Two Questions to Never Ask Teenagers

You should never try to teach a dog to whistle for it will result in nothing more than frustrating yourself and annoying the dog. Similarly, there are questions that you should never ask a teenager. The two most important are these:

Question One: What were you thinking?

Last Saturday evening I was leaning on a railing enjoying the majestic view of the river and parliament buildings from Ottawa’s beautiful Major Hill Park. Then, far below, a young man had missed the Frisbee thrown by a friend and they were staring forlornly into Rideau Canal’s shallow, stagnant water fifty feet down.

The taller, skinnier one was suddenly climbing down the lead used by boats in the summer. A small crowd gathered at my railing. We were too far away to intervene but some giggled, some shook their heads, and, like me, others held their breaths.

Two Essential Questions to Never Ask Teenagers

Rideau Canal from the park (www.tripadvisor.com)

At the bottom of the cable, the young man found himself six feet or so from his little yellow toy. He clamoured back up. Soon he had descended again, had a leg linked over the bottom of the cable, and was precariously dangling upside down. He’d gone Cirque du Soleil on us. His friend then dropped a long stick that he miraculously caught. He used it to snag the Frisbee and then sailed it back to the top. Clearly exhausted, he slowly climbed out with his legs visibly shaking. Our little crowd dispersed as our two heroes commenced a spirited victory dance.

Why did he do what could have led to a serious injury or death? It was his brain’s fault.

You see, the last part of our brains to become fully functional is the pre-frontal cortex. It is just behind the forehead. It is the area responsible for being responsible. It links cause and effect. The incomplete wiring renders teenagers not unwilling but unable to fully comprehend situations that adults would consider socially awkward or inherently dangerous. As a result, teenagers often embarrass or infuriate adults or take what an adult would consider crazy risks like, for instance, climbing into a deep, concrete canal.

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

(Photo: sharpbrains.com)

The nucleus accumbens is another part of the story. That is near the back of our brain and is the first to develop. In teenagers, the impulses flowing through that wiring work overtime. It is the pleasure seeking, reward loving part of the brain. It is the part that inspires action not because it would be right or safe but only because it would be fun. With no frontal cortex to warn of risks, the teenagers are off to the party, into the fast car, skipping away from class, or, like last Saturday, lowering themselves down canal walls.

I wish I had been closer so that I could have warned our young friend about what he was about to do. I could have done as good parents and teachers do and, like a computer’s remote hard drive, acted as his remote pre-frontal cortex. But we spectators were all too far away. And it was just as well there were no adults waiting at the top when he emerged to ask our young climber what he was thinking. His honest answer would have been, “I was not thinking at all.”

Question Two: What do you want to be?

This question is dumb for three reasons. First, it implies that the teenager is nothing now. That’s insulting.

Second, the question is probing for a profession. The problem is that most teenagers don’t know and so will just proffer an answer likely to please. Why encourage lying? Further, according to Forbes magazine, teenagers today will have 15 to 20 jobs in their working lives. So why ask the question left over from the days of gold watches? Plus, one or more of those occupations will likely involve a job that does not now exist. So how can a teenager know what their job or jobs will be?

Most important of all, though, is that the question perpetuates the sad habit of defining oneself by a job. It’s the game show mentality of defining questions: what’s your name, where are you from, what do you do? It’s what crushes the souls of the un- and underemployed, led to baby boomer suicides after the 2008 crash, and makes retirement difficult for far too many. What am I if I am not the teacher, lawyer, or whatever? If a person is more than their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, ability, and body shape, then are they not also more than their job?

So if an adult asks a teenager what they want to be, a good answer would be this: “I hope to be an engaged citizen, a person of good character, a responsible parent, and a person who loves and is loved.” In fact, that would be a good answer for even those of us with fully wired brains.

For now, let’s avoid both questions. Instead, let’s enjoy our non-whistling dogs and the teenagers who are doing the best they can.

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The Importance of Ignoring Your Rabbits

Journalists, detectives, and hiring teams love hypothetical questions. Those in their sights are asked to imagine situations and predict reactions. Politicians dismiss them. Suspects leap behind lawyers. Pity the sweaty-palmed job applicant spinning an internal Rolodex of possible responses while balancing honesty with guessing the right answer

As an author, I have been interviewed countless times in TV and radio studios, over the phone and over coffee, and before audiences. Speaking engagements always end with a Q and A. In most cases, I am asked about whatever book has just been published and my answers come relatively easily. After all, by the time a book leaves the nest to make its perilous way in the world, it has been re-written so many times that an author nearly has it memorized. Further, after a while, an author hears the same dozen or so questions and it becomes a little like Neil Diamond singing Sweet Caroline – the performance is still heart-felt, enjoyable, and hopefully entertaining, but seldom challenging.

But then, once in a while, down the queue comes the query – the hypothetical. It just happened to me again. I am proud and was humbled to have been invited to be one of six artists, authors, business people, and community leaders to participate in the annual fundraiser for the Greater Peterborough Health Services called Peterborough Speaks.

Last Wednesday evening, each of us took a turn on a chat show-like setting at the Market Hall theatre. We were interviewed for about 15 minutes before an audience of 250 and those who will watch later on television. Media personality Michelle Ferreri began my session with a question about my upcoming book and all was going well enough, I thought, until the end. She concluded with, “What advice would the current you give to your 20-year-old self?”

Ignoring Rabbits (photo: Peterborough Examiner)

Wow! Up in the Green Room, I had heard BrandHealth president Paul Hickey asked that question and so I didn’t think the same bullet would be fired again. I was reminded of the same gulping feeling I experienced when asked by a Calgary CBC journalist during a live radio broadcast: “Of all the Canadian prime ministers, which would have been the best NHL hockey player and why?”

That time, I was on the phone with radio’s cruel absence of the communication crutches of expressions or gestures and the terror of dead air. Now I was on stage before all those people and cameras. I was suddenly like one of the hundreds of job applicants who, in another part of my life, I had interviewed with similarly tough, hypothetical questions. It was my turn to spin the Rolodex.

I said, “I would tell my 20 year-old self to ignore the rabbits and tend the tree.” Michelle looked incredulous and there were smatters of nervous laughter from the audience. I explained;

“When I was 20, I was like a frenetic young man alone in a large field teeming with rabbits. I was armed with a tiny net called ambition. I scurried from one to the next, finding that with every rabbit I snared, two more got away. I wish I could convince that guy to leave the field and seek a sanctuary of silence to contemplate what is truly important. I would implore him to imagine shaping his life less as a hunter and more as a gardener before a young bonsai tree. I would suggest that he slowly nurture its growth by picturing its ideal shape and then, over time, mold it into that shape by snipping off certain people, places, activities, and habits and all else that is destructive and distracting. I’m not sure he would have had the capacity to hear me for winter can seldom warn the spring, but I would advise my 20-year-old self to ignore the rabbits and tend the tree.”

I had considered the metaphor of the bonsai before but never constructed the thought as I expressed it that evening. Now that I have, and because I did it in such a public way and with this writing I am doing it again, I am pressing myself to a new challenge. I will soon be making a couple more snips.

As for the fellow in Calgary, I said, “Sir John A. Macdonald would have been the best NHL hockey player for in the Gordie Howe tradition he had the broadest skill set of anyone at the time and was not above throwing a few elbows.” I hope Sir John and Mr. Howe would have liked that. I suspect that as young men they had learned to ignore the rabbits.

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