Teenage Years: out of control


Teenagers, those complicated human beings that aren’t kids anymore, but they’re not adults yet either. At this point of development, our brain becomes more plastic again and it’s a period of innovation and change. For parents, it’s the start of a new challenge: “to figure out how to turn them into independent people who can take risks themselves” (Gopnik, 2016).

Teenagers have this uncontrollable will of getting everything at a moment’s notice, right now. It’s a period of madness and inappropriate behavior that culminates (in a mentally healthy and stable person), often enough, as soon as adolescence ends. It’s a time of excesses, where everything is more intense and, regularly, teenage boys and girls underestimate the risks and overestimate the rewards.

Just like younger children, a teenager needs to experiment and our role as parents is the same (although harder to accomplish), providing a safe environment for them to do it. “That can, at least, make adolescent experimentation less perilous.” (Gopnik, 2016)


Social rewards

Social rewards are the most important in this period of life, where the learning process happens far away from the safety of their parents. Getting the “respect of their peers” (Gopnik, 2016) is the major goal for most of them during this stage.

Lately, we have been facing an interesting phenomenon, with unknown causes that might have a determinant impact in our society and humankind, as a species: adolescence seems to be arriving even earlier, however, our teenagers become adults later than ever before. And in this intermediate period, they learn a lot, way more than teenagers have in the past, but they don’t actually deal with the tasks they will have to face as adults.

Everything is postponed for later and true maturity (already as young adults) happens more towards the latter part of their 20’s, which was unthinkable a couple of decades ago. Our teenagers are more intelligent but without direction, enthusiastic and exuberant, yet unable to commit, to any if not all things.


Social Multiplier Theory

The rise of education and schooling might have an answer for this phenomenon, but it can’t explain everything. Dr. Flynn (cit. by Gopnik, 2016) talked about the “social multiplier theory” as something to take into account when thinking about that.

According to his theory, small changes might have big effects without us noticing. Nowadays, more of us can study for longer and we need to study more, learn more, in order to be able to get a good job, that provides us with what we need. It’s a cycle created by some changes in our society, that definitely, had an impact on our growing speed.

“Slightly better education, health, income or nutrition might make a child do better at school and appreciate learning more. The greater appreciation would motivate her to read more books and try to go to college, which would make her even smarter and more eager for education, and so on.” (Flynn, cit. by Gopnik, 2016)

Technology: a new challenge or a different version of what adolescence always have been?

Many parents are afraid of the electronic devices, ranging from computers to smartphones in their kids’ hands, to gaming consoles, looking at these as a danger to their kids. The increasing presence of social media and the way traditional media portrays them is a nightmare for most parents. But is it really that different from their own generation?

Teenagers use technology, especially social media, to do what they always have done: socialize. The village square was replaced by virtual sites on the web and the great difference of it all is the impact it has.

First and foremost, it will reach more people, faster, and most importantly: it’s forever. It’s out there, unable to be ‘erased’. What you say or do in your town square, no matter how embarrassing, tends to disappear with time, but what you post in your Facebook or Twitter feeds will linger on. And that’s what they need to deal with, that we didn’t… The permanence of it all. That’s what they need to learn and it’s our job to advise them.

The bullies and the victims are the same in any space, physical or virtual, the abuses are still more common amongst family relatives and friends than they are coming from strangers.

“Might this be a lot for them?” is what many parents are thinking right now. Our teenagers are adapting to a new world, different from what we knew back when we were the adolescents and that’s good. Our concern is important, but our most important task is to help them mature, we don’t want them to be like us, we want them to know how to live, thrive even, in this current new world they face. They need to be free to make mistakes and we need to be there to help them deal with the consequences.


It’s time for school, it’s time to grow up

If a young child becomes incredibly demanding, then what’s next? When does it become easier? As our children grow, the constant mess and chaos around us start to dissipate, but new challenges soon ensue. “Kids move from solitary pretending to play in games with rules in groups” (Gopnik, 2016). This starts a new parenting concern since the protection and controlled environment that previously gave them safety is no longer enough, being, in fact, dangerous or hazardous to their development.

