Teens - The Idiot Factor

The positioning of these two billboards seems a little misguided. But David Murphy says you don't need alcohol to trigger teen trouble. Unsupervised numbers may be the more frequent fuel. (Photo: badbillboardproject.com) (badbillboardproject.com)

May 7, 2010 7:15:35 AM PDT
As I've mentioned in other blogs, raising teenagers is not nearly as bad as some people assume. Teens are generally intelligent and often quite manageable. But, they can still be pretty half-baked when it comes to common sense.

With this idea in play, allow me to offer what I feel is one of the most critical pieces of information parents need to know about teenaged behavior: the more teens you put in a room together, unsupervised, the less intelligent they each become. For example, one teenager might think it's a good idea to borrow the car without asking, for a quick run to the mini-mart. Two teens might consider an unauthorized trip to that fast food place across town within reason. Six teens? "Hey, look! Car keys! ATLANTIC CITY!!!"

I call this phenomena "The Idiot Factor", which can technically apply to any group of same-aged kids, but becomes especially pronounced and, frankly, scarier, when you're talking about teenagers. Consider the old joke about the exasperated mother: "I suppose if Johnny told you to jump off the Empire State Building, you'd do that too, right?" With the average kid, the answer is, "No, mom." With teens, there are provisos. "Probably not, mom. But, of course, if there was a pile of mattresses in the street and everybody else was doing it..."

The Idiot Factor theory holds that even the brightest and normally best-behaved teenagers are capable of making surprisingly flawed decisions, when placed in a group of same-aged individuals left to their own devices. Part of how this happens involves the speed at which the decisions are made. It may only take a few seconds to go from concept to action, with no time to undo things once the ball is rolling. Part of the beauty of being a teenager is the newfound independence that comes with the territory, and there's no better feeling than exercising this burgeoning freedom. The problem is that it takes a while to get a handle on the responsibility end of the equation.

"What could possibly go wrong?" is probably the most misunderstood question when posed in the company of multiple, unsupervised teenagers. Adults ask it of themselves in almost any, even mildly threatening situation. It's a good, solid question, and we take it literally. With teens, it's more a statement of fact, as in, "What COULD possibly go wrong? We're teens! Nothing!" And this is why teenagers break bones, twist ankles, give themselves concussions, put their parents' cars into ditches, and accidentally damage family heirlooms, with far more proclivity than practically any other demographic. The news is filled with these stories. Just now, I Googled "teenager accidents" and came up with information on car wrecks, falls, fights, choking games - and that was only page ONE.

So what's a parent to do? Well, for one thing, I wouldn't shy away from this "Idiot Factor" issue. We started telling our kids about it when they were still midway through grade school. And we ramped up the message once they became teenagers. You should too. Why? It may not have occurred to them. Knowing about how kids are more liable to get into trouble in unsupervised numbers can be valuable information when those situations arise. Better to go into it informed, right? Also, once "The Idiot Factor" is clearly explained, you may be surprised how many kids basically agree with it. One of my teens not only told us we were right about this, they immediately began listing those among their friends who were the most likely to lead his or her group to the edge of the cliff.

And by the way, an important adjunct to "The Idiot Factor" is "The Idiot Factor: Alcohol Edition". If alcohol is involved, the chance of problems among a group of teenagers increases, by my humble estimate, by roughly one-hundred with each subsequent drink. And the potential for more serious trouble is also far greater, with automobile accidents, alcohol poisoning, and sexual assault leading the way.

You can give it another name if you'd like. Some kids may not appreciate the term, "Idiot Factor", due to various unintended implications. But whatever the terminology, we always felt better sending our kids out the door equipped with the knowledge of how easy it is for normally sensible teens to make unbelievably bad decisions, and how unsupervised, group situations require the most weariness.