Friday, March 25, 2011

Sowing Wild Oats & Getting It Out of Your System - What's Really Happening

A friend once told me a story about his older brother. My friend was a top student and multi-sport athlete in high school, and he eventually got a football scholarship and later had a successful career as an executive. His drive to achieve in class and in sports kept him mostly on track during the wild ride of his teen journey. Lucky for him!

His brother's teen journey took a different path. He was busy "sowing wild oats," experimenting with drugs until he dropped out of high school. To avoid the grief he was getting from his parents, he left home. During the years that followed, he moved from place to place, working minimum wage jobs to pay for drugs. But when he wasn't stoned, he read Alfred North Whitehead, Buckminster Fuller, Allan Watts, Marshall McLuhan and other philosophers who were in vogue at the time.

One day he got a job in a factory as an assembly technician. Unlike his coworkers, his studies gave him a different perception of the floor operation. After working there for several weeks, it seemed to him that the flow of work was unnecessarily inefficient. He sketched out an alternate system and presented it to his boss, who showed it to top management. Impressed, they decided to try it in one area of the plant.

After six months, his new work-flow system was saving the company so much money that he was put in charge of upgrading all the company's operations. As his innovations came on line, management decided they didn't want to lose his talent, so they made him a vice-president.

This young man's teen journey, as crazy as it was, included elements of self-development and luck that led to a success story.

Years ago, after my first marriage ended, I fell in love with someone new. When I told my mother about her, she said, "Isn't this a little soon? Don't you need to sow some wild oats? You never did as a teenager, you know." I appreciated her motherly concern and I considered her question, but I concluded that no, at the age of thirty I didn't have a pent-up need to sow any wild oats.

I later learned why my mother asked me that. One of her sisters told me that my mom was kind of a "wild child" as a teenager. Born into a family of 16 kids in a small Mormon town in Nevada, she rebelled against the pressure to conform. She escaped into boys and booze and often would come home drunk. My aunt said she was uncontrollable and ran away from home before she finished high school. Vain, beautiful and, well, a little wild, she captured the fascination of my father, a young sergeant in the Army.

They married and when I came along, my mother's emotional nature was channeled into motherhood, which became a bigger responsibility after two of my younger brothers joined the family. Ten years into the marriage, my parents gave up cigarettes and alcohol, and her wild child phase was officially over. Before she died at 79, she had eight children and dozens of grandchildren - a rather large family legacy.

It's interesting how we fall back on these phrases, "sowing wild oats" and "getting it out of your system" to explain the craziness of youth. We talk about it this way because we don't understand what's actually going on.

What's going on, then?

The first dozen or so years of life is involved with developing the back part of the brain - all of the sensory and perceptual functions; the language centers; physical coordination; factual learning and other basic capabilities. I've explained the blossoming and pruning process of child brain development in another post.

The next dozen or so years, adolescence, begins with the onset of puberty. Recently neuroscientists have learned that during this phase a second wave of child brain development is underway - the blossoming and pruning of brain cell connections in the all-important front part of the brain. The foundation for "executive" thinking is under construction - reasoning, intuition, analysis, evaluation, understanding, judgment, decision-making, foresight, planning, management and self-regulation. If teenagers don't use these front-brain connections, eventually they'll lose them. But because this part of the brain is still under construction, doing the work of using it is hard. It's a "catch-22" situation.

So a lot of teen behavior is based on emotion, not critical thinking. And, depending on the connections that are ultimately established, the foundation could be minimal or it could be elaborate. A young person's success in life and work hangs in the balance.

That's what's really going on.

If you're still reading this article, then reflect on what was going on with you when you were a teenager. What was your teen journey like? What influences, events and consequences helped to make you who you are? How lucky were you?

If you were like me and everyone I know, you didn't realize you were on a "teen journey" with all its perils and momentous consequences. It was just being a kid, stuff you were doing, things that were happening at the time. Things that later became dim memories as you began to make a life for yourself. Things your parents didn't understand, either.

I'm beginning to realize that luck doesn't always go a young person's way, that it would help a teenager to understand what's really going on. I think it would make a difference if a young person knew why his life can sometimes be like a crazy roller coaster ride, and the importance of the ultimate outcome. You can't manage what you don't understand. Maybe we shouldn't accept that being confused and angry and "sowing wild oats" are not just a natural phase that you have to "get out of your system."

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use photos purchased from

1 comment:

RJ, the Hope Coach said...

I very much appreciate this story, and your perspective on helping teens understand the roller coaster ride they're on. I agree - "You can't manage what you don't understand." Explanations may not eliminate challenges, but would likely go a very long way toward helping teens feel a little less crazy along the way!

~RJ, the Hope Coach