It’s also at this point that time for school becomes an absolute requirement, along with its evaluations, focused on test-scores and where the different line of thinking has no place. Without realizing, we are asking them to become the very opposite of what they previously were and expose them to the reality that the world can be ruthless. “Children who don’t fit the demands of school are treated as if they were ill, defective or disable.” (Gopnik, 2016)


Grow up… right now!

The job for school-age children is to start actually becoming competent adults themselves” (Gopnik, 2016)

Young children have a very specific job: understanding how the world and the adults work, which is, by itself, a very complex task. However, as soon as they go to first grade, their whole world changes. They need to be more focused, for longer periods of time and the knowledge is no longer transmitted mainly by a model but mostly by their teacher’s words. They should all be the same, act the same way and have decently good scores.

This approach will change not only their life but their brains. They will become more rigid, leading to a bigger difficulty in dealing with changes. They need to focus their attention on one single thing and forget everything else around them.

Despite the fact that, for now, it’s the only approach we have found viable for mass education, we’re truly asking our children to stop being children.


Attention Deficit Disorder – ADHD

It’s increasingly common to find a couple of children diagnosed with ADHD in each class. It looks like the XXI Century plague, and the controversy around it is bigger than ever. Is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder an actual disease or a social problem?

The more restrictive with tests and grades a school is, the more diagnoses it tends to get. Children are full of drugs in order to control their apparently inadequate behavior. Drugs that don’t cure, mind you, just manage, and often have way too many negative side effects. Our society ignores childhood itself, treating it merely as a path for someone towards becoming an adult.

Instead of drugging our children’s brains to get them to fit our schools, we could change our schools to accommodate a wider range of children’s brains.” (Gopnik, 2016)

The way tests are scored and how that’s approached at schools today, has just one goal: transform everyone to fit into a certain mold, behave a certain way and get them to know about certain things with little to no space for any actual difference. However, the much larger learning experience a child can go through is outside the classroom walls and it’s terribly underestimated. Those teachings and lessons are the ones that would prepare our children for what they’d really need to know in order to develop and evolve: negotiation skills, divisions of labor, compromises, mutual aid…

For parents and caregivers, this phase is a tremendous challenge, since children’s lives are no longer centered on them, but on their friends and pairs, with all the consequences that might come from there.

Go to your room… and play!

Most parents and educators don’t know the real importance of playtime when it comes to a child’s development and the different results that can come from each style and way of playing. Gopnik (2016) says “Play helps children to interact, learn how things work and think about possibilities and understand other people’s mind.”


What’s play?

The act of play is founded in many different animal species and the biologists have been trying to define it for years. Not being able to really find an objective definition, they found a group of characteristics that, being present, classify the behavior as playing.

According to those, play is not work, it’s fun and voluntary. Play has a special structure, a pattern of repetition and variation (how many of us have read the same story about a hundred times, to our child who still keeps asking for it?). And another important characteristic is that playing “depends on safety and security” (Gopnik, 2016). Children that don’t have their basic needs fulfilled or are not safe, don’t play and that can be observed either in human children or animal cubs.

The impact of playing

Playing is a common behavior amongst the young animals of every kind, but how did this interfere with their evolution? The answer is easy: the more they play, the more plastic their brains become.

“For neuroscience, a plastic brain is a brain that changes more easily” (Gopnik, 2016) which will allow us to make more and more efficient connections after an experience and learn with them and the more you play, more easily you adapt to new situations and circumstances.

In the 60’s, a group of scientists conducted some experiments on rats. One group of rats had a sterile environment and the other one had a rich environment, filled with all sorts of toys. The conclusions were very obvious: the second group’s “brains grew bigger (…), with more connections and larger frontal areas.”

Animals with a longer childhood tend to play more, which matters a great deal in leading them to become more resourceful, intelligent and adapt better to different circumstances. If that playing happens in a safe, protected environment with a bigger investment from their parents, it’s even better.

Play is a possibility of experimentation, and with it, children learn some of the tools they’ll need as adults, helping with their learning and developing their skills. And best of all… it’s fun!

