Would politicians please grow up?
The Kansas City Star
Some of my favorite moments as a parent have been listening to my children tell me about what they learned in school that day.
Recently, I listened to my daughter’s news from her biology class, and it struck me that her explanation of how the teenage brain develops might also help me understand the behavior of politicians in our current political landscape. Maybe many of our elected officials are still stuck in high school.
Their adolescent brains lack the maturity and skills needed for compromise, moderation and good will. Developmentally, a teenage brain is at a crossroads.
Toddlers run around in exuberant discovery mode, and older children soak up every new experience as they start to learn self-control. The frontal lobe section of a teen brain develops last, as teenagers grow into their early 20s. Along the way they acquire valuable skills such as reasoning, judgment, insight and risk analysis, which are important tools for good adult behavior.
Listening to political leaders debate a controversial topic and fail to find common ground is a bit like a heated family argument on a Saturday morning after a fender bender and blown curfew. At first no one can agree on the facts or even that the truth matters.
Gradually, as tempers cool, parents and teenagers start with the basics — such as “Who was driving the car?” Then reasoning and insight are applied to understand the situation and try to work together toward repairs and a resolution.
By comparison, political leaders too often start a conversation on important and challenging issues by insisting they alone are uniquely capable of understanding the situation and then escalate into angry and empty rhetoric. Hostility and conflict, instead of cooperation, are becoming the norm in the political process. I’d like to see more civility in political discussions, better manners and more goodwill.
When political leaders argue from extreme points of view, ignoring the much larger middle ground, it isn’t much different from parents hammering out plans with their kids for an after-prom party. Parents start with their own theory that “nothing good happens after midnight” but then get wind of the kids’ party plans for a great playlist, six kegs and a huge deck at an empty lake house.
Parents negotiate with their teens to find the safe middle ground that accommodates their teens’ claim for true high school happiness at this once-in-a-lifetime party. This exhausting conversation tests the patience of everyone involved.
For elected officials, we expect them to be reasonable and to show good insight as they build a consensus in the center.
Whereas teenagers can be self-absorbed, and Facebook updates may drive the high school universe, I’d like our leaders to offer more than sound bites from their own center stage. I think many of us want them to listen better, to think deeper about complex problems and to work more effectively with others to reach agreements that will better our community.
I extend thanks to my own young adults, for all that I continue to learn from them, and I offer support for teenagers doing the hard work to move through the teen years and into adult living. Gaining the skills of moderation, reasoning and good judgment may make them unelectable as future political leaders, but they will be good citizens, friends and partners.
While the issues facing teenagers feel every bit as critical to them as the re-election cycle feels to a politician, I recognize that the complexity and significance of the issues facing the latter are very different. Even so, our elected officials can do more to model adult behavior or better yet, surprise us with good reasoning skills, respectful and tolerant attitudes and a willingness to reach across the aisle, shake hands and tackle problems together.
Sarah Baum of Mission Hills has worked in finance and as a community volunteer. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.