the negative consequences that resulted.

So often, when I hear a teacher talking about a kid's being irresponsible, I wonder two things:

  1. What did you, as the responsible adult, do to bring about this situation?  More importantly, what did you, as the responsible adult, do to avert it?
  2. What could we have reasonably expected this child to do in this situation?  Why didn't he or she do the "responsible" thing?
#2 is shorthand for my exasperated "Of COURSE he was irresponsible -- he's a child!" But it doesn't really help kids to throw around this moralistic label -- it only makes them feel cruddy about things that happened in the past, rather than accepting the consequences and doing better in the future.

One last pitfall.  We all know kids who are remarkably responsible--who manage to pull it together and keep it together despite an insane array of pressures, conflicts, and demands.  But that phenomenon is just the end of a bell curve of development and personal characteristics.  We all know--or know of--six-foot-two seventh graders, or freshmen taking Calculus.  Yet we don't hold those kids up as examples against which other kids are judged.  No matter how much we wish that kids were more "responsible" than they often are, blaming them for being irresponsible -- especially ordinary-kid-kind-of-irresponsible -- isn't any more reasonable (or responsible) than blaming them for their height, or for "only" being in Algebra.