Life is a horse race: A Metaphor on Adolescence // Blog
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horse-raceIt’s crazy that the life-packed sperm and egg get busy making new life as soon as they meet. They are setting up shop. It takes a long time to be fully alive. Just because you are born doesn’t mean that you have reached your full unpacking. We are coming to understand that that doesn’t happen until around the mid-20s. It’s like a five-horse race with

  • PHYSICAL leading the first lap until about 5. Babies’ brains have to focus on developing the whole body but must concentrate the gross motor skills first and then fine motor skills of this transportation system that brains will travel in.
  • The MENTAL horse takes a slight lead from being second around 5 (and they were changing leads back and forth for the last two years) The child’s brain is in high gear building a scaffolding for learning complex life. The transition from learning addition and subtraction to multiplication and division makes the young learning excited when able to master.  They feel a sense of accomplishment, which reinforces the drive to get things right (creativity is likewise challenged because of the certainty of answers the elementary child is seeking en route toward making sense of the world.
  • When the pituitary gland goes off, it’s like the next stage of the rocket that catapults the pre-adolescent into new stratospheres of life. This signals the EMOTIONAL horse to pull out in front of the pack, but just barely. The limbic system of the brain is now in full development. Emotions are developing into their full range, often uncontrolled by the young person. In fact, all the horses stumble a bit during this rocket stage’s explosion. Middle school years are when parents say, “What happened to my child!”
  • It’s during these 5-7 years that the horse named SOCIAL is fighting for the lead with EMOTIONAL. The race up to this point has been almost a 2-dimensional race seen from the perspective of the individual. Starting at the explosion of hormones from the pituitary gland at puberty, the early adolescence can see this horse race in 3D and they can see themselves outside themselves.  This factors in as they begin to become more of a social person of a tribe.  They seek security and safety in this jungle of a social world. Cliques become homemade social insurance policies with high deductibles. The horse race is heading into the final turn toward independence; parents are no longer the primary mirror holders, they now give those mirrors to indiscriminately to everyone they meet. They are preparing to leave the nest; fights for independence is natural and necessary with an emotional hurt done to their parents. The teenager has been living in a concrete world with clean, sharp, certain edges, black and white moral colors, and an inability to see life from any other perspective than their own. It’s at this stage of the race where the final horse begins breathing toward the lead.
  • The SPIRITUAL/MORAL horse edges in front with a long sprint toward the full maturity finish line. This is the time when the middle adolescent is just starting to learn how to be in full control of all of the faculties; up to this time, much of the learning and development is unconscious learning.  Yes, we are responsible for our decisions, but there are many decisions that are being made from how the brain has been shaped to this point. That is why mentors are so important.  However, it is during this last stage when integration and abstraction are taking on full range, where the bags for adult life are being unpacked and repacked. Some students dump the whole suitcase out on the bed to the horrors of all the adults who have been influencing the child to this stage. It is now becoming their own race, not the dreams and shaping of parents and guardians. This horse can stumble and may lose the lead for a while. Questions that have never been asked or that were asked but without deep meaning are now being asked. Frustrations increase because the answers require colors they don’t have in their 5 pack of crayons: black, white, red, yellow, and blue answers don’t seem to do the job with fuschia questions. They seek out new colors to help them make sense of this much bigger world than they had ever noticed. These mid-20 young adults are reaching the end of their childhood race. It has been an exciting context with many lead changes, but it now on to another track where they will be in the stands rooting and cheering on their little humans who will repeat the same process. [NOTE: This last lead change may not happen while the adolescent is still in high school. If they do not develop their own first-hand faith, and one that is more flexible from the brittle concrete view of reality, their faith will snap and when they dump their suitcase out on their college dorm bed, the beliefs that were stuffed in their unconsciously by parents and mentors will simply be swept into the trash can along with the pizza boxes and beer cans.]

And so is adolescent development. Take a moment to reflect on the following questions:

  • What are you currently doing, that you should keep on doing, that is aiding the young people with which you are mentoring?
  • List a couple of actions that you need to stop at each stage that might be preventing them from developing into the independent adults we seek to raise?
  • Brainstorm few specific actions for each stage that you need to start doing as you lead, shape, and mentor the young people you are cheering on? When will you start these? How will you know that they are successful?

Let’s the race begin.


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