By Mark Milke
and Martin Mrazik
The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy
The war on Ukraine instigated by Russian President Vladimir Putin should be a reminder that adults and their experiences and judgments matter, i.e. thinking through whether we wish to go to war with Russia.
However obvious that seems, in recent years – on other policies – politicians, CEOs, celebrities and journalists routinely embrace the opinions of celebrity teenagers.
A case in point is teenage activist Greta Thunberg who, pre-COVID-19, travelled the world preaching about carbon emissions. Thunberg was received by heads of state, including then German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. She spoke to parliaments in the United Kingdom, France and the European Union.
Thunberg was also invited to speak at the United Nations climate change conference in New York in December 2018. It was there that she gave the assembled crowd her now-famous “How dare you?!” speech, decrying what Thunberg – then 15 – asserted was political slowness in what she saw as an epic environmental crisis: the effect of carbon used by humans on climate.
CNN’s headline perfectly captured the dynamic but, more generally, the political and elite reaction to the Swedish girl: “Teen tells climate negotiators they aren’t mature enough.”
Thunberg is an example of a modern but unhelpful phenomenon: Politicians, CEOs, diplomats and journalists who seek and take policy advice from teenagers who, by definition, have virtually no life experience and no expertise but are yet feted as if they were Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger or Warren Buffet – none of whom were asked for their thoughts when they were 15 years old.
To be sure, children or teenagers can display early brilliance. Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his first composition at age five. Joan of Arc was 16 when she first led French soldiers against the English and 17 when she won a famous battle at Orleans, sending the English and their allies across the Loire River. Or ponder Akrit Jaswal, who began reading and writing at age two and started on Shakespeare and books about medicine at age five.
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Admiring youthful accomplishments is one thing but using them to drive policy forward is another. After all, politicians are responsible for matters that range from education and energy to a nation’s finances, foreign policy, diplomacy and war. The reason why it’s ill-advised to misuse teenagers for their agendas is simple: brains are still developing throughout the teen years and into the early 20s.
The brain’s frontal lobes remain more ‘plastic’ or open to experience during the teen years and don’t hardwire until early adulthood. This indicates that the developing brain is more adaptable to experience but is also prone to more errors and being easily swayed by emotional factors. In theory, this maintains the capacity to learn from one’s mistakes before being hardwired.
Studies measuring executive functioning/frontal lobe maturity provide strong evidence that teenagers make significantly more errors on problem-solving tasks and reveal that the young maturing brain is particularly susceptible to impulsive tendencies and emotionally based responses. Teenagers, left to their own thinking, risk making poor decisions because they’re just developing the needed insight and perspective required for their well-being.
This is also why critics of people such as Thunberg should direct their ire not at teenagers like her but at the parents and politicians who place young people in the line of public, rhetorical fire. It’s the latter who are at fault. (Besides, a 15-year-old may hold very different views 10 or 30 years later.)
The idealism, passion and energy of teenagers are compelling. Yet it’s paramount during the teen years that young adults are positioned so they can gain an appreciation of the history, wisdom and knowledge of older generations. That requires mentoring.
But today’s executive-level courting of teenage celebrities such as Thunberg wrongly assumes the opposite – teenagers mentoring adults.
That’s not fair to them. Turning youth into instant celebrities disregards the need of teenagers to have adult guidance during a pivotal developmental time where their brains need space to think, refine their ideas, gain knowledge and learn from experiences.
Encouraging youth throughout their development is foundational to the well-being of the next generation. But that’s different than seeking advice and comment from teenagers on state affairs.
It’s also not fair or wise for citizens who really do need the wisdom of Solomon and not the whims of a 16-year-old. Embracing teenage views on policy should be abandoned by politicians, CEOs and journalists.
Mark Milke is the president of The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy, a new think-tank set to launch in late 2022. Martin Mrazik is a professor of Education at the University of Alberta with a specialty in neuropsychology.
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