My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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youth and those crazy hormones

When discussing the plight of teenagers with adults, i’m often chastised for viewing teens as mature humans capable of making reasonable decisions. All too often, people point to all that psychological research that indicates that teens are experiencing extensive hormonal rushes that impair their judgment. And then i go home to my 30-something friends who see a baby and start cooing as their biological clock begs for attention. And then i talk to people my mom’s age going through menopause and being about as coo-coo as they come. And then i get calls from my older male friends who are experiencing their midlife crisis and think that trading in their wife for people my age is a good idea. I don’t think that teenagers are the only population facing impaired judgment. In fact, i’m curious at what age one’s judgment is really all that functional.

What fascinates me in watching teens is to see biology and culture at complete odds. Their bodies are screaming SEX! REPRODUCTION! NOW! while adults are screaming abstinence. Evolution does not think that waiting until you have your career settled before giving birth is a good idea regardless of what culture says. Personally, i think teens are doing an astounding job at quelching bodily urges in favor of societal norms. I think we should give them a lot of credit for their strength!

I’m not saying that teens are all-so-mature but as one of my colleagues points out, the best part of being a 30-something year old guy in today’s age is that it’s assumed that you still haven’t matured beyond fart jokes. Maturation is a progression – we build on things we’ve learned in the past in order to grow. Every significant experience teaches us something as we grow older. Hopefully, we won’t throw away those lessons and regress to bullying and gossip mongering but sadly, many do. The problem is that we need to face those challenges in order to learn from them. The more that we’re coddled, the less we learn. I have to admit that when it comes to teaching in a college classroom, i far prefer the street kids to the protected ones. At least the street kids know why they’re in school and it’s not simply to get away from their parents. Their experiences have been rough but they’ve learned a lot and it shows. Even worse than protected college students in the classrooms is spoiled ones in a foreign country. ::shudder:: That’s when it becomes painfully obvious how little freedom we’ve given our youth compared to other cultures.

As best as i can tell, the last big cognitive issue is the ability to think abstractly, negotiate social categories, and recognize that there are multiple possibilities to a situation based on your actions. Ideally, you should be able to get that there are multiple interpretations to a situation but i don’t think that most adults get this so i doubt that i can hold that as a standard for maturation even though it would be nice. Once you get this around adolescence/puberty, it’s building time from that point forward. Experience, risk-taking, and consequences matter. The crazy hormones surge at all different times to get in your way but like external crises, you gotta learn to recognize and deal with hormones. Locking up folks who are going through hormone rushes is never a good idea even if i had the urge to lock mom up for a few years.

There should be a list of things that youth should learn as young as possible to be a part of society. If i were to start a list, it would probably include:

  • Learn to manage your own money including situations where you don’t have enough money for something really important;
  • Work to make your own money;
  • Learn how to come up with money for monthly bills;
  • Learn how to cook, clean, and do laundry;
  • Learn how to take care of small children;
  • Learn how to handle sickness and doctors;
  • Learn how to travel (airplane, bus, etc.) on your own;
  • Learn to travel respectfully to foreign cultures;
  • Learn how to handle being drunk;
  • Experience being bullied, embarrassed, ridiculed, taunted, beaten up;
  • Be exposed to people really different than you and learn tolerance and respect;
  • Face failure and learn disappointment + face success and learn humility;
  • Experience heartbreak;
  • Manage significant emotional or physical pain;
  • Handle the death of someone close to you.

Obviously, some of these are taboo and others really shouldn’t be planned for but still, i have to say, this is what i’d want my child to know before being on their own. I have to give my mom props for making certain i knew many of these things. My favorite was the fact that she made me work in fast food to learn why i was getting a college education. Anyone else have favorite lessons that they wish all young people learned?

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26 comments to youth and those crazy hormones

  • My family isn’t really religious, but I guess if we were, we’d be muslim. We kept getting visited by Jehovah’s witnesses coming by the door in our neighborhood, so one day, my mom just had them come in and talk to us about their faith. We had about 2 months of “lessons” before we got bored, but my mom explained that she just wanted us to get exposed to different stuff.

    The other thing that has stuck with me is my mom telling me to get an education and be able to support myself so I never get trapped in a dependent relationshp with a man.

  • andrea

    My parents started taking us on international trips when I was 10 and my brother was 7. From a pretty young age, I was perfectly comfortable in places where I didn’t understand what was happening or what people were saying. These experiences were lessons in trust. Lessons of the privileged, to be sure, but so critical…

  • It probably goes without saying but it would be nice for kids to read more, be read to and have greater understanding of how it can empower in all sorts of ways.
    I’d like it if there were more comic books produced with a younger readership in mind. I certainly got a lot from them as a kid. And text-heavy RPG computer games. Good for moral development also I think!
    Am looking forward to hearing you speak at Blogtalk.

  • Dan

    I think you’ve got it right. It isn’t only people in a certain age bracket that need to learn the lessons that you’ve identified. It’s lifelong, and it’s less a checklist than a reality test. I would add: Learn to love unselfishly and non-possessively to the list.

  • So true! I like your list. I would add things such as:
    -learn out to change a tire (for those who are likely to drive)
    -learn how to use basic tools
    -learn how to use the many resources available to find answers
    -love learning
    My favorite lessons learned included gardening, a love for nature, and an appreciation for really bad singing! They were all the things I learn from my dad when he was particularly happy while growing up.

