One of the things I often hear the older generation tell me is that parenting courses or workshops were non-existent during their time. Instead they just ‘learn on the job’. “See, we got through without attending a single parenting course. Yet you young whippersnappers turned out okay no? So why bother attending any?”
Actually, I suspect even those who are my peers (and parents a decade or two my junior) would say the same, though perhaps less brazenly.
To either demographic, all I can say is “I beg to differ”.
Sucker for learning
Admittedly, I’m probably in the minority when it comes to life-long learning courses like parenting.
Most folks in my demographic (past 50) would already see themselves as having “been there, done that”, and few on hearing that arrogant declaration would dare challenge them. Unless of course, they’re over 60!
Or if you’re my nation’s governing leaders. They who, for the longest time, have been pushing the citizenry to chock up adult learning hours in areas that will anchor their existing career or pivot to something different mid-career.
In short, skill up on 21st-century bankable skills, or be left out in the rain.
To learn for any other reason is therefore seen here as a waste of time or just plain ridiculous (though an acquaintance of mine and fellow 52-year-old’s recent op-ed gives me some hope I’m not alone in believing in the value of lifelong learning for its own sake).
Enter yours truly, the poster boy for ‘ridiculous learning’! I’m one of those who would happily sign up to learn stuff that don’t bring about any immediate or materialistic rewards or skill sets. I’m just “all kinds of stubborn” I guess (thanks Robert for that line in Endgame!)
And yet, is there really anything more potentially dangerous in this world than an uninformed parent?
So on the basis of that, I recognised for me when my wife first became pregnant that I best do what I can to learn all I can about being a good parent.
And I still do today. Which explains why I signed up earlier this year for a series of three webinars on parenting teens that my son’s school ran for parents.
Starting with learning about a man named Erik Erikson.
Stages of psychosocial development
Erik Erikson (1909-1994) was a German-American psychologist known best for his theory on psychosocial development. He believed that people’s personalities developed over several stages. These were:
Stage 1 (Infancy: birth to 18 months) Trust vs. Mistrust
Stage 2 (Early childhood: 2-3 years) Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt
Stage 3 (Preschool: 3-5 years) Initiative vs. Guilt
Stage 4 (School age: 6-12 years) Industry vs. Inferiority
Stage 5 (Adolescence: 12-18 years) Identity vs. Confusion
Stage 6 (Young adulthood: 19-40 years) Intimacy vs. Isolation
Stage 7 (Middle adulthood: 40-65 years) Generativity vs. Stagnation
Stage 8 (Maturity: 65 years to death) Integrity vs. Despair
What interested me here is of course Stage 5, the Identity versus Confusion stage of the adolescent. The one my firstborn is now going through.
According to my research and what was shared in the webinar, this is the stage when the adolescent works to achieve an identity. In short, to know who he or she is. And working on that for them can often involve ‘refuting’ other identities; maybe even the one they have as our children!
According to Erikson’s theory, this is a critical stage where many like my son are trying on different “selves” to see which one fits them best. If it works out, then they will develop a strong sense of identity.
However if they are pressured by parents to conform to the latter’s notion of what that identity should be (say for example the “always-obedient” child), they could end up developing a weak sense of self in future.
Sounds like a pretty “heavy-weight” stage doesn’t it? One misstep and my son could be struggling like me for the rest of his life to have a stable sense of self-identity and worth!
My son’s brain and my parenting — still under construction!
At this point in the webinar, the concept of brain development was introduced.
Without turning this into a biology 101 type of post, let’s just say that teens, and their brains, are works-in-progress. Especially the part of the brain that controls rational thought. Called the prefrontal cortex, this part of the brain handles functions like decision-making, problem-solving and impulse control.
In teens, the prefrontal cortex isn’t yet fully developed. Nor will it be until they’re at least 25 years old!
As a result, the part of the brain that dominates these functions in teens is the amygdala (or limbic system). To put it simply, the amygdala is the emotional side of the brain and typically the first to be fully developed.
Like a lightning bolt, this piece of info made everything clearer for me in a flash. Not just for how I now see my son behaving, but even all those “lost years” of my own (and my peer’s) messy teenage phase!
So what might seem like misbehaviour or defiance in my teen is really him still “undergoing construction” and attempting to forge his identity. All the while waiting for his prefrontal cortex to be fully developed.
Like fishing, parenting is about patience
I can’t tell you what a relief it is as a parent to learn this important point about brain development.
It makes my often arduous and downright hair-tearing moments of frustration parenting that much more understandable now. Not only can I be kinder to him and patient, I can be likewise to myself too.
As all parents would know, parenting can often feel like a trial-and-error journey. Three steps forward, two steps back. So knowing that part of this ‘dance ritual’ has been baked into the parenting process by sheer biology does make those “dark days of cold war” between parent and teen that much more palatable.
Thankfully, I haven’t had many such dark days.
But when I do, I can at least look back on this important piece of information and assuage my “ruffled parenting feathers” that it’s simply a necessary stage my son (and all of us) need to go through.
And to best do so with lots of love and patience.
Join me next time for more on what I learned from parenting workshops!