These days, parents are hearing about the “teen brain” in the popular media. The message is that the “prefrontal cortex,” the area of the brain in charge of critical thinking, is still under construction – that this a big reason why the behavior of teens is often emotional, impulsive and risk-taking. For them, using critical thinking is like an infant trying to walk before it has wired its brain for the ability to do so.
My consistent message about the teen brain goes beyond this interesting explanation. There are life-long consequences to this final phase of brain development. What’s happening is the wiring of the baseline skills for critical thinking. Each time an adolescent exercises critical thinking, the circuits for this mental capacity are reinforced, while the unused brain cells in the prefrontal cortex are slowly being eliminated. A kind of “pruning” or “sculpting” of the prefrontal cortex is taking place. And because not all young people exercise much critical thinking during these growing-up years, the foundation for critical thinking they end up with will vary widely.
I think that parents need to care about this, because the adults their children become will be empowered or limited by their ability to exercise critical thinking. Some young adults will have the brainpower to pursue high-paying professional careers, and some won’t. And I think they should know that there’s much a caring parent can do to optimize the growth that can take place during this developmental phase.
But to grasp the gravity of these consequences, you need to know what “critical thinking” is. Do you? Some people think it’s the tendency to criticize, a notion that widely misses the mark.
Like “love,” a helpful definition of the concept of critical thinking can be hard to pin down. Wikipedia has collected a variety of descriptions:
- A way of deciding whether a claim is true, partially true, or false.
- A tool by which one can come about reasoned conclusions based on a reasoned process.
- The mental process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion
- Disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence
- Reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do
- Purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based
- Using reason in the formulation of our beliefs
- Disciplined, self-directed thinking which exemplifies the perfection of thinking appropriate to a particular mode of domain of thinking
Does this help? It boils down to the skill of “connecting the dots” about how things relate to each other and about cause and effect. This allows a person to foresee consequences, use judgment, make rational decisions, control impulses and plan. In other words, it’s the mental capability, along with language, that makes human beings different from all other species on Earth.
Pretty important stuff, huh? We’re talking about intellect here. But will the child you care about do the work – exercise critical thinking early and often?
Maybe not. After all, teenagers don’t even know what’s happening to them. Brain development is an invisible, silent process.
In the past, because parents were also oblivious to this dynamic, the encouragement and stimulation for kids to think was unintended and haphazard. Maybe some parents, coaches, teachers and other mentors took a special interest in certain kids and pushed them to think. And maybe sometimes the kids didn’t blow it off. In other words, some kids were luckier than others.
This is essentially why, if you think about the people you encounter in your life, some folks have superior minds, and some don’t.
And that’s why parents should care, why they ought to learn how to help their child construct the most robust foundation possible while the developmental window is still open. (See “How to Give Your Teen a Superior Mind” above.) You really can take luck out of the equation.
Because at the end of adolescence, the window closes. It’s use it or lose it, and the end result is permanent.