Play pretend

Pretending is a very human way of playing and also a very old one. “Archaeologists have recovered four-thousand-year-old dolls and miniature kitchen utensils in Bronze Age children’s quarters.” (Gopnik, 2016)

This “is central to our powerful human learning abilities” (Gopnik, 2016) because playing, especially playing pretend, is closely related to hypothetical or counterfactual thinking, which means, the ability of imagining an alternative way for what things should be (from as simply imagining different uses for a simple tool, up to envisioning a different political organization in your own country).

Just like science, playing teaches our children to call into question what they see, imagining hypotheses, testing, and finding their own conclusions. This will have a great impact on their adult lives and has been incredibly fundamental to our evolution as a species.

Playing pretend gives children the ability to think about possibilities, and helps them understand what other people think, want or believe. “Children who pretend more have a distinct advantage in understanding other people” (Gopnik, 2016)


GOPNIK, Alison (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Once upon a time: be a teacher, tell a story

Language is our primary way of communication, and it is “the only way to acquire fictional, mythological, or religious knowledge” (Gopnik, 2016). Children learn what we tell them, that’s why talking and reading to them is so good.

Once upon a time

Telling stories has been, since the beginning of times a way of transmitting important information about culture, religion, safety and a lot of other different themes.

In ancestral cultures, the elders are the ones with the important role of telling stories. They are the “master storytellers”, developing imagination, culture, and spirituality in children as well as, giving them cultural wisdom and historical knowledge.

Nowadays, our society developed the fear that children might not be able to distinguish fantasy from reality, but many studies have shown that they are perfectly able to do so, from a very young age. In fact, they might sometimes seem confused “because they have such strong emotional reactions to stories, including the stories they make up themselves”. (Jacqueline Woolley: Estes, Wellman, and Woolley 1989; Woolley 1997, cit. by Gopnik, 2016).

Actually, children not only can distinguish fantasy from reality but are also able to tell apart different worlds of fantasy. They know that Batman can speak with Robin, but never with SpongeBob.

Why? Why? Why?

If you deal with a small child in your daily life, this title means something to you. They are always asking us why things are the way they are, and they will not be happy with simple answers.

Sometimes, you might ask yourself if they really want to know or if it’s just a way to extend the conversation and have more attention from the adult. Let me tell you: they really want to know. When a child asks you why, he or she wants you to give an answer and will, in turn, learn from it.

One of the first things a toddler learns to ask is “what’s that?”, because they want to gather information and understand the world around them. After it, comes the “why” and those explanations “lead them to deeper levels of understanding” (Gopnik, 2016).

Asking questions is something that children need to be allowed to do. They are very attentive to details and they want all the information they gather to make sense in their heads. Telling them stories and answering their questions is the best way to help them develop knowledge about the world, society and themselves.


GOPNIK, Alison (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Social Learning: an unconscious and effective way of learning

Imitation. Something our children do from a very very young age, however, it might be more complicated than it seems at first glance. This is a very special way of learning that is more than simply copying or mimicking what someone else is doing and the proof is given by many studies that reach the following conclusion: when faced by two people doing two different things to try and achieve the same goal, even a very young child will imitate the one which attained better results.

This also shows us that imitation is an intentional action with a specific goal, becoming a potent form of casual learning. It’s a secure way of getting to know objects and people, what they do and how to manipulate them, that involves observation, logic reasoning, and decision-making. We can learn a bit of everything by watching our models and according to Gopnik (2016) “developmental studies have shown […] how intelligent, complex, and subtle imitation can be, even in babies.”

Imitation gives us the possibility of learning without necessarily going for trial and error. We can simply observe other people’s actions, their consequences and formulate our own conclusions, in other words, learning.

Children will imitate the adult, believing that we know better, but they’re also able to tell when you don’t actually know what you’re doing. If you show some reluctance or officially admit you don’t know how to do something, you’re also teaching them something very important: the fact that no one knows everything. And that’s fundamental for them to build self-esteem, realizing that everyone has difficulties with some tasks.

This also allows them to develop their creativity. Children are experts in thinking outside the box if we allow them to. The moment you admit you don’t know how to use an object, for example, is the moment they start to try something new, without our prejudices and predefined ideas standing in the way, they are effectively contributing to evolution.

