Memo to politicians: Stop using teens to front your agendas

By Martin Mrazik and Mark Milke, Financial Post, April 7, 2022

A recent newspaper story about a “handful” of students and activists gathered outside Sir John A. Macdonald high school in Calgary reported the views of a 13-year-old boy who, not surprisingly, decried the existence of a school named after Canada’s first prime minister. The reasons were what one expects these days: a man from a century and half ago didn’t hold our enlightened 2022 views (and why would anyone expect him to?).

What struck us about the episode is that a newspaper in a metropolis of 1.2 million people was citing the views of a 13-year-old as authoritative. This is not a phenomenon unique to Calgary, unfortunately. The best-known example of courted teenage authority is, of course, Greta Thunberg, who at the age of 15 began a one-person strike from her ninth-grade classes to protest Sweden’s inaction on climate change and eventually ended up addressing the United Nations — excoriating it, actually, which the assembled diplomats seemed to enjoy.

Or consider the pandering of Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, who recently opined that “… solutions to our global challenges must purposefully engage youth, at all levels — locally, regionally, nationally and globally” for the young have “the passion, dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit to shape the future.”

A reality check: The young have always been passionate and by definition will always “shape the future.” However, as a general matter, it is not helpful to citizens when politicians, CEOs, diplomats and journalists seek and even apparently take policy advice from teenagers. By definition teenagers have virtually no experience or expertise, yet they are feted as if they were Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger or Warren Buffet — none of whom was asked for his thoughts in his teen years.

To be sure, children or teenagers can display early brilliance. Mozart first wrote music at age five. Joan of Arc was 16 when she first led French soldiers against the English and 17 when at Orléans she drove the English and their allies across the Loire in retreat.

Admiring youthful accomplishments is one thing but using children and teens to drive policy forward is another. Politicians are responsible for all manner of complex matters, ranging from education and energy to the national finances, foreign policy, diplomacy and, as we have seen recently, even war. Fully understanding such things requires intelligence and maturity. But teenage brains are still developing and they continue to develop into the early 20’s.

Teen physiology is such that the frontal lobes of the brain remain more “plastic” or open to experience during the teen years and do not hard-wire until early adulthood. As studies measuring executive functioning and frontal lobe maturity suggest, the developing brain is more adaptable to experience but also more prone to error and to being too easily swayed by impulsive tendencies and emotionally based responses.

In theory, this plasticity maintains the capacity to learn from one’s mistakes. But it also makes teens liable to mistakes. Left to their own thinking, teenagers risk making poor decisions — as most of us in our twenties and beyond will remember from our own teenage years. Teens are only just developing the insight and perspective required for their own well-being.

Critics of people such as Greta Thunberg should direct their ire, not at teenagers like her, but at the family members and politicians who place young people in the line of rhetorical fire.

The idealism, passion and energy of teenagers are compelling. But young people also need to gain an appreciation of the history, wisdom and knowledge of older generations. That requires mentoring. Today’s courting of teenage celebrities such as Thunberg involves just the opposite: teenagers mentoring adults.

That’s not fair to teens. Turning youth into celebrities disregards teens’ need to have adult guidance during the pivotal time when 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 the affairs of state. And, to be blunt, on many of today’s social and economic problems we need the wisdom of Solomon, not the whims of 16-year-olds. Politicians, CEOs and journalists need to continue the search for wisdom and stopping making celebrities of teenagers.

Martin Mrazik is a professor of education at the University of Alberta with a speciality in neuropsychology. Mark Milke is the president of The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy. His newest book is The Victim Cult: How the grievance culture hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.  

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