Mind & Meaning: Adult choices best left to adults
Published 24/01/2011 | 05:00
A COMMON misapprehension among adults is that the children of the present day are more mature than they were at the same age.
Because of television, the internet, a ready flexibility with modern technologies and the use of phrases and words with psychological underpinnings it has become an accepted wisdom that children are somehow more adult that their parents.
Apart from these features, it is difficult to decipher the origin of the near-pervasive belief in young peoples' maturity.
This is of more than theoretical interest since, increasingly, young people are being asked to make life-changing decisions that a previous generation would have considered inappropriate for those of such tender years.
Also, if the proposed children's referendum is passed, and the place of children's voices becomes incorporated into the wording, they will inevitably have an input into custody and access proceedings between their estranged parents, provided they have the capacity to do so.
Some older children in their early teen years may have the ability, foresight and balance to form mature judgements about a range of matters, although it is not a given. This capacity varies from person to person. What are the elements of capacity that might be evaluated before a child is asked to contribute to such a life-changing process?
The child must be able to understand the information that is given to them concerning the proposals. They must also be able to retain and recall this.
They must be able to weigh up the proposal and the implications of a particular course of action -- this is the element that is likely to cause the greatest problem. Finally they must be able to communicate this to the relevant personnel.
Neuroscience has contributed massively to our knowledge of how the brain matures and how this impacts on planning, judgment and decision making. Several neuroscientists on the world stage, such as Nitin Gogtay and Jay Giedd, have expanded our knowledge in this regard.
They have demonstrated that the brain has the greatest number of cells while in the womb and that it sheds many just before birth. A second wave of cellular growth followed by pruning begins during childhood and continues for many years.
This shaping of the adult brain occurs at a different pace in various regions and is completed last in the prefrontal cortex, the area that governs judgments, prioritises activities and solves problems.
It seems that the brain does not reach a state of full development until the individual is between 20 and 25 years of age. So the ability to appreciate the consequences of actions, to plan and where necessary to forestall, are skills that cannot be expected to be fully developed while the brain is still building itself.
Until this shaping of the brain is completed young people tend to respond to events using the emotion-driven parts rather than the prefrontal cortex.
It also seems that development is completed earlier in the female than in the male brain, explaining the impulsivity and recklessness of young men compared to their female peers.
This does not definitively exclude young people from making decisions nor does it absolve them of culpability. But it should act as a warning to adults that until the early 20s individuals may not necessarily be fully equipped to make complex decisions.
However, there are other, possibly lesser, influences also impacting on problem-solving and decision-making besides brain development.
The quality of parenting is one such ingredient and those who have been carefully nurtured and loved, with structure and with a sense of right and wrong, are likely to be better able to evaluate their choices and to make carefully thought-out decisions when compared to those who have not experienced healthy parenting.
Genes are also in the mix in determining who is reflective and cautious, who is impulsive and reckless.
So nature and nurture come together to make the total person with their unique traits and style of behaviour. It is possible that these issues and in particular those relating to child and adolescent emotional maturity will be played out in the family, civil and criminal courts in the years that lie ahead.
The tangible influences of the brain, now visible thanks to imaging techniques, will be writ large in these situations. Some may even reach the Supreme Court -- as has occurred in the United States -- with a potential role in shaping some laws.
Then we will all come to appreciate more about the intricacies of the adolescent brain than we ever could have imagined.
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