Not Old, but Not Stupid

Something a lot of people with a wild past who have settled down love to say is “You can’t be old and wise without being young and dumb.” People love to equate age with wisdom, and because of this, youth gets associated with foolishness. This may be a surprise to a lot of people, but these items are neither exclusive nor related. Fools grow old, largely thanks to warning labels, and there are several youngsters who are already more familiar with how the world works than many in older generations simply because they were exposed to more at a younger age. 

It is understandably easy to fall into the mindset that the number of years someone has spent on earth has a direct, proportionate relationship with how wise they are. From an early age, we are told that’s the case. We’re instructed to listen to our elders, or other adults, for no other reason than they are older human beings. It makes sense that the more time someone spent alive, the smarter they would be. To an extent, that is how it works on an individual basis. The longer Person A lives, the smarter Person A gets. The longer Person B lives, the smarter Person B gets. Unfortunately, Person A and Person B aren’t guaranteed to be the same level of smart at the same age. 

Cold, hard truth time – some people are wise beyond their years, and even the most simple among us are not immune to aging. This means that there are responsible teenagers out there, just as there are foolish seniors. It only takes a few weeks of working a cash register with the general public to let you know that wisdom is NOT a guaranteed side effect of aging. Admittedly, you’ll seldom be blown away by the brainpower of a teenager, but you will see just how many people were served well by warning labels.

Caution Hazard Sign
Photo by Stephen Andrews on Unsplash | I blame these for overpopulation

One of the things that leads to adolescents making uninformed decisions is the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, where logic and reasoning take place. A part of this logic pulls in from memories and uses awareness of patterns to help determine what a likely outcome for a decision could be. While this is in development, teenagers turn more towards the amygdala for decision making, which runs off of emotions and instinct. This limits the capacity of someone to consider consequences as it doesn’t function on memory, which is where the awareness of consequences lives. As the prefrontal cortex develops, the teenager will write experiences into this space and will better be able to turn to those to help with decisions pertaining to the future. 

This is true for everyone. This is why it is so fascinating that at the age of 16, some people are capable of forming a landscaping business while others can’t read cursive. Some 16 year olds have achieved a higher level of independence than people who are over a decade older. Why are some people able to support themselves on an entry-level job while in high school while others who are twice that age can’t leave their mom’s basement though holding a college degree along with a decent job? 

What makes most people mature? Necessity. Simply put, humans are creatures of comfort and prefer the path with least resistance. It takes a lot of internal drive to strive for more without something externally fostering it. It’s no secret that children who are forced to learn the value of money at an early age become more financially literate than many who are adults but have not been exposed to such. This helps them achieve independence (from you) at an earlier age.

Old man playing video game
Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash | “MOM! Don’t forget the pizza rolls!”

Similarly, it should be of no surprise that children who are exposed to certain hardships will also mature faster due to the more obvious need. Children who had to care for younger siblings tend to take certain moments more seriously than children who were not exposed to being responsible for the well being of another. 

Being placed into positions of responsibility can give children an internal status bump. There is a lot of pride taken in being a “big” brother, a young aunt, or the “older” cousin. It can motivate a child to move up the ladder in age identity. Earning allowance and privileges can do similar things. It fosters an internal sense of superiority over other kids to be the “older” anything, and that can be used to accomplish quite a bit. Particularly, if you don’t want to hear your unemployed 40-year-old child say “I’m 18 at heart.”

At 16, I was kicked out of my foster home and was paying my own way. While it was challenging, it was amazing. I finally got all of the freedom to do whatever I wanted, the exact opposite of the rule-adorned life I had been living. Sure, I was working full time while going to school full time, but I found the total exhaustion worth the freedom to come and go as I pleased…though, it was usually just coming and going to work. However, knowing that there were people in their 20s still living with their parents, it made me feel like hot shit that I was pulling off independence. That only drove me to keep doing better, which helped launch my journey upward.

When I was 30, I was mentoring a foster teen. He was 16, and on track to age out of the system. Having taken him to play some arcade games, it amazed him that I could beat him in racing games and Mortal Kombat. He said something that really stuck with me as sad: “But, you’re a grown up. Grown ups aren’t supposed to be good at video games.”

BBQ grill
Photo by Vincent Keiman on Unsplash | I guess I am supposed to trade in my Nintendo Switch for this.

I wasn’t upset at his appallingly-ageist comment. What he said showed that he found there to be a gap between himself, at age 16, and “grown ups”, which would only be a couple of years older than he is. I heard it as a sign of how helpless he feels. At 16, given how I was riding high on living free as an adult, I would never have even differentiated between myself and actual adults. 

You really are as old as you feel, and that’s for better or worse. Because of that, chronological age has no full bearing on how mature or responsible someone is. Despite being independent for three years, at 19, I got drunk and threw up on someone’s Christmas tree. It was a graduation party. Nuke school graduation. At the same age that I was given top secret clearance to learn to run a nuclear reactor for the US military, a group of us were underage drinking to celebrate passing the test and getting the clearance to run a nuclear reactor. 

Let’s look at middle age. You are at an age where the disposable-income generation considers too old to be able to enjoy their interests while at an age that the seniors consider too young to be in their clique. Often, you get the bonus of your children and your parents conspiring together at your expense. The oldest generation will benefit from the pop culture knowledge of the youth that gets withheld from parents, while the youngest generation gets the benefits of the resources of the seniors that often get withheld from adult children. The older and younger people then ask why the middle aged ones are wrapped so tight…until the oldest and youngest get sent to the same county college nursing home and the middle generation gets the last laugh.

There is no hard line in the sand as to what age or experience makes someone wise. A single hardship can wake up a spoiled brat or it can turn a responsible person into a perpetual child. It is just another facet of our ongoing identity crises. What age do you really see yourself as, what age do you want to be, and what are you going to do about it?

Me? I’m 18. Unless you sell alcohol, then I’m 21. Unless you’re my insurance agent, then I’m 25. But, that’s where I’m stopping until my next age-related discount comes available. I’ll let you know when that is…if you sell something I’m after and offer such a discount. 😉

Journaling prompts: Does my age really matter? Why? What can I use to my advantage?

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