FERGUSON: Too young to fall in love?

December 14, 2012 

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in a conversation with someone who is middle-aged or older and heard them say “I got married too young” or “I had kids too young.” Usually, “too young” in the context of that conversation, is anywhere from the late teens to early 20s. I’ve always wondered though, who’s to say what age is too young to make certain big decisions that affect the course of the rest of your life?

I’ve recently become aware of some scientific research that might suggest that at age 18 or 21 (ages we’ve traditionally considered a person to be a fully mature adult) may indeed be a little young, in terms of our brain development, to be making such big decisions.

Research suggests that the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and impulse control -- the Prefrontal Cortex -- does not fully mature until we are 25. In fact, that part of the brain is most unstable from the beginning of adolescence until we reach our mid-20s.

That helps explain why people in that age group tend to be prone to somewhat unpredictable (to put it mildly) behavior and decision-making. It might also help explain why people who get married younger are more likely to get divorced and why people who have children when they are very young often struggle with the heavy responsibility of parenting.

It seems to me that we’ve plucked 18 and 21 pretty much out of the air as ages when we expect people to become fully responsible for themselves. The results of that can be disastrous. I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples of what I’m talking about.

How many people do you know who married someone “totally wrong for them” and ended up getting divorced in a relatively short time and got married before they were 25? Probably a high proportion of them.

How many women who have children when they are very young end up needing a great deal of assistance figuring out how they are going to take care of their children? And do very young fathers tend to be the most responsible ones? You probably don’t know many couples in their 30s who had to live at home with their parents just to have a roof over their child’s head.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of people who get married or become parents at a young age who do just fine. But science and experience suggest that we are more likely to impulsively pick the wrong partner or have a child long before we are prepared to properly care for them if we dive into those very adult activities while our Prefrontal Cortexes are not quite fully ripened.

That’s all well and good, but what are we supposed to do with this information? I doubt that we’re going to have laws changed that raise the age of consent or the legal age people can get married to 25. Things like that become deeply ingrained in our culture and tend to not be greatly impacted by scientific research.

But if you are a parent, or just an adult who has any degree of influence in a young person’s life, you might need to get rid of the idea that you are off the clock trying to influence their lives when they graduate high school or even when they graduate college. Until they have reached their mid-20s, they still need to be nagged, meddled with, and otherwise encouraged to slow down, take a breath and wait for life to come to them.

Bill Ferguson is a resident of Centerville. Readers can write him at fergcolumn@hotmail.com or visit his blog at nscsense.blogspot.com.

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