Teenage Idealism

The March For Our Lives demonstration this past weekend is a good example of what can be achieved when teenage idealism becomes focused on a particular issue. The event, in support of tighter gun control, was sparked by the shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February of this year. Last Saturday’s event is widely reckoned to be one of the largest demonstrations in American history, added to which there was a truly global response as marches of support took place in cities around the world.

Adults can sometimes be remarkably resistant to engaging with ideas advanced by teenagers. As Tyler Huckerbee says, “When your ideological opponent is a teenager, he or she is easy to dismiss … Why wrestle with the substance of their argument when it’s so much easier to just sigh about “kids these days” and be done with it?” Idealism is generally recognised as a characteristic of adolescents, and consequently can be given short shrift by adults. Certainly, there are situations where an idealistic view, allied to naivety, can be dangerous. However, idealism is by no means always a bad thing and can sometimes enable a level of clarity that seems to elude those with a more complex “adult” perspective.

Teenagers exhibit idealism as a result of the way their brains develop during adolescence. Early in adolescence, the brain’s computational capacity increases dramatically, bringing with it the ability for abstract thought. However, since the brain develops from back to front, younger adolescents rely more on emotional responses (located in the amygdala at the back of the brain) in their decision-making and responses. The ability for logical reasoning (located in the pre-frontal cortex at the front of the brain) develops much later in adolescence. Early on, then, teenagers are enabled to see the world in a new way through their capacity for abstract thought, but are likely to experience an emotion-driven “idealistic” response to how they want the world to be. The ability to analyze their response logically and to reason comes later, sometimes not until the early twenties, when a more complex “adult” view of the world develops.

Of course, the above is a simplified summary of a very complicated process that is subject, also, to individual variation. Additionally, how the teenage brain is used affects its development, so the way adults engage with teenagers can either promote or hinder the development of a healthy brain and patterns of thought. This is as true with the way adults respond to teenage idealism as with any other aspect of a teenager’s development.

Advice for Parents

Be interested, encourage and ask questions. At times, your teenager’s idealistic views will seem over-simplistic, but that’s because their idealism is a stage in their thought development. Teenage idealism is a sign of a work in progress, so it is important that by listening, encouraging and asking questions, you give them opportunities to refine and develop their thinking. Of course, that may mean that you need to invest some time in exploring for yourself the issues about which they are becoming passionate. Resist any temptation to dismiss their idealism. Well-informed discussion and thoughtful questions can be invaluable learning aids for your idealistic teenager. No discussion is wasted, even if their focus switches to another concern, as ultimately they are shaping their outlook on life and developing their moral approach to the world. By the way you engage with, and respond to, their idealism, you are seeking to model the healthy adult thinking processes that you would ultimately like them to adopt as their own.

Encourage the move from idealism to activism. Many older teenagers will eventually take this step for themselves. By encouraging the step from merely holding views about a subject to doing something practical about it, even with younger teenagers, you are facilitating the progress. Of course, the nature of the activism will vary according to the age, available resources and character of the individual teenager, but becoming actively involved at an appropriate practical level helps underline the necessary link between ideals and actions, and this is important for the development of responsibility.

Advice for Teachers and Schools

Show interest. It is very easy during the course of a busy day for teachers to brush aside the idealistic views of the teenagers around them. Finding a few minutes to listen and to ask a question can be helpful for the individuals concerned. Beyond that, however, especially when the idealistic concerns of teenagers “fit” with the subject, teachers have the opportunity to promote discussion and debate. This enables teenagers to explore their concerns as a learning community, within which they can challenge and help refine each other’s views and opinions. The presence of the teacher affords a measure of protection to those who are less willing than others to advance their idealistic views.

Refuse to give all the answers. Another shortcut to be resisted is to give “the correct answer” and to cut short teenage debate. This might save the teacher time but it will not help teenagers develop their thinking processes, so it must be regarded as suspect from an educational perspective. Asking questions, encouraging further research and exploration, introducing different perspectives to a debate, pushing students to explore further the consequences of the stance they are taking: these are all helpful ways of building on teenage idealism to advance the educational experience.

Support teenagers to pursue their idealism. It is difficult within a school community to allow every student to advance the causes about which they feel passionately, and in some cases it may simply be inappropriate. However, wherever possible, I would encourage schools and teachers to support teenagers as they pursue their journey from idealism to activism. Occasionally, such as with “The March For Our Lives” with which we began, idealism may galvanize an entire school community or generation and lead to undreamed-of outcomes. In many cases, that will not happen, but still there can be valuable experiences on many levels of teenagers learning to build on their idealism and make a difference. As Huckerbee states at the conclusion of his article, “Teenagers are going to change the world — if not today, then most certainly in the near future. The only question is how long it will take before the rest of the world takes them seriously.”

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