Gray Matters

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As a part of Dave’s clinical psychology studies, he’s learning about the brain. In a class recently, students toured the structures of the brain and got a peek into how they grow and what they do. Much of our brain (parts that are shared with certain animals) develops fully by a few years of age, enabling us to move and eat and communicate enough to get along. But there are a few bits and pieces that undergo a second growth spurt around the time of puberty, and continue to develop throughout the teen years. The most notable of these is the prefrontal cortex, which, when healthy, handles functions like attention span, judgement, impulse control, organization, critical thinking, and self awareness. This part of our brain (the front, top part) might not fully mature until the mid twenties. When the prefrontal cortex is injured (by stroke) or undeveloped, we see problems that include short attention span, distractibility, impulsivity, disorganization, etc. These might be symptoms of a problem in a healthy adult. Should we even call these “symptoms” in a child?

A student in that class raised a concern: can current childhood psychiatric diagnoses be explained partly as a response to children simply not fitting into adult structures and expectations that require a level of brain function that they don’t have the brain structure to support? To put the problem another way: we are finding more fault than ever in our kids (if the increase in diagnoses is any measure) … Do we expect too much of them? Do we expect adult control and attention from a brain that is not neurologically optimized for these things?

But kids are smart, and they have a killer ability to learn. So even while we recognize that they don’t think like us, they can think deeply and intelligently, and are capable of great leaps of insight (sometimes even greater than in adults, we must admit). We don’t think we should treat children like children, if you know what we mean. But while we challenge them, and expect great things from them, and lead them into adulthood, we want to remember that our standards of behavior tend to be, in fact, adult standards. Kid’s are wired for growth and challenge, but not necessarily wired for constraint and consistency. As educators and parents we want to remember to challenge our children to take on more difficult things, while giving them the freedom to still be children.

What do you think? Are we expecting our children to exercise adult restraint? Do we diagnose lack of adult control in our children? Give us your opinion in the comments.

[Post first appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula blog]

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