Friday, March 2, 2012

Cat piss, Kenny, and not thinking of mischief

I forgot to mention on my last post, that if I'm right that it had simply never occurred to my Japanese students to vandalise their school, and that's why they never did it, it could challenge the modern liberal consensus on how to deal with other issues like underage sex or drugs. That consensus says that teenagers are going to become exposed to sex and drugs, so it is best to educate them earlier by giving them honest information, and trusting them to make the wise decision.

That may be the best option of a bad lot, but I wonder if such education could actually give children and adolescents ideas about harmful things they could do, things which would never have occurred to them otherwise. The classic fictional example comes from an episode of South Park in which counselor Mr Mackey warns the children against doing drugs:
Mr Mackey: Schoolchildren are often experimenting with dangerous ways to get high, hm'kay, like sniffin' glue, guzzlin' cough medicine, huffin' paint, hm'kay? But they're all bad. M'kay?
Butters: Mm-my cousin's in Florida, and said kids in their school get high off of cat pee.
Cartman: Cat pee?
Stan: That's not true. You can't get high off of cat urine, can you?
Mr. Mackey: Well, it's a it's not actually cat urine, but male cats, when they're marking their territory, uh spread concentrated urine to fend off other male cats and... a-and that could get you really high. M'kay? Re-really reeeally high. Okay? Probably shou-shouldn't have told you that just now. Hm'kay? Tha, that was probably bad.
Later that day, the boys try inhaling cat urine, leading to Kenny developing an addiction:

Because of course many adolescents defiantly resist making wise decisions, even when given full information about consequences. Prof Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, Philadelphia, wrote in 2007:
According to this view, the temporal gap between puberty, which impels adolescents toward thrill seeking, and the slow maturation of the cognitive-control system, which regulates these impulses, makes adolescence a time of heightened vulnerability for risky behavior....

Given extant research suggesting that it is not the way adolescents think or what they don’t know or understand that is the problem, a more profitable strategy than attempting to change how adolescents view risky activities might be to focus on limiting opportunities for immature judgment to have harmful consequences. More than 90% of all American high-school students have had sex, drug, and driver education in their schools, yet large proportions of them still have unsafe sex, binge drink, smoke cigarettes, and drive recklessly (often more than one of these at the same time; Steinberg, 2004). Strategies such as raising the price of cigarettes, more vigilantly enforcing laws governing the sale of alcohol, expanding adolescents’ access to mental-health and contraceptive services, and raising the driving age would likely be more effective in limiting adolescent smoking, substance abuse, pregnancy, and automobile fatalities than strategies aimed at making adolescents wiser, less impulsive, or less shortsighted. Some things just take time to develop, and, like it or not, mature judgment is probably one of them.
Steinberg distrusts adolescents' ability to make good choices even with perfect information. Rather than focusing on limiting opportunities to engage in risky behaviour it might - I'm really not sure - might be useful to just avoid discussing some risky behaviours at all. Supposing I had said to my disruptive Japanese students who didn't ever vandalise: "Right, boys, I'll be back in a few minutes. Just one thing. Absolutely DO NOT VANDALISE this room. That's the only thing I'm saying to you: DO NOT BREAK OR DESTROY ANYTHING here. Understand?'

I can imagine a light going on in their minds. Ding! Let the vandalism begin.

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