What Parents Should Know: Adolescents Are Like Lawyers

Are adolescents really know-it-all lawyers?

Posted Sep 09, 2010

For years, when I taught my class in adolescent development, I began by telling students flat out that the 'storm and stress' theory of adolecence was just plain WRONG.  Most teenagers weren't depressed or angst ridden.  No, they weren't the victims of raging hormones.  And definitely they didn't suddenly start to hate their parents on their 13th birthday.

Then my eldest hit puberty.

I still hold to all those statements.  But it is also absolutely true that parenting a middle schooler is different from parenting a younger (or older) child.  In the first part of this series - Adolescents are Like Toddlers - I talked about how the rapid changes in physical growth associated with puberty mean that kids need lots of good food and uninterrupted sleep.  Let them eat junk and stay up late and they act like cranky toddlers.  Much of what we think about as 'typical' teen moodiness is caused by kids being tired and hungry.

In this piece, I want to talk about changes in adolescent cognition.  In many ways, middle schoolers think like stereotypical lawyers.  They like to argue.  They fit facts to their theories instead of theories to facts.  They anticipate your arguments and twist them in ways you never thought they could.  And they build arguments that just defy common sense.

Research shows that middle schoolers don't argue MORE than younger kids.  They just argue BETTER. And because they argue better, it FEELS like they argue more.

Advances in brain science. During the past two decades, excellent research in developmental neuroscience has shown that kids' brains continue to change and grow during the second and third decade of life.  One important area of change is the growth of areas of the brain associated with executive functioning.  These cogntive functions allow people to integrate multiple demands and competing stimuli, including reconciling the sometimes contradictory rational and emotional impulses we have.  As executive functioning improves, emotional decision-making becomes less dominant.  This continuing development is one reason that the US Supreme Court decided that teens are not fully culpable for terrible crimes and should not, therefore, be eligible for the death sentence. 

Unfortunately, like much good work in psychology and neuroscience, these findings are sometimes distorted by the media to fit a more dramatic storyline and our own existing prejudices.  In this case, the prejudice that teenagers are just plain crazy.  I have a collection of ads sitting on the bulletin board in front of my desk.  My favorite says:

Why do most 16-year-olds drive like they're missing part of their brain?  Because they are.


Many of these ads, blogs, and media reports state baldly that teenagers think neither rationally nor well.

As a parent, I want to state unequivalently that this isn't the problem with middle schoolers1.

They are so darn annoying because they think TOO WELL.  And boy, does that make them tough to argue with.

Gains in cognition.  Adolescents make 5 major gains in cognitive development as they move from elementary into middle school.

  • They can think about possibilities
  • They can think about abstract concepts
  • Their metacognitive abilities improve (they can think about thinking)
  • They can think multi-dimensionally, playing one idea off of another
  • They can think relativistically, understanding things from different points of views.

Elementary school students can think in compex and logical ways about concrete objects.  Ask a fourth grader to describe their best friend and they will give you a detailed list of all the things that they do, they physical characteristics, and their likes and dislikes.

Middle schoolers, on the other hand, think more abstractly.  They will describe their best friends in terms of abstract qualities - artistic, rather than draws well, poetic, rather than likes to read.  In addition, especially as they get older, they can think about the sometimes contradictory nature of the world.  For example, an adolescent might describe himself as shy in new situations but outgoing and rowdy with people he knows well.  These new abilties are one reason that complicated games, like Dungeons and Dragons, Magic, and Pokemon, start to get popular among the middle school crowd.  Early adult fiction is much more nuanced than children's fiction.  And the Harry Potter books got much more morally complex and multi-dimensional as Harry moved from his first to 7th year at Hogwarts.

The Middle School Transition

During the transition from one mode of thinking abilities to the other, though, kids can trip up.

And that's right about at middle school.

Fitting facts to theory. One characteristic of transitional thought is the abiltity generate a theories and draw conclusions.  When we get older, we generate hypotheses and then test them against other, alternative hypotheses.  Maybe we have time to go the movies?  Yes, but this, that, and the other thing might be better uses of our time. As we play out multiple scenarios, we change our original, tentative conclusion and decide that, no, it's really not a  good idea.

Middle school kids can get to step 1, but may not yet be ready to go on to step two. Instead of modifying the conclusion to fit the facts, they fit all facts to the conclusion.

