There may be a time when a parent thinks: ‘My son knows what is right, but yet he still makes poor choices’. We have all probably faced this conundrum at some point and it can be puzzling if downright frustrating. I once read that to get a small child to try a different food, one had to persist on putting it on his plate hundreds of times before he would even consider tasting just a tiny bit. Behaviour management can be a bit like that, it requires persistence, gentle persuasion and great patience but above all, it is time spent with your child that reaps the greatest dividend.
However, even with lots of people giving up lots of time to coach boys around good decision making, things can go adrift. The truth is that teenagers have been found to be poor decision makers and if they are stressed or are seeking to impress their peers then all knowledge of what is right is challenged.
First, we know that neurologically the teenage brain is underdeveloped. The frontal lobe for example is that part of the brain that is responsible for decision making, so things like consequential thinking and impulse control are not easy for teenagers and unfortunately this area of the brain does not finish developing until we reach our mid-twenties.
Does this mean we should just give up as teachers and parents? Is it not just a lost cause, at least until our boys are grown men? Well, the answer is of course no and it leads me to my second point. Boys do have knowledge, in fact they are pretty good at acquiring and storing knowledge. At Prince Alfred College, through our character education program we talk a lot about virtuous behaviour and particularly we talk about core virtues that are important to us like gratitude, integrity, wisdom and courage. We don’t always see all of these virtues being practiced by all of the boys, but most of them know what those virtues are and they also know that if you are of good character you will adopt virtues like those. If we do not reinforce this as parents and teachers we do not equip our boys with the building blocks of character to draw on later in life.
We know that teenagers are challenged by different situations. Some situations are cold where emotional arousal is very low. In these situations such as sitting in a classroom or eating a meal at home with parents, teenagers are able to make rational decisions and offer good reason for their actions. They will articulate clearly what the right thing is in any situation. For example they will say that one should not drink too much alcohol at a party, because it might lead to unhealthy risk-taking or unsafe behaviours that will be regretted later.
However, in hot situations where emotional arousal is high, teenagers may well make the choice to consume large amounts of alcohol. In hot situations teenagers can be seeking to impress their peers or feel under pressure to behave in a certain way.
Hot situations may also explain the school yard code. Because teenagers want to impress their friends, or they feel under pressure to behave in a certain way, they may sacrifice what is right by justifying the virtue of loyalty to a friend over honesty or integrity to a person in authority, even if their friend has done something they know to be wrong. In virtue ethics it is up to the individual to do what they feel is right in any given situation.
It takes time to navigate the road of virtuous behaviour to get that what most would consider right. As adults we have made past mistakes and have learned from them and as a consequence, we are better positioned to make good choices. Our young people are only part the way along that road and we must make allowances for that. We must not however, stop correcting poor behaviour or make excuses for poor behaviour because without knowledge of virtues and good practice there is no understanding and no building blocks in place to good character.
Dean of Students