The Last 3 Years of Parenting Are More Important Than the First Ones

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

Every day I draw a mental X through a day on the calendar—one day closer to when my younger child turns three. Not only will he be toilet-trained, but we’ll be past those first three years of brain development that experts say are critical for a child’s future health, wealth, and happiness. I can relax a little then, I tell myself. He’ll basically be fully formed.

Well, no, says Laurence Steinberg. In his new book, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, Steinberg argues that the brain undergoes a second wave of plasticity in adolescence—a stage that rivals the 0-3 years for sponge-like learning conditions. While we previously conceived of the teenage years as something, at best, to be “survived,” Age of Opportunity emphasizes that adolescence is not only a fresh opportunity for learning, but also the chance to set the stage for good mental health into adulthood. If parents harness rather than fight the adolescent years, kids can “launch” in their early and mid-20s with the solid emotional, cognitive, and educational skill set necessary for adulthood.

I chatted with Dr. Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, about how parents can best support their kids during this stage—which he says starts at puberty, or about age 10 for some children, and continues until the complete maturation of the pre-frontal cortex in the early- to mid-20s. So why are these years (up to 15 of them!) so important?

1. Because adolescents love to take risks, and you can direct that behavior towards constructive risk-taking.

“Research shows that adolescents are hard-wired to have a higher tolerance for taking risks, but it doesn’t mean that all risk-taking is necessarily bad. The challenge for parents is to find a way to structure [their child’s] world to minimize the chances that he will engage in negative risk-taking but maximize positive risk-taking. For example: taking classes where an A is not guaranteed, or extracurriculars they’re not sure they’re terrific at. Or trying out for a team in a sport you haven’t played before, or asking someone out that you have a crush on.”

“Adolescents have the capacity to get engaged in things in a really passionate way.”

2. Because adolescents can concentrate better than we give them credit for.

The development of executive function—a constellation of skills that involves decision-making, problem-solving, and planning ahead—means that adolescents can now make a sustained, concentrated study of subjects that interest them. This is the stage of life in which kids spends hours upon hours playing the guitar, learning to code, practicing ballet, memorizing all the Shakespearean sonnets. This can set the stage for a deep foundation of knowledge that will serve them well later on—it can even be the beginning of a career.

“Adolescents have the capacity to get engaged in things in a really passionate way,” says Steinberg. “We think this has to do with the limbic system activation—the ability to get aroused. So this engagement is partly due to better self-control, but it’s also due to igniting the passion. Parents can help their kids identify what they’re passionate about and support their engagement in that passion—it doesn’t really matter what it is. That capacity [to get engaged and work hard] will serve kids well further in life.”

3. Because the number of new friendships explodes in adolescence. You want your kid to build a good support network so she has a lifetime of social and community support. “We know from research that the kinds of relationships that kids form outside the family mirror the relationships inside family. So the most important thing that parents can do to facilitate social development is to have healthy relationships at home—both with their children and with their partner—and to encourage positive relationships between siblings. Kids will mirror what they’re experiencing at home.

“Second, parents can help encourage the development of an extensive network of social relationships for their kids by being warm, firm and supportive as parents—what we refer to as ‘authoritative parenting.’ And there is some evidence that parents who have more extensive social networks themselves have children who have extensive social networks. We also know that involvement in the community is transmitted from one generation to the next. Kids who have parents who are very involved in the community are themselves more likely to be involved in the community. They’re doers, and they maintain this into adulthood.”

Okay, so I’m not quite done yet with this parenting thing. But it’s actually a relief to know that these first three years aren’t the be-all and end-all of child development. We’ll have another chance—a 15-years-long chance!—to make sure our kids have the skills they need in adulthood.

Photo: flickr/Eliza Peyton

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