Age of OpportunityAre you raising a pre-teen or teen? Do you work or interact with these special beings?  If so, I highly recommend reading Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Temple University and a leading expert in adolescent brain development, risk-taking and decision-making behaviors.  With this wonderfully written book, Steinberg synthesizes the research on adolescents and distills it into actionable recommendations for parents and for reforming our high schools and juvenile justice systems. This book provides a brilliant analysis of why kids behave the way they do, and why we as parents and community members need to ensure the love, support and scaffolding kids need in order to not only stay safe but to thrive. 

Dr. Steinberg’s basic premise is that “adolescence now lasts longer than ever, and the adolescent brain is surprisingly malleable. These new discoveries make this time of life crucial in determining a person’s ultimate success and happiness.”  Many of us recognize the importance of the early years (zero to three) for cognitive development, but adolescence is another time when brain development ramps up.

In particular, Steinberg argues that teens are wired to take risks, are more sensitive to rewards, and are less inhibited.  Moreover, their self-regulation skills have a “now you see it, now you don’t” quality that so many of us have witnessed in ourselves and in our own kids.  In a structured, supervised setting, this combination of qualities can propel adolescents to greater achievement – making them more likely to take riskier, harder courses at school or to take on challenging extracurricular activities.  But in an unstructured, unsupervised setting - such as those hours that fall between the end of school day and the end of parents’ workday - this combination of qualities is a recipe for disaster. 

During unstructured, unmonitored time, some youth will engage in sexual behaviors and some of those behaviors will be developmentally inappropriate or even illegal.  Apart from the qualities Steinberg notes, youth also receive little in the way of helpful instruction around healthy sexual behavior.  For example, how many of you have explicitly told your pre-teens and teens that they should never touch a younger child’s penis or vagina?  We rarely provide this type of information, assuming that twelve, thirteen and fourteen year olds somehow know better.  They don’t, and that ignorance, combined with the strong pull of sexual desire, insufficient self-regulation, and insufficient adult monitoring leads to many youth engaging in exactly this type of behavior.  They then face juvenile (and sometimes adult) adjudication and severe post-adjudication consequences like lifetime, public sex offender registration. 

Keeping low-risk youth out of the juvenile justice system by ensuring that they never engage in illegal sexual behavior with younger children is the aim of one of our Center’s research project, in which we hope to develop a universal prevention program targeting young adolescent boys and their parents. For more information about this and other research projects, please visit our website.

Our goal with this and all our projects is to develop a culture of prevention so that, ultimately, fewer children are victimized and fewer youth face life-altering consequences for harmful but often transient and certainly preventable behaviors. It is up to all of us to make sure all our children are given every chance to reach their full potential.