It was a memorable walk in the neighborhood. I was going along, enjoying the beautiful day, when something made me look up at a second story window on my right. Movement behind the window, curtains pulled away, and then a classic moon job by what could only have been an adolescent male. With his buddy laughing in the shadows to the side, the sense of hilarity in that room was contagious, and I found myself laughing out loud as they jumped back, curtains falling back across the window.
My gut-level laugh was the right response, but I had to run through all my stuffy socialization training anyway. Should I call his parents? Maybe walk up to the front door and ask to speak to the young man, just to see how many shades of scarlet he could turn? Maybe he would give me his allowance for a few weeks’ hush money. I briefly enjoyed my power fantasies, getting high on feminist sensibilities, huffing about how many eons women have had to put up with such stupid male behavior.
I sorted my reactions for the rest of my walk. On the way home, I checked out the window as I passed that house again. The curtains were drawn, the lawn was manicured, and the crepe myrtles were perfect. The house serenely presented its lovely façade as if to say: “Nothing wild going on here.” Seeing that blandly boring perfection, I knew how I really felt about the whole incident. I felt honored. In the midst of all that suburban conformity, I had been granted a rare glimpse of homo loco juvenilis.
In spite of what I am sure were his parents’ best efforts to make him an upstanding citizen, that young male broke through the suburban paradigm with a bang. His dumb idea defined his age, while his behavior shouted that he came from the wild and of wildness he will remain.
One of these days I want to do a research project in which successful men describe a teenage exploit that could have ruined their lives or at least dinged a resume. I have collected some already. A couple of my favorites involved fraternity boys driving to the bank in their underwear and stuffing a golf shoe into the vacuum tube at the drive-through (police were called), and another had to do with teenagers lifting a car onto the tracks of an abandoned train line for a joy ride (ended up in court after someone reported their headlights.) All those guys turned out fine, sent their kids to college, and had careers.
Their positive outcomes are explained by the fact that the male brain is still under construction until about age twenty-five. By construction, I don’t mean painting and sanding, I mean not having the roof on. There is still plenty of hope for young males that they will approach life very differently once their frontal lobes are fully developed. Like a miracle, they begin to show foresight, impulse control, and better judgment. Insurance companies recognize this neurological milestone by lowering their rates once they pass the twenty-fifth birthday.
All you parents who are despairing of your teenage son’s ever showing commonsense, just give it a little time. If they were okay before age eleven, they will probably return to their senses after twenty-five. You just have a bit of desert to cross before then. Of course some behavior is a cry for help, or a sign of a real problem needing attention, but a stupid act or two does not a character make, especially in boys.
How do I know that boy was not a budding pervert? I was not vulnerable, and he was not creepy. Perverts like to pick their marks in isolated or anonymous places, they don’t do it out of their own homes, and they don’t do it with a buddy. While frontal exposure is a deeply disturbing behavior, showing one’s backside in broad daylight belongs to the long history of male-taunting behavior, especially in the context of all-male groups.
The real puzzle is how adolescent males have survived long enough for the adult male to evolve. Especially since in prehistoric times males probably did not live for much more than thirty or forty years. If twenty-five of those years were spent in impulsive, dangerous behavior that made other people mad, where is the evolutionary benefit in that?
I discussed this with an adolescent therapist, Karen Neymark, and she reminded me that back in the hunter-scavenger days, this kind of inventive, impulsive behavior was just the ticket. If we now expect our kids to look before they leap, the best advice back then was probably more like get it while you can. The prehistoric adolescent male who paused to think, “Maybe this is not such a good idea” probably missed his chance at all kinds of things.
A taste for thrills was a good thing for a caveman teen to have if he ever hoped to hunt or mate successfully, both of which require a huge amount of trial and error. Back then if a teenage boy worried too much about rules and consequences, he might not learn all he needed to by age twenty-five. With a limited life span, males had to learn a boatload of survival information fast, and the best way to do it was to dive in and make lots of mistakes. Young males have always had to blunder their way into competence.
I did not rat on my neighbor’s kid. I like to think he is still out there somewhere doing dumb things, depending on the mercy of adults who can laugh at inane behavior. Thousands of years ago, in a jungle or on a savannah, his behavior was the equivalent of getting noticed, a definite plus for a competitive up-and-coming guy. I like to think of him at forty, looking back with relief that nobody turned him in on that sunny afternoon when hormones were running high.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.