Dita De Boni 's Opinion

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Puberty's wild ride

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File photo / Bay of Plenty Times
File photo / Bay of Plenty Times

Why does the world seem such an unsafe place for teenagers?

Where once a gaggle of teenage girls might have made one feel nostalgic, now it makes one shudder at the thought that some of them might be falling down drunk or letting some young colt paw them all over mere minutes after they've been spied behaving like kittens.

I suppose I must just be getting old. But as I was driving through town at about 7pm on Saturday night - that's really about as close to the pleasure centre of the city that I get on a regular basis - I saw them. About six teenage girls, looking particularly young in their incredibly short denim shorts, running haphazardly across the road in front of me and into a very dark domain known for providing a meeting ground for glue-sniffers and general miscreants after dark.

I felt suddenly very gloomy about the prospect that my children - now two and almost four - would one day be running about town courting disaster in much the same way.

It's not as though I will be letting them, either. But do most parents really allow these kinds of things, and does it matter if they don't?

I couldn't believe someone had let those incredibly young girls mooch around town at what looked to be the age of about 13. I know I would not have been one of them when I was 13, as my parents knew where I was every moment of the day.

But that didn't entirely stop me doing stupid things, and probably caused me to do even more stupid things when I left home at huge speed and actually got to live my teenage years five years late.

In my case, over-strict parenting reaped its own peculiar perversions, but there are many parents who seem both trusting and watchful, and still get caught out.

James Webster's parents were probably exactly that.

Many people will say that, in fact, every generation looks at the one before as being "out of control". But now what we are witnessing seems to be the upshot of a complete change in the way young people are parented, alongside an evolutionary change as kids reach puberty at an increasingly early age.

This is according to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Melvin Konner: "[The teenage years are] a developmental phase fraught with danger for both sexes, and the evolutionary legacy is evident. Hormones mobilised by maturational change enable sexual and aggressive behaviour, eventually in an adult mode. But there's the rub: How long will it, or should it, take?

The news of the past decade or so is that the human brain continues its maturational march between the ages of 10 and 20. The frontal cortex and other areas needed for mature thought are not fully developed until at least the end of that period. Meanwhile, the average age at which children reach puberty (as defined by hormonal change) has dropped at least two or three years over the past two centuries. That is not evolution but revolution, and it is likely that the endocrine change now occurs earlier in relation to brain development as well as to chronological age.

"If so, we have an even starker problem than the slowness of brain growth: hormonal surges at ever-younger brain ages and ever-lower levels of inhibition. The implications for schooling, for the increasing sexualisation of the young, and for the culpability of juvenile offenders are potentially transformative."

The gloomy scenario outlined here is already being played out by many teens, who seem to be on the fast-track to adult offending long before their voices have broken.

Of course, there are many thousands of teens who avoid these problems and unfortunately they rarely get their turn in the media spotlight. I believe they are teens who have genuine self-esteem (which has come about by having reasonable, well-enforced boundaries) and are kept busy and engaged in school, sports, hobbies, or other community groups.

To wit: if toddlers seem like hard work, teenagers seem in fact to be much harder, with parental guidance needed even more acutely as long as they are in high school (and perhaps even beyond, according to this article).

I have not reached anywhere near the teenage years yet and I have to say that, thanks to a media hopped-up on the idea of youth crime and lesser teenage shenanigans, I am not looking forward to it much. If it makes parenting pre-schoolers seem easy, it would have to be a pretty wild ride!

Dita De Boni

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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