The Sum May be Less than the Parts

Whenever you hear the statement, “two heads are better than one,” please know it may be true in problem solving or collaborative planning, but it never applies to high school and college students on spring break. We instinctively know that a medium to large group of students can get into more trouble than one or two teens going out for the evening. Case in point is the reprehensible behavior of the students on a party bus at the University of Oklahoma. Less is more when it comes to social groups. For years I have attributed negative consequences to the particular chemistry of a peer group. After all, if you gather enough young people together, chances are there is at least one who wants to push the envelope, not to mention any other reasonable boundaries set by parents or school communities.

For decades I have urged parents to limit the size of the group for which they are responsible on spring break. If you are traveling or simply taking your daughter to the movies, take a friend, but don’t take 10-12 friends. “Groupthink” by teenagers scoots away from any semblance of wisdom at a rapid clip. IQ’s and EQ’s plummet, and suddenly you can be left with a range of challenges. At the least, there could be disappointment or an awkward phone call to the parents of a friend; at the most you could have a public relations nightmare antithetical to your core values and due to the horrendous choice of a group of students on the way to a party. Any or all of that is enough to make us pause before traveling in packs to any destination out of our zip code.

The consequences of bad decisions made in large groups come as a disappointing reminder, but no real surprise. The reason behind these actions is what is most intriguing. According to a study conducted in 2005 and replicated several times by Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University, adolescent peer groups do not make bad choices because they are distracted or encouraged by a friend to do so – they make poor choices because a friend or peer is simply present. It doesn’t really matter who it is or how many there are. It turns out that adolescents are hard-wired to push the limits or act out, if another adolescent is with them. According to a New York Times article describing the study, “when teens were with people their own age, their brains’ reward centers became hyperactivated, which made them more easily aroused by the prospect of a potentially pleasurable experience.” In these cases, teens tend to see risk taking as a reward. Thankfully adults do not react differently when peers are present; their risk aversion remains constant.

Choosing the “right friends” to shield your child from poor choices may not be possible during these years. On the other hand, we finally may have an answer to that rhetorical cry, “Mom, don’t you trust me?” Our reply is: “Yes, I trust you to be a teenager and to make decisions the way teenagers do when they are with friends.” Steinberg’s study may cause concern for parents, not to mention trip chaperones and sponsors, but we already knew that adolescents don’t make the best decisions when they are with friends. We now know this just may be the way they are wired during these years. It is a reason, but never an excuse. We must continue to cultivate impulse control and good judgment. Continue to set those limits, just don’t think it is something you said or didn’t say that is making them want to misbehave a little when they are with a friend.

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