Emotionally and culturally, imitation allows the child to feel the sense of belonging. Every society has its own rituals, mostly without a practical meaning, keeping the group united. The imitation of those rituals will provide integration in the group to the new members.

Imitation is actually a very important tool for practical, social and cultural learning.


GOPNIK, Alison (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Grandmothers: the fairies of love

For most of us, the grandmother was a figure quite present throughout our childhood. They gave us their love and their patience, even when our parents were already tired of all the mess. For us, as a species, they have an important part in our personal development and nature gave us a help with that.

We live 30 years or more past our fertility period, which is very different from the rest of the species on our planet (as far as we know this reality is present just for humans and killer whales) and this has had a great impact in the way in which we raise our little ones.

According to Kristen Hawkes (cit. by Gopnik, 2016) grandmothers are of vital importance in our life, contributing “substantially to the welfare of early human children”. They have a role in feeding, caring (their help allows parents to have a bigger number of children, despite the enormous length of human childhood), they often have even more time and patience for the child and their experience can also be useful for the parents to learn how to care for their young children more effectively. The grandmothers also take benefits from this relationship, keeping themselves active and often healthier, as well as raising their self-esteem.

We are a cultural species, where the groups join together different generations and the youngest learn from the elders, giving our grandparents an important role as a link to our historical past. We learn from our ancestors’ experiences and that’s fundamental for our survival, as a species.

The idea of the grandmother that spoils the children is, in fact, recent. Throughout history they’ve had a major role in a children education, giving them great responsibilities in the child’s successful upbringing. They are teachers and caregivers and their role allows us a “longer immaturity, larger brain size, and advanced learning.” (Gopnik, 2016)


GOPNIK, Alison (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

(Image: “Grandmother’s love” – Painted by Cynthia Snider)

Love is complicated: children and the biggest long-term commitment

As a species, we have a unique ability for loving. We love and care for our partners, our children and grandchildren, and sometimes even people that aren’t related to us. We live longer than most species, eventually enduring menopause which gives us quite uncommon situations, where nature is concerned, and a special relationship with our grandchildren.

Sexually, we’re mostly, a monogamous species, which is a rare situation amongst the majority of the animals, and even other monogamous ones seem to have sex with different partners, as some recent DNA studies had shown. However, for our species, this goes further than sex and providing for children, as we have the complicated social, institutional and legal parts of our system and society, accounting for this.

The “ideal” situation changes regularly, depending on the time and culture of each population. It can go from a lifetime of being faithful, to a complete and total freedom. Objectively, none of them is perfect, one partner might become boring and multiple partners might lead to jealousy and problems eventually.


Monogamy and parenthood

Regardless of the sexual arrangement, the link between sex and love is deeply “ingrained and widespread in human culture” (Gopnik, 2016), but pair-bonding is extremely correlated with “paternal investment”. Our babies are very fragile and “needy” and not that long ago child mortality was a big issue amongst our species.

Humankind didn’t need much time to realize that due the specific characteristics of our babies it was better to have fewer children and more resources for each one. Cooperation between men and women (even with different roles) would give our infants better chances of survival. This might explain our monogamous tendency.

An overwhelming love

Romantic love is known for being almost hallucinogenic, being said to alter your consciousness, making you perceive the person you love as far more perfect than they actually are. Same happens with babies. You can’t hear your newborn crying and stand indifferent to them unless you’re terribly ill.

Many of our babies’ characteristics help us love them irrationally. They are small and cute and somehow, we want to protect them. But our nature went further than that and made sure oxytocin had something to do with it.

During labor, women are flooded with oxytocin, a very important neurotransmitter that leads us to a caring behavior towards the newborn, and this act of caring will refill our oxytocin levels. It’s a cycle. Of course we’re never really this simple and our brain, our genes, and experiences will interfere with this cycle, but generally speaking, this is how it works.

“Children are the purest example of specific long-term commitments and attachments.” (Gopnik, 2016) And to deal with that, nature made us love them more than ourselves.


GOPNIK, Alison (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.