  • Mom, can we go the movies?
  • Maybe, but you have homework to get done.
  • You said maybe we could go yesterday, so I already made plans.
  • I said we could go if your homework is done.  Is it?
  • I just have a little.
  • How much?  Oh my gosh, you have a huge project due tomorrow!
  • It won't take that long.
  • It looks like at least two hours worth of work.
  • But the movie isn't that long.  I can do part of it in the car there and back.  And then I'll still have plenty of time.
  • It will be 9:00 by the time we're home.  And you can't work in the car like that.
  • You work in the car sometime!  And the movie will really help me with the project.  Besides, you said I need more time to relax and that I don't work efficiently when I'm stressed out and hyper.
  • I don't think . . .
  • I'll get up early.  There's lots of time before school.  You told me that maybe I should get up early and work then so I wouldn't stay up so late.  PLEEEEEEEEZ!

All of us do this sometimes.  But middle schoolers are particularly prone to it.

In addition to the abiltity to fit facts to their theory, middle schoolers have two new skills that makes them particularly good at arguing.

They know what you're thinking.  Children are egocentric.  They know what they want and they think you want the same thing.  For example, they want a Sponge Bob vido game, so they know that's the perfect birthday present for you. 

As middle schoolers develop the ability to think of multiple perspectives at the same time, they can start to take your point of view.  They can anticipate the arguments you're going to make and come up with good counter-arguments ahead of time.  And they can take arguments you've made in the past - as in the stress argument above - and use it in ways you sure wouldn't. 

But you said those things and that makes it hard to argue with.

Being able to anticipate what others will say and to play to that person's biases really helps adolescents argue more effectively.  And their willingness to ignore the logical inconsistencies in their own arguments - or to fail to see them - can make them really drive home arguments with an assurance that someone who is carefully considering all sides just can't.  They're relentless.

Logic in the absence of facts.  A final strength that makes middle schoolers so maddening in an argument is that they can take a theory or logical argument and apply it with very little real knowledge of its limitations. 

One of the advantages that adults have in everyday cognition is that we know lots of facts.  We have experience - which, in the right context, can lead to wisdom.  On the positive side, that means that we can quickly and efficiently eliminate probably time-wasting side-channels.  Given a particular set of noises with our car, we can probably eliminate 2/3 of the causes just based on our past experience.

Kids don't have that knowledge.  What they're good at is taking a theory and trying to fit it into all the possible places it might apply.  Including lots of places it doesn't.  They are also good at generating many different theories for a given set of facts and not eliminating any of them.  How can they?  They don't have enough experience to knock out the unlikely possibilities.

The strength of adult cognition is that it's very efficient, but can be wrong if the unlikely scenario turns out to be the true one.  The strength of adolescent cognition is that sometimes those harebrained ideas they come up with really work.  And that's innovation.

In an argument, however, middle schoolers can often throw out a logical argument that can be contradicted by facts or by limitations about where a particular theory works and where it does't.  Unfortunately, as an adult arguing with that kid, you need to pull those facts out of your memory or clearly articulate the limitations or complexities the child has missed.  And a lot of times they're things you just know, but have never really thought about.  Implicit knowledge.

Oh, and you have to do it fast, while they're arguing with you in the car, with the radio on and the cellphone ringing.

Adults sometimes do the same thing.  In their own area of expertise, everybody has a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't work.  You know the problems and frustrations that make what seems like it should be simple very complex.  Take the gulf oil spill.  Why don't they just drop a nuclear bomb down there and turn it all to glass?  Can't they just put in a big plug?  How can they not know what's going on?  I'm sure the engineers working on the project have heard it all.  But as I'm sure they kept muttering to themselves . . . it just ain't that easy.

Nothing is so annoying as a know-it-all who just can't understand why you don't just do the obvious and make things right.  The problem with know-it-alls is that they don't know it all.  They see a simple solution because they lack full knowledge of the complexities that make the simple solution unworkable.

And that describes middle schoolers all over.  They have amazing logical abilities.  But they just don't know that much.


© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

Note 1:  As a reader points out, however, this is not to say that the ad is wrong.  Adolescents are very responsive to pleasure and are worse drivers than older adults of equal experience.

The rest of the series . . .

Part 1: What Parents Should Know: Adolescents are Like Toddlers

Part 3: What Parents Should Know: Adolescents are Like Kindergartners