  • Dave Burstein

    Lazarus Long:

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

  • I too, am a product of McDonalds training, but I also got my cultural training there as the McDonalds was on the ‘bad’ part (Mixed Latino, Black, White, poorer part) of town, and I came from the white side of town. When the guys I worked with finally found out I came from the other side of town, they didn’t believe it (because I was one of them by then), and I was blessed with a new (cultural) perspective.

  • I’d add – develop a good bulls**t detector and know when to comply and when not.

  • Per

    I think spending time in other cultures is essential if you are going to understand the world. Moving between linguistic, cultural and geographical tribes will create a new important dimension, perspective if you will, that many people lack today. Lack of perspective can very easily feed fear, protectionism and uncertainty.

  • This is a great list. I’d just add:
    Learn the skills of respectful self-advocacy and compromise.
    Experience diversity both in othe countries and cultures and our own.
    Experience disability in either yourself or someone you know.

  • Learn how to take criticism.

  • I agree about diversity and experiencing other cultures. I did five years in the navy and after coming back home, saw how other people who stayed around the area had a more limited view of things.

  • Great post, danah, and great list. I’d recommend that every kid go through the Red Cross babysitting training at 11 (handles child care & emergency) and every adult go through Red Cross first aid training including CPR. As for the money part, if you don’t absorb it at home, there’s Jump$start
    http://www.jumpstart.org/

    or LifeSmarts

    http://www.lifesmarts.org/start/about.htm

  • M-H

    Great list. Interesting addits too. Hope I’ve done these things for my kids. Maybe I should ask them.

  • Danah this is an awesome list, and I agree about the fast food job. I’ll never forget those piles of pizza pans in the back of the Little Caeasar’s. To this day I have no fear of doing the dishes. 🙂

    But – and I think this is really important – I would add “read the paper^H^H^H RSS feeds and develop some kind of political awareness” to the list. So much of why our country is in the shambles it’s in politically is because young people aren’t aware of what’s happening and consequently aren’t thinking critically and developing a coherent set of political beliefs.

  • I actually disagree with you about reading the paper. What you’ll find historically is that when people have no access to public life, they have no engagement with political life. If you want to solve the youth engaging with politics problem, give them access to public life. Politics make no sense until you understand more about how the world works and to do that, you need to be allowed to leave your home and talk to people other than school mates.

    Reading a paper just makes you angry and disillusioned – it doesn’t help you get involved. Hell, it makes me a mess and i’m very politically engaged. But when i read the paper every day, i stop participating – i give up. That’s a bad sign.

  • it depends; u have certain cultures that have books to guide/prepare you for certain/eventual events in one’s life. sex-the kamasutra, death- the tibetan book of the dead, and off course cosmo for everything else 😀 (kidding)

  • ‘Experience being bullied, embarrassed, ridiculed, taunted, beaten up;’ – ur serious? this is part of a todo list? i mean most eventually face such situations in life, embarrased, ridiculed (by harmless friends or evil others)..
    but to put it in a todo list?!!

  • Well, it’s not a to-do list but a list of things that i think that youth should learn. And yes, i think that experiencing the brutality of oppression while someone is trying to gain power over you is critical. It is one of the best ways to learn compassion, tolerance, and to find a deep sense of who you are. I think that the younger people experience this in a well-directed fashion with adults to guide them through, the less likely they are to inflict such violence on others through their lives. I think that the key is to learn from it and to be in a supportive situation where you can do exactly that. Parents can provide that if they are engaged. And the results can be powerful.

  • I too am consistently chastised for giving the youth “too much credit.” However, I think it just comes from actually remembering childhood and a carry-over of bitterness from being excessively chastised/patronized/berated by the adults in life (save my parents).

    Treat them like prisoners and they will act like prisoners. Treat them as “children” and they will act like “children”.

    This statement goes for adults as well as youth. I find it fascinating how many people become “adults,” have children (become care givers), and forget their youth (at least the truth about it).

  • Alexander Chhang

    These are skills and experiences that some individuals go through. It helps keep teens priorities straight and it also estabishes self restriant within their lives. Nowadays, teens are too wild and reckless because they have not set any goals within their lives; therefore they see no purpose. From every struggle endured, wisdom is your key prize. Teens need to be in a situation in the lives where they can find smart and productive to handle them. It provides a sense of disclpine where they can show it in every aspect in their lives. To me “Youe can’t embrace life’s sucesses without it’s struggles.”

  • You asked:
    “I’m curious at what age one’s judgment is really all that functional.”

    I’m glad you asked! You see, right before a person’s life is snuffed out, just before you die, you experience ONE moment of perfect lucidity, of uncluttered crystal-clear thought…

    …and then you die.
    (*CRUEL SATIRE*)

  • Basically the youths are the future leaders so i think they need to first understand what life is all about because most youths today do not understand what life is all about and have a purpose of living.More also they should apply the knowledge gained pratically by being creative,if you take a vivid look today the rate of invention is declinig so my advise to the youth all over the world is that they should have a purpose of living by being creative.thanks

  • Some of these things are things a person learns *when* they’re out on their own. I know that before I left home, at 17, I didn’t know any of this; time living on my own has taught me these lessons. So I’m not sure that all teenagers can *really* learn these– in the sense of a wholly independent, wholly self-sufficient way– while still living with their parents. I certainly didn’t, although my parents tried! 🙂

  • NJG from NYC

    As someone who was literally beaten black-and-blue, ridiculed, taunted, and generally had her life made miserable by classmates for a couple of pre-teen years, I can say unequivically that it was a horrible experience which did severe damage to my self-image, ability to make friends, and have a normal social life.

    I would never recommend it to anyone.

  • Adrianna

    This is the BEST advice!