What Was He Thinking?! (Part 1)

November 8, 2013 — Leave a comment

brain-keyAlmost every parent of a teenage boy has watched their son make a bone-headed move and wondered, “What the hell was he thinking?”

I’ve experienced this often in my years with Mtuseni. Like the time he sat on his laptop and broke the screen, barely two months after I bought it for him. Or the time he went to the Boston Media House freshman dance at Monte Casino with no plans for a ride home — and sure enough spent the night sleeping in some bushes before hitch hiking home at 5 am. Or when we discuss in detail a specific complex task, and then he does the complete opposite.

Trying to guide Mtuseni through the roadblocks of poverty and headwinds of South African culture from 8,000 miles away is difficult enough. His twisted thought process and knucklehead decisions just make it harder. Over and over I’ve wondered how a kid who can be so smart can also be such an idiot. Where is his brain?

And I’ve learned that, indeed, his brain is part of the problem. Last year I wrote hundreds of exam questions for a child development textbook, and was struck by a chapter on physical development of the adolescent brain. Although on the outside a kid in his late teens appears to be fully grown, his brain’s frontal lobe — the part that governs logical thinking — is not fully connected to the rest of his brain. So even if Mtuseni’s frontal lobe thinks, “Don’t put your laptop on a chair; you might sit on it and break it” — before that simple logic can be fully processed and executed, he’s already sat on the laptop, and the damage has been done. Literally.

After reading that and thinking, “Aha!”, I went to the magic Google machine to learn more — and found this interesting story on NPR: The Teen Brain: It’s Just Not Grown Up Yet. (Click to listen to the story.)

While it’s good to have some perspective on what drives Mtuseni’s thinking, it doesn’t make my job any easier. I still need to repeat myself when explaining things to him. And I’ve learned to expect that he’ll only do about 75 percent of what I ask, plus a small percentage that is the exact opposite of what we discussed. When I get frustrated and lose my temper with him, I try to remember that his foggy thinking is a physical, biochemical thing: The neurons are moving along a rutted dirt road, not a smooth superhighway. He’s doing the best he can with what he’s got.

…And yet, Mtuseni is beyond late adolescence; he’s 21 now. And while being out of his teens doesn’t necessarily mean his brain should automatically be firing on all cylinders, in theory it should be improving. But I’ve learned there are other factors that affect his thoughts and actions, which I will discuss in Part 2 and Part 3 of “What Was He Thinking?!”

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