What Would it Mean if We “Let Teens Be Teens?”

American educators love to post articles on Facebook about how kids in Finland are allowed to be kids. A typical article is the Atlantic’s “The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland.” Yes, Finnish kids don’t get formal instruction in reading until age seven. They get recess every hour. And so on.

Most Finnish children I met struck me as capable and self-assured.

Such articles are one part research, one part concern, and a third part nostalgia. Yet they are difficult to refute. Allowing kids to move around after every 45 minutes or so of classroom time makes sense, both in terms of physical fitness and learning.

But I teach high school. Where does this leave me? Finnish upper-secondary students don’t get all that recess time–still, I was struck by the ways in which they are treated differently than American teenagers by teachers, parents, and society as a whole.

When I visited secondary schools in Finland, it seemed that educators respected the ability of teenagers to make decisions large and small–and live with the consequences. Students even choose whether they attend the vocational or college-preparatory streams in the secondary education system. I know this first-hand, sitting in on classes in which a fellow Fulbrighter asked students who made this life choice. Almost without exception, they told her they, not their parents, made this determination. They seemed to find it absurd and almost insulting that someone else would make such an important choice for them.

Something else striking: the uses of time. Finnish teens have little homework and move easily and freely around their cities. After school (which can end at 2pm or even noon on some days) the pedestrian centers are filled with teens, hanging out. Finnish schools don’t have clubs or sports like American high schools. This coupled with the light homework load means young Finns have much more free time–and they have control over that time. I don’t think the combination of physical freedom and free time are by chance. They combine to give teenage Finns yet more control over their lives.

Students relaxing at Mercuria Business College (vocational school), Vantaa, Finland

Does this arrangement lead to academic success? It’s hard to know. Put another way, are the high ratings of Finland in terms of education and life satisfaction because of such characteristics or despite them?

It goes without saying that Americans have an ambivalent set of feelings about our teenagers. We are the land that invented teenagers … but also the “No Loitering” sign outside convenience stores.

But let’s say our goal was to educate teenage students and send them off to college or into the workforce as healthy young people ready to contribute to society? What would best practices be around this goal?

Any changes made by American schools–or entities outside of schools–should of course be based on the rich research done in recent years on developmental psychology. This isn’t the case right now, however. Many psychologists now speak of “emerging adults,” a new phase of life created by social and economic forces (think of the emergence of adolescence as a recognized stage of life a century ago), while states have lowered the age at which children can be tried as or incarcerated as adults. 

Similarly, even as we know more (but not much really) about the teenage brain and its development, elite colleges are essentially requiring applicant take a year, maybe two, of calculus in high school.  Stanford’s admissions office is very clear: “Our most competitive freshman applicants often have four years (grades 9-12) of English, four years of math (including calculus)….” Writing in the Journal of Adolescent Health, two researchers from Johns Hopkins and a third from the National Institute of Mental Health say very clearly that, ” The frontal lobes, home to key components of the neural circuitry underlying ‘executive functions’ such as planning, working memory, and impulse control, are among the last areas of the brain to mature; they may not be fully developed until halfway through the third decade of life.”

If we know that for many if not most people, the frontal lobes aren’t finished growing until the age of 25, why are we requiring teenagers take calculus if they want to attend Yale? Does early frontal-lobe development signal something else? Or is it like a selective middle school admitting only tall eleven-year olds or kids with big feet–for their age?

What’s worse are the side-effects of the college-selection arms race in the US: so many wonderful, capable, intelligent kids are pushed into classes where they struggle and feel dumb. Others feel hopeless because they can’t reach calculus. Still others give up summers to “catch up” in math. Many also feel they must structure their “free time” around their college resumé: music lessons, community service, team sports, even entrepreneurship. None of these things are bad, it’s just that many young people feel obliged to pursue most or even all of them in hopes of landing a spot at a prestigious college. And lost is the social time, the down time, the sleep, so needed for human development.

The frontal lobes are also home to impulse control. Again, this area of the brain is just about latest to develop. Thinking about it this way, it just seems cruel to punish teens for making errors of judgment, especially those which are arguably victimless. Right now, any act of school discipline for any reason (think cheating on an exam or showing up drunk to a dance) truly does go on a student’s “permanent record.” Kids applying to most selective colleges must fill out a Common Application and this document requires disclosure of all events–even one which took place when the child was a 14-year old freshmen, “that resulted in a disciplinary action.” The Common App allows the student to explain what they have learned from their experience, but this is cold comfort. A friend who works in college counseling tells me college admissions officers don’t weigh these earlier missteps as heavily. But if we really wanted students a chance to make errors in judgment and learn from them, shouldn’t we have a less punitive and shaming system? Perhaps something like a policy which erases suspensions from a student’s record after two years if no more take place?

There is one way in which American teens appear to have more freedom and responsibility than their Finnish counterparts. Americans can obtain a driver’s licence, easily, at sixteen. In Finland, the minimum age is 18, and the process of earning the license is lengthy and expensive. And the right to drive can be easily lost, if a new driver compiles as few as two violations.

In the US, motor vehicle accidents kill more teenagers than homicide, suicide, drownings and poisonings combined. Over 5,000 every year. Our response to these harrowing facts? We keep buying our children cell phones and handing them the car keys. Okay, that’s simplistic. But we have designed our cities so that daily driving is a necessity. Given how difficult it is to move around suburban spaces on foot or by bicycle, it’s no wonder getting a licence is a right of passage. And now it is the number-one killer of teens. Shouldn’t the US do something about this? I would suggest immediately raising the dricauseofdeathving age to 18, perhaps 21, and making the process of obtaining a licence much more difficult. Setting the age at which a person may drive an SUV 65 miles-per-hour down a freeway must, no doubt, balance safety and convenience–but I’d err on the side of saving lives.

What is odd is how Americans like me simultaneously expect adult behavior from teens, extending this expectation even into the criminal justice system–while also infantilizing them. It was baffling to the Finnish upper-secondary students I spoke with that if a student in an American high school needs to use the toilet during the school day, they usually need teacher permission and a slip of paper in order to get past suspicious adults in the hallways. Why does someone who can drive a car need a note to walk to the toilet?

What would American high schools look like if we showed optimism about our students and treated them like “young adults” while acknowledging the developmental roots of much teen behavior. Teachers might not correct them when two students spoke quietly during class. Teachers (and parents) might respect their need for downtime and 9 or 10 hours of sleep per night. And while this is tricky, educators might give students opportunities to fail and learn from their mistakes. This is true in math or laboratory science, so why not in ethics or behavior as well?


One thought on “What Would it Mean if We “Let Teens Be Teens?”

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  1. I am also a high school teacher, and feel the pressure of high stakes testing. This is difficult not to pass onto the students and make learning unbearable. I have to constantly remind myself to not push my stress of testing onto them. If my students do not pass the MCAS Biology exam, they do not get a diploma. Something I do not agree with, but I must abide by. What did you find around standardized tests in Finland? Are the teachers and students pressured as we are for all students to pass these exams?


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