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Book Review of "Born to Be Wild" by Dr. Jess P. Shatkin

Wednesday, September 5, 2018  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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Reviewed by Julie Reynolds, Language Arts Teacher, Christ Methodist Day School, Memphis, TN

At age 18, we can vote, join the armed services, or head off to college. We are adults, right? Well, according to the book, Born to Be WildWhy Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe that is not exactly true. It seems that Jess Shatkin’s extensive research has revealed that adolescence can begin at about 12 and last until the mid-20s. That was rather alarming to hear since adolescence can be a difficult period for parents, teachers, and children. Teenagers are notorious for taking risks and not making the best decisions when it comes to many things such as drinking, driving, and trying drugs. These decisions can lead to many devastating consequences such as car accidents, depression, and even suicide. Born to Be Wild discusses how an adolescent’s brain functions, differences between adult and adolescent thinking, and how parents, teachers, and communities can help reduce teenagers’ tendencies to take risks. The author uses personal experiences as well as research to present scientific information that, as a teacher and parent, I easily understood and enjoyed. Here are some of the book’s highlights:

The author begins by presenting some overwhelming statistics about risks taken by this age group: Half of high school students say they text and drive. One third of high school freshmen has tried marijuana. One in ten high school students has admitted to driving drunk. Dr. Shatkin’s research sheds light on the fact that students in this age group do not think they are invincible, and that they are very aware of the risks they face. This leads to a discussion about some of the common educational and prevention programs traditionally offered in schools: D.A.R.E., Scared Straight, Zero Tolerance, and driver’s education. According to the author, the research on these programs does not show a significant decrease in risky behaviors. As mentioned earlier, teens know there are consequences, but they choose risky behavior anyway. Why is this? 

The brain research presented is important to understanding adolescent behavior. “What were you thinking?” is probably a common phrase for adults when speaking to teens. I learned that they are thinking, but it is different than how an adult would due to the way our brains develop. The author explains several areas that impact a teen’s brain. The limbic system, “the emotional center,” is responsible for feelings, emotions, and rewards. The prefrontal cortex, “the brain’s CEO,” is responsible for planning, organization, logic, memory, and decision-making. As we age, neural connections between the areas of the brain that are used most get faster through myelination. It is during puberty that connections for certain skills begin to strengthen. Since the brain develops from back to front, physical skills develop first, then the limbic system, then the prefrontal cortex. Also, the neurochemical in our brain – dopamine, which tells us what is pleasurable – is flowing at its highest during puberty. Therefore, it seems that emotions, the need to seek pleasure, and the lack of maturation of the prefrontal cortex drive risky behavior from about age 12 until 26 when the prefrontal cortex is believed to be fully developed and connected to the limbic system. What is a parent or teacher to do with these highly-emotional reward-seekers that take risks even though they know there are consequences? 

Dr. Shatkin explains that adult decision-makers can make quicker and better decisions based on less information due to experience. Teens do not necessarily have this experience (or a mature brain) and often contemplate more about rewards and consequences. To most adults, any risk is not greater than the reward it may yield. Teens, however, would rather take a risk and receive a reward (limbic system at work), even if it is small. This adult thinking is called “getting to the gist” (chapter 7). Dr. Shatkin proposes some strategies to help teens “get to the gist” earlier to help keep them safe. I will begin with a few ideas for parents offered in chapter 8:

  • Practice authoritative parenting. 
  • Aim praise at specific behaviors, not personal qualities.
  • Give clear/specific expectations.
  • Explain reasoning for choices, and help children practice making decisions in risky situations.
  • Limit screen time.
  • Provide safe “risky” behavior.
  • Present risky scenarios and help teens develop an understanding for them in ways they understand.
  • Be present to offer positive reminders.

Chapter 9 offers suggestions for schools:

  • Realize that good nutrition, exercise, and sleep are important. 
  • Keep students actively engaged in the classroom. A good scenario provided that medical students use is “see one, do one, teach one.” We learn most by doing and teaching.
  • Teach students how their brains work. Having a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset can help improve learning since our brains can create new connections through effort and diligence.
  • Identify and offer services for learning and behavioral problems at a young age.
  • Offer and encourage many extracurricular activities and service projects.
  • Monitor teens closely in school areas where risky behavior may occur.
  • Make homework meaningful.
  • Academics is only part of the learning process, and schools have a responsibility to teach resilience, skills to help regulate emotions, and positive character traits needed for success.

 The last chapter of the book discusses things communities can do to help adolescents reduce risky behavior. By supporting teachers in their effort to teach and promote a growth mindset, all students can be encouraged to learn and be successful. Mentorship programs can be useful when done effectively with clear goals and expectations of the mentor/mentee relationship. Alcohol and tobacco companies should use responsible advertising techniques; as well, adults can teach students how to recognize deceptive media techniques. Also, possibly raising the legal drinking age to keep teens away from alcohol as long as possible could reduce drunk driving instances, and implementing graduated driver’s license programs could help reduce other risky behavior.

Even though the content is concerned with ages 12 to 26, there is much that parents and teachers can learn. Dr. Shatkin often reviewed material from previous chapters that helped further explain the subject matter, and he explained his research in an interesting way with personal examples. Both of those techniques reinforce what I learned about the brain, which is that repetition and emotional associations form stronger neural connections, and I have begun thinking how to best use this information with my children and students.






Julie Reynolds teaches 5th and 6th grade language arts at Christ Methodist Day School in Memphis, TN. 

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