Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Thoughts From My Adult Brain

Last month, Gene Marks published a piece on Forbes.com, "If I Was a Poor Black Kid." The improper grammar of his title aside (“were,” not “was”), this article was truly an insult to journalism.

I would definitely encourage you to check out the links at the bottom of this post for some intelligent and humorous responses by those who would agree with my general repulsion.

I will not go into too many details on my myriad complaints, but suffice it to say that my husband endured hours (literally) of my ranting about Marks’ drastic oversimplification of such a complex topic, from ignoring hundreds of years of history, to making poverty into an issue of money alone, to employing a paternalistic tone. But on top of all that, his article left readers asking,

Has Gene Marks ever met a kid? (A real, live kid?)

Ok, so apparently he has, since he talks about his own children in the article itself. But that teeny weeny fact aside, I am still convinced he has not spent time discussing anything of importance with children, given that he appears to think they are making detailed life plans at the age of three (ok, maybe ten).

What does this have to do with the health of the mind and body?

Well, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to introduce a few tidbits of information about childhood cognitive development. This is a topic of particular interest to me, and I will certainly bring this up again in future posts, with more detail.

For many people who have, in fact, interacted with children, it seems like common sense to say that the brain of a child just doesn’t process information and react to situations like that of an adult. And the reality is that the science supports your hunch.

When your two-year-old is hungry and throwing a fit in the mall, you don’t expect him to weigh the ethical implications of his tantrum and the impact it has on others. Why? You can intuit that his brain is not capable.

And it’s not just two-year-olds. You may wonder why your teenager doesn’t recognize the wisdom in your advice when you just want what is best for her. Guess what? The teenage brain is still developing, too, and it actually weighs the risks, rewards, and consequences of actions differently than an adult brain. (To learn about one reason, read “Why Teens are Wired for Risk.")

This is not to say that kids do not have the ability to impress us with their intellect and maturity. Many children have superb reasoning capabilities, a wide range of talents, and generally sound decision-making skills. But even so, it is still true that the various parts of the brain that control our social interactions and even our moral decisions, normally develop at certain ages, and these developments play a significant role in childhood behavior.

I must preface the remainder of this post by saying that I did not major in psychology, child development, or neuroscience. I am not a child care professional, nor am I a teacher. But one introductory psychology course and thirty hours of training to be a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for abused youth have provided me with enough knowledge to believe that Gene Marks has the wrong ideas about how a child really thinks. (It does not take much knowledge to lead a person to that conclusion.)

So here is my attempt at a very brief summary of “how children normally develop” at different ages, starting with pre-school. (The earlier years are also crucial to childhood development, so I will try to cover those another day, but I didn’t want this post to get any longer than it already is.) The age ranges I am using here are very broadly grouped, as this is meant to be a laconic summary, not a comprehensive one. Special thanks to the CASA program for much of the information:

  • Preschooler: Learns to distinguish between fantasy and reality; solves simple problems; becomes comfortable with feelings, thoughts, and actions; requires the experience of expressing emotions and having others respond in order to develop normally.
  • School age child: Continues to develop distinction between reality and fantasy; develops greater distinctions between feelings, thoughts and actions; grows problem solving skills; gains a sense of accomplishment around learning and applying skills, handling peer relationships, and self control; begins to develop and test values and beliefs.
  • Early teen: Begins coming to terms with dramatic physical changes (starting puberty); increases concern about appearance; continues to develop values and beliefs; challenges adult logic and begins to strive for independence; knows right and wrong, and tries to weigh decisions alone.
  • Later teen: Develops greater sense of self by integrating values, relationships, ideas about the future, and the world around them; continues to grow beliefs and values; moves towards independence.

These general guidelines help to determine if a child is “normal” in their development or lagging behind the curve. It is also important to realize that children who do not receive proper attention and care, or who undergo any sort of trauma at a given phase of development, will likely be developmentally delayed in the skills or behaviors that were meant to be achieved in that stage of growth. Trauma and neglect actually leave gaps in cognitive development.

This very brief list of “normal” developmental activity can also help us evaluate the soundness of Gene Marks’ ideas.

In his article, Gene Marks suggests that if he were a "poor black kid," he would spend his middle school years (think: twelve-years-old/early teen) attaining stellar grades through the use of technology, while saving his spare time to independently research private high schools, personally contact the admissions officers at said schools, fill out the applications, and apply for financial aid to fund his private high school education. This is all because for years, he would have had his mind on going to college and getting the best job possible after high school. He would desire to overcome the circumstances of his poor parents. So of course, as a twelve-year-old, he would be doing everything in his power to go to the best high school around.

Unfortunately for Mr. Marks, that sort of forward thinking and integration of ideas about the future mainly starts in the later teenage years, not in the typical twelve year old brain. Twelve-year-olds are only in the early stages of intellectually challenging adult logic and creating their own values. This means it is unlikely that a young boy is well along the road to "taking life into his own hands," diverging from his parents and peers to forge a brighter future (at least not intentionally.)

For further consideration, I will put the knowledge of developmental stages and the identity of the particular child in question aside, and I will simply recall what I was like at that age and beyond.

I am almost embarrassed to admit that as an “A” student applying to colleges at the end of high school, my dad did most of the work to gather a list of potential universities, including detailed information about each and every one, from average SAT scores to average snowfall. My mom filled out all of the financial aid applications. (She did not want me accessing all of their personal financial information, because my parents’ salaries and assets were none of my business – not that I could have read their tax returns anyway). I had to create a resume, fill out the college applications, and write the essays, yes, but even as a very ambitious and relatively mature “late teen,” I was not exactly marching into the future solo.

Jumping back four to five years to middle school, I was getting good grades and participating in the community, true. But I was not plotting my high school rise to academic stardom and researching prestigious institutions. I was figuring out what was important to me, learning to maintain peer relationships (i.e. ogling at boys), and generally having fun.

I encourage you to recall your own early teen years, and perhaps you, too, will wonder what was Gene Marks thinking? Maybe he was not aware that young children – even teenagers – of any race or socioeconomic status, are physiologically different from a grown man and simply do not have the physical, social, emotional, or moral brain development of a forty-year-old white guy.

I will always encourage kids to dream big, try hard, and push boundaries. But I will not expect my future children or the kids I mentor to take charge of their lives in a manner which is completely disconnected from their cognitive development.

My piece of advice to Mr. Marks: For everyone's sake, please use your adult brain before sharing future pearls of wisdom.


For interesting, intelligent, and funny responses to Gene Marks' article, see the following:

  1. http://www.good.is/post/an-ode-to-a-poor-black-kid-i-never-knew-how-forbes-gets-it-wrong/
  2. http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/14/letter-from-a-poor-black-kid-baratunde-thurston-responds-to-forbes-gene-marks/?hpt=hp_c2
  3. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/a-muscular-empathy/249984/
  4. http://www.dominionofnewyork.com/2011/12/13/if-i-were-the-middle-class-white-guy-gene-marks/#.TxZtFW-0y_j
  5. http://ideas.time.com/2011/12/15/if-i-was-a-middle-class-white-guy-writing-about-being-a-poor-black-kid/

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