Bruce Springsteen is back in town to perform for the first time in 14 years. As ever, he will defy age to the point of astonishment: stomping, jumping and effusing around the stage like a man decades younger. His show in Charlotte was 3 hours, 20 minutes. At the end, there was only Bruce on stage singing like a relentless time piece that needed no winding but ran on the energy and adoration of those around him.
We love to celebrate the notion that the vibrant exuberance of our adolescence could be eternal, yet it is a window that opens only for a short but critical period of brain development. The brain of a young man or woman is dominated by impulses because the frontal cortex, the part that helps us take pause, envision outcomes and consider ramifications, has not yet fully developed. As this brain region and its connections to other neural circuits are being finalized, young people begin to traverse the awkward hinterlands between guided child and independent agent. This is the person we feel is our true self, and the friends we make during this period are often the ones we feel know us for who we really are. They are the people we are with when we make mistakes, sometimes big mistakes, that we all laugh about later.
In the midst of the tumult of this developmental period, we make some of the most important decisions we will ever address: Which college? Which job? Should I go into the military? Springsteen mourned last weekend in Charlotte when performing his very personal song about the Vietnam War Memorial. He told the story of how a young man he knew and idolized went MIA in 1968 and never returned. Back in the days of the military draft, only lucky men had the opportunity to make decisions for themselves, but those laws have changed.
Other age-related laws have also since changed, causing some bizarre discrepancies regarding whom we consider to be adults in North Carolina. The age is 21 for drinking alcohol, but 18 to become a soldier without parental consent. To reduce the number of alcohol-related fatalities, lobbyists and legislatures have recognized that the human brain is not in a position to acquire and process information sufficiently to make sound decisions until the age of 21. The military hierarchy and well-considered structure and discipline allow young people the chance to grow in the context of a meaningful mission. They are also vulnerable to those who would use them as tools in their political decisions and personal ambitions. They need responsible, thoughtful and caring adults to be watching out for their future. People who are asking questions about what will happen to them when they come home and who will help heal their wounds, visible and hidden. We need soldiers. But it is dangerous, noble and complicated.
Less complicated are the laws for children who commit crimes in North Carolina, one of only two states that mandate that 16-year-old children be treated as adults. These laws have real and horrible consequences. The juvenile justice system focuses on rehabilitation, while the adult system focuses on punishment with lifelong consequences. Felony convictions can prevent students from continuing their education, keep them from finding jobs and make them ineligible for social services. The Raise the Age movement in North Carolina is fighting to have 16- and 17-year-olds prosecuted as the children they are. It needs our support.
Many adults, ignorantly or maliciously, evaluate young people based on the size of their bones and not the size of their brains. Adolescents and young adults are physically ready to take on many important tasks for the rest of us. But their brains are simply not prepared to allow them to take care of themselves fully or express themselves completely. They need more from us than they realize, more then we realize, and more than they usually receive.
Adolescence is a time during which we are designed to make mistakes so that we can learn from them and apply these lessons to our long adult lives. We need to consider more deliberately the stage of brain development in our adolescents and young adults and provide an environment that reduces the danger of an early exit.
As Bruce Springsteen has noted on countless occasions and will belt out passionately tonight, young people want to get out on the street to find out what they got, but we adults need to help them get to that place where they will walk in the sun and tell stories about the vigor of their youth.
Richard Keefe, Ph.D., is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University.