Brigitte Bowers: Young brains often lead kids astray

11/15/2013 5:09 PM

11/15/2013 7:07 PM

I was loading the dishwasher when I heard the pounding. It was coming from my son Everett’s bedroom, and it sounded like someone was throwing something, aiming it either at the wall or bookcase or, possibly, the ceiling.

This kind of reckless throwing is not an unusual occurrence in my home. When it happens, I typically yell, “Knock it off or I’m coming in there,” from whatever part of the house I happen to be in and then, like magic, the noise subsides.

But that evening my warning had no effect.

I suspected Everett and his friend Joe were succumbing to some whim of their prefrontal cortexes. They are 13 years old and the decision-making part of their brains are having the time of their lives, leading them into all kinds of mischief and then sitting back and relaxing while they serve time in detention or are banished to their rooms at home.

That’s because their merry and cavalier prefrontal cortexes care not one whit about consequences. At each and every crossroad in their young lives, their prefrontal cortexes help them to make important choices, such as whether or not to shoot a rubber band at Mrs. Meyer during silent reading, based on one criterion only: How much fun will it be if I do it and don’t get caught?

“What are those kids up to in there?” I asked my husband, who has a remarkable ability to ignore any noise that might necessitate intervention.

“Sounds like they’re bouncing a ball,” he said, and then he turned up the volume on the TV.

I was about to investigate when the noise stopped, as though ESP had alerted my son and his friend to my intent.

It was on the afternoon of the following Monday when I discovered what they and their underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes had been up to.

I rarely venture into my son’s closet because I am wary of what I might find there, but on that particular afternoon I looked anyway and found a wall full of one-inch holes and gashes. I tried to determine what might have caused them.

There was a wrench on the closet floor, but it did not match the holes in the wall. I found no other tools that could have caused the damage, and so I went about my business, grading papers and doing laundry, but always in the back of my mind was the mystery of the closet wall.

Finally, around 4:30p.m., I drove to my son’s school to pick him up from basketball practice. I parked the car and was walking to the gym when I passed Joe.

“Hey,” I said, “what did you guys do to the closet the other night?”

“Oh, we were throwing a pair of scissors at it,” he answered, remembering the evening with a sheepish smile.

I tried to remember if I’d seen a pair of scissors in Everett’s room but could not recall any. “Why?” I asked.

He thought a while, considering all the possible reasons one might decide to improvise a dart board game using a wall and a pair of scissors. “I don’t know,” he said after some time, clearly puzzled by his actions. But I could tell he thought it was an interesting question.

Later, in the car, I asked my son what had possessed him to turn his closet wall into a giant sieve.

“We were bored,” he answered.

“Why didn’t you go outside to play basketball or something?”

“It was cold.”

There was no point in arguing, and so I let the conversation die under the weight my son’s impossible logic.

In about seven more years, Everett and Joe’s prefrontal cortexes will become mature and stodgy. “No!” their newly boring prefrontal cortexes will shout just when it seems things are about to get fun. “Jumping from the roof into the pool is not a good idea!”

Until then, I will just have to do my best to quash prefrontal gaiety whenever I hear it frolicking about in some room of the house. And Everett will have to develop other parts of his brain, like the temporal lobe, responsible for learning how to apply spackle and paint.

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