When it comes to ignorance, adolescents can absorb a lot of criticism and complaint on that account.
For example, in frustration, parents can say: “What do you mean, you didn’t know?” “Well, what do you know?” “Do you know anything?” “Anybody with any sense knows that!” “When are you ever going to learn?”
Of course, parents have their own issues of ignorance with the teenager—not knowing all that’s going on, not knowing for sure what to do, not knowing if they made the right decision, and not knowing the teenager that well. This is why parenting adolescents is like a dance of ignorance with the short-sighted leading the blind. Most of what parents feel like they know is anchored in youthful experience a generation or so ago, or maybe with an older and different child, while the teenager has never grown up this way before.
As for teachers at school, when a student hasn’t learned enough to know enough to pass a test of skill or knowledge, ignorance is usually punished with a failing grade. Then there is falling behind what more adventurous peers have learned from risky experience. “Don’t dare try it and you’ll never find out!” Growing takes knowing, and for most adolescents, they never feel they can know enough. All of this is why ignorance is given such a bad name. That’s too bad, because it has a lot to offer—curiosity, interest, exploration, improvisation, learning, innocence, and wondering, for starters.
Condemning ignorance can really cripple the willingness to learn. At school, learning is partly a process of psychological risk taking that can unfold in a sequence of challenges like this. To learn new content in class, a young person has to declare ignorance, make mistakes, look foolish, feel stupid, and get evaluated. This is why in adolescence learning is often an act of courage. The illustrative memory that comes to mind is when I was allowed to sit in a high school classroom many years ago where a teacher was working with about twenty sophomores (all male) who had elementary age reading skills. What I remember is something like this.
A young man stands up with a book in his nervous hands and haltingly, tries to decode the words, doing it out loud, slowly working through the page in front of him at which the other students were silently gazing, at the books in front of them. Then he stops, stuck by a word he can’t recognize, trying to sound it out before he stumbles, not sure he should say the word he thinks it might be, but at last he does—“forigin.” Now the actual word was “foreign,” and I am waiting for all the other students to laugh, but none of them do. They are entirely respectful of admitting and displaying ignorance because they all know the courage it takes to stand up and make one’s labored reading a matter of public record. This is when the teacher gently corrects and encourages him, “Good try: this is a tough one to recognize.” Then, word by hard, word he struggles on.
In this high school classroom she made it feel psychologically safe for these young men to brave having their delayed reading skills exposed. Every student in that class was daring to declare ignorance, make mistakes, look foolish, feel stupid, and get evaluated. First and foremost, the teacher had encouraged a positive attitude toward admitting ignorance—treating it as an honorable trial through which everyone must pass on the way to further knowledge and competency.
Or consider a middle school classroom where most of the students are reluctant to speak up and ask questions. Why is that? Asking questions is problematic for adolescents because all questions are statements of ignorance, and who likes to confess that at an age when you want to appear as knowing as possible. Ignorance can be embarrassing! Display it and you can appear foolish.
Of course, there can be unhappy consequences when young people do without information they really need rather than admit ignorance by asking about risks on the Internet, with sex, with substances, with laws, for example. Ignorance often identifies what a person needs to know, so it is a very valuable awareness indeed. This is why some parents who put down questions from their teenager with impatience, irritation, or criticism, or are overbearing (know it all), or act arrogant (are always right), or oppose talking about “it” (are in denial) really do the young person a disservice. They become unsafe to ask. They treat ignorance as evidence of stupidity, which is really stupid. This is when adolescent ignorance can become a risk factor.
Left to his own devices, for example, the adolescent is likely to satisfy his need to know by relying on less knowledgeable and trustworthy informants like peers who know a lot that isn’t so (maybe the most troublesome kind of ignorance there is.) So a good friend gives an older adolescent really bad advice. “Don’t worry, you can’t get her pregnant by unprotected sex the first week after her period, and besides, you don’t even need to use a condom if you pull out in time.” Too bad it felt unsafe for him to ask his parents about safe sex, and maybe too bad for his partner if her parents were equally unapproachable.
On the positive side, ignorance provokes questions that are evidence of thinking, statements of interest, and expressions of curiosity. However, they can take courage to ask when they risk causing offense. So in counseling with a young couple, the reticent young man grudgingly paid his outspoken wife a true compliment: “I don’t think you’ve ever met a question you were afraid to ask!” She smiled at that, and then explained, “I don’t do well with ignorance. I get anxious when I don't know what I need to know. That's when the urge to question becomes too hard to resist.”
Then there is a huge benefit of ignorance not uncommon in young people who don’t know any better than to give something a try that common knowledge and common sense would dismiss as undoable. In this case, ignorance becomes a not a weakness, but a strength. So the parent tries to discourage her older adolescent from applying for a tech job in a local corporation because “people need a college degree or at least advanced training to be considered for that kind of work.” But the high school senior, who didn’t have her mother’s realistic knowledge of the world, ignorantly applied, aroused some interest, and with her self-taught computing skills got summer work that not only paid well but opened up future opportunity.
In this case, the parent had good reason to know “why” such a company wouldn’t hire high school students; but ignorance of this conventional thinking prompted the young woman to simply ask herself, “Why not?” While the mother knew there was no point in applying, the daughter didn’t know there was any good reason not to.
So here’s to ignorance! It’s not a failing, however costly is can prove. It’s to be respected as the foundation of our need and desire to know, and it sometimes allows us to take good chances that knowing better would forbid.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
Next week’s entry: Appreciating Fear in Adolesence