It’s all utterly complicated by what White calls a “strange kind of phenomenon in modern America that has never happened before": Puberty is starting earlier, kicking off brain and physiological change, but good behavior and brain maturity are delayed. The results are contradictory and potentially devastating.
Development is tied to the onset of puberty and the assumption is that once sexual maturation starts, brain development gets kicked off. Instead, kids are becoming more physically mature and sexual, without good judgment or mental maturity.
The frontal lobes aid certain things, from making good choices to controlling impulse. Many of those skills are moldable, not fixed, said White. For kids to learn to consider the future and control emotions and impulses requires fine tuning by experience.
“The result is kids are ready to go sexually but have not started to be prepared culturally to make good choices with that drive. It’s a weird development, but that’s the way it is,” White said.
That increases the importance of parental monitoring and presence.
Letting kids stay out late unsupervised is associated with more sexual activity and drug use partly because they are more likely to run into people doing those things, said White.
Most first sexual experiences are “substance affected,” said Pickhardt. “They are not soberly chosen . That’s a major variable.”
It takes dating relationships “from caring to less caring to careless,” he said, and young people make decisions they would not make if they were sober.
The other complication parents encounter, about the time a child hits puberty, is they’ve been joined by what Pickhardt calls “the public parent” — entertainment, advertising and icons that send their own set of probably-not-parent-approved messages. That parent is hard to compete against. “All of a sudden, a kid is getting indoctrinated with all kinds of other ideals. That public parent has enormous power, so the actual parents need to be able to keep talking about these images.
“The public parent has no vested interest in emphasizing what it means to be treated well or treat someone else that way, to talk about sexualization or what young love is,” he said.
The public parent is simply trying to create a good consumer, a fact that eludes its target audience.
Pickhardt has seen the “public parent” challenged into backing down just once, when the shocking news hit that the most influential cartoon character in the lives of even young children was Joe Camel, of Camel cigarette fame. California went to war to stop the ads — and won.
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