While I was watching one of my students try to pull a staple out of his tongue, it occurred to me, perhaps for the hundredth time that week, that teenagers are idiots. They truly are, and no one is exempt. I say this as a teacher, a parent (granted my oldest is only eight, but I know what may be coming), and as a former teenager: they are all idiots. And if you’re reading this and shaking your head, thinking, “Not my child! He/she is not an idiot at all! I bet he would never do something as dumb as staple a body part!” I’m afraid you haven’t been watching them closely enough. But first let me explain what I mean by idiot.
Idiot, according to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, is “a very foolish or stupid person.” That, or “a person effected with extreme mental retardation, usually offensive.” Most of us, when we refer to someone as an idiot, use the former definition. Often something along the lines of: “You’re an idiot!” or, “Don’t be an idiot, just put the nail gun down.” And in the case of your child, that is usually what is meant, I’m sure; though a case can be made for the latter definition as well. If you were not already aware, your teenager’s brain is changing and certain aspects of its development are not quite done yet. It’s like a breakfast sandwich you heated in the microwave that still has cold spots in it. The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), according to Dr. Robert Hedaya and several other sites, is the part of your brain that is responsible for danger assessment and thinking ahead, and it is one of those under-cooked, nasty parts of the metaphorical grey matter sandwich that is your teen’s brain. It hasn’t developed fully yet and it leaves the overcooked, searing, molten cheese of the emotional brain, which includes the Limbic system and the Amygdala, in charge for much of our teen’s decision-making. An adult, whose PFC has fully cooked, will look at one of those sandwiches, sit back and say, “I’m going to wait for it to heat evenly and enjoy a nicely warmed breakfast, perhaps with a latte’.” A teen, however, has already torn open the wrapper and is now trying to cool off the bubbling cheese blistering the roof of his mouth with Mountain Dew while simultaneously gagging on the cold meat stuck halfway down his gullet. (notice I said “his”, while females are not exempt from the rampant idiocy of adolescence, males seem to take the lion’s share) It is this image, that teenage boy chugging nuclear green beverage grotesquely trying to cool the processed cheese bubbling on his pallet while attempting to spit out cold sausage, I want you to keep in your brain when I say that kids are idiots, and that perhaps both definitions may sometimes apply.
However, as I get a chance to see this remarkably idiotic creature up close on a daily basis, I’m beginning to see why that’s okay and why you, as a parent, might want to back off a little. Now, I’m not saying let them do what they want; they need boundaries, but they also need the ability to make their mistakes and learn from them. And you have to let them. Being a parent is a weird dichotomy of telling your kids not to do something you know damn well you did yourself, but you survived and probably are wiser for it. But you also know how close it was. You know how often you came within inches of losing your life, or worse, were nearly arrested and would have to face your parents. You know how easily it could have gone the other way. That is where the problem lies. We don’t want to see our kids hurt or suffer, so we try to shield them from these problems and protect them, but we’re really just hindering them. And idiocy, like life, will find a way. When it comes to being idiots, teens are truly brilliant at it.
Let me give you some examples. Do you remember the boy I mentioned earlier, the one who stapled his tongue? He did it for a dollar. A DOLLAR. And the kicker was he stapled it so hard, he couldn’t get it out. I had to send him down to the nurse so they could pull the tines apart to remove it. While they were doing that, I was soaking that poor stapler in alcohol gel to get all the dumb off of it. Three months later, he stapled his forearm five times because he heard someone else in the school stapled themselves nine times. Five in one arm and four in the other. I’m sure my genius would have done ten had I not pulled the stapler from his hands. But here’s the kicker: he’s smart. He barely passed my standard class, however he’s truly smart. Yet, he’s an idiot. Such an idiot. Now this same knucklehead is in an honors class with one of the hardest teachers we have and he’s doing alright. Mostly. Conspicuously, all the staplers in that room have been moved out of sight.
Another example: I knew a young man who was attending Pitt and met a homeless blues musician in Pittsburgh one night. This young man and a friend of his, both fairly intelligent, decided to buy a case of Shlitz and treat the homeless man to some. The hobo suggested they take the case to the city park where they could enjoy their beverage away from nosy police who don’t like homeless people drinking on their streets. The two agreed this was a good plan, retreated to the park with this person they had just met, who had no identification and smelled of marijuana and sweat, and proceeded to get blitzed. Anything could have happened to these two, but aside from getting chased by some gang members for their beer, they remained unharmed, unless you count the horrible Shlitz headache they had for the next few days.
Idiocy will find a way and our teens have a predisposition for it like no other creature on Earth, and it may be in our best interest to let them get it out their system. Some of the most grievous offenses I have seen when it comes to teenage imbecility comes from teens who are either not disciplined or were over protected. We can arm them with knowledge, we can guide them with morals and teachings from our own past experiences, and we must punish them when their idiocy breaks rules or becomes dangerous, but we also have to be okay with the fact that they are going to do dumb things. Without committing my own atrocities as a young man, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. And though it kills me to think of my own children in harm’s way and that I will not always be there to protect them, I also know that if I don’t let them face the challenge of the gremlins of youth, the monsters of adulthood will swallow them alive. Of course knowing all this still will not stop me from wanting to cave in the face of the first idiot my daughter brings home and then commit her to a nunnery. But I will restrain myself, and in my head, I will hear that smelly, homeless blues player singing the most beautiful version of “Let it be,” I can ever remember* and the faint, horrible, taste of Shlitz will silence my tongue.
*I would like to point out that his rendition of Let it Be occurred long before we started drinking what some call beer, thus was free from any maladjustment of my memory caused by that evil brew.