teenage brain

Morality and the Teenage Brain

Two of the greatest times of brain and body development (or “plasticity” as psychologists call it) is early childhood and adolescence. Think about the incredible physical changes and growth from birth to 5 years old and during the teen years. Even though we can’t see it, similar rapid cognitive development is happening in the first five years.

If you ever said to your teen, “How could you be so stupid!”…let’s just clarify.  They aren’t stupid. They just don’t have fully developed brains to make really mature decision. The brain is not fully developed until about 25 years old. Because the brain develops back to front and core to outside, the last part to develop is the front, called the pre-frontal cortex. Executive function controls that region where reasoning, moral development, and planning takes place.

Teens do impulsive things. They can use poor judgment and reasoning. To top it off, they are going through stages of moral development. The “Heinz’s dilemma” is a frequently used example in many ethics classes. One well-known version of the dilemma, used in Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, is stated as follows:

A woman was near death. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s laboratory to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not

Kolberg was most interested in the reasons the teenagers gave for their answer. The “why or why nots” gave a window into the formation of the adolescent’s value system. The stages he outlined are simply put:

  1. Early adolescents tend to be more obedient, or self-serving. The do not question authority and think and do what their parents have told them.
  2. Mid-adolescents, teens start to question, which looks a little like rebellion. Furthermore, the new ability to think abstractly enables youth to recognize that rules are simply created by other people. As a result, teens begin to question the absolute authority of parents, schools, government, and other traditional institutions.
  3. By late adolescence, most teens are less rebellious as they have begun to establish their own identity, their own belief system, and their own place in the world.

Some youth who have reached the highest levels of moral development may feel passionate about their moral code and may choose to participate in activities that demonstrate their moral convictions.

As intriguing as the moral dilemma scenario is in Kolberg’s study, there are other, more playful ways to ask your teenager questions that gets him talking about his thinking. Here’s a fun exercise to see where your teenager is on the stages of moral development. Play this “Would you rather…” game together, each answering the questions and examining your rationale. No one is wrong and no judgments should be made. You can start with making up easier choices for younger children, like “Would you rather be a cat or a dog?” and then use these during different years of adolescence to see if their reasoning matures.

Would you rather…

Save the life of a starving African child you’ve never met

OR become a Jedi, get the Force and a light saber?

 

Change your last name to Hitler

OR never eat candy again?

 

Have no Internet

OR no cell phone?

 

Live in a world with no problems

OR live in a world where you RULE

 

Win the lottery of 20 million dollars

OR amputate your right arm if it cured cancer?

 

Have the superpower of flying

OR reading everyone’s mind?

 

Know the date of your death

OR the cause of your death?

 

Have all the time in the world (endless supply)

OR endless supply of money but only 10 years to live?

 

Be the smartest person in the world

OR be the most handsome person in the world?

 

Have a piercing

OR a tattoo?

 

Be able to talk to all animals

OR speak all languages?

 

Never have your mind get old (but body does)

OR never have your body get old (but mind does)?

 

Be able to go back in history and stop 9-11

OR stop the Holocaust?

 

Have mermaids be real

OR unicorns be real?

 

Have a Pinocchio nose when you lie

OR never get to shower again ?

 

Be a genius that no one likes

OR be an idiot that everyone loves?