As a concept, maturity hinges on two things: emotional experience, and learning from it. While neither qualification can be rushed (or, indeed, predicted) we nonetheless have a tendency to associate maturity with people above a certain age – 18, say, or 21. This is based on the not-unreasonable hypothesis that most people will have undergone significant life or emotional change by this point, but this fulfills only one half of the equation. Learning from our experience is, quite arguably, the more relevant point, and is appropriately hard to test for. This difficulty is compounded by two other problems: firstly, the potential for youthful maturity and aged immaturity to wreck the curve; and secondly, a social habit of conflating maturity with intelligence.
This is where the issue becomes confused. Information, maturity, experience, knowledge and wisdom are all learned, but intelligence is native. It can be stunted, developed, delayed, repressed or encouraged according to circumstance, but there is still a level of predetermination to how smart you can actually be. A person’s base intelligence exists beyond their level of maturity: it doesn’t kick in at a certain birthday, nor does it require random, unpredictable change to flourish. Instead, intelligence blossoms as we use it. In pragmatic terms, this is still no substitute for acquired knowledge and life skills, nor can it stand in for maturity; and while an argument might be made that native intelligence governs how swiftly we mature once the opportunity has presented itself, this is of secondary concern. Consider, then, the following concept: that at some point in your teenage years, you become as technically bright as you’ll ever be.
Although the human brain doesn’t finish developing in its entirety until around 24, the cerebral development of intelligence stops between 8 and 12. Hormonal change starts not long after this process ends: even at 14, 15 and 16, we are still dealing with teenagers whose intelligence is set, and whose emotional development – at least on a biological level – is well underway.
The main difference between adults and teenagers, then, is one of experience. Firsts are a big part of human growth, and with a whole new set of chemicals informing teenage behaviour, it’s not only circumstances that are changing, but the knowledge of how an individual might react. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to mood swings, irrational behaviour, poor decisions and other such adolescent staples – but underneath all the drama lies an essentially adult intelligence, assessing situations, collating data, drawing conclusions and commenting on the process.
This is what society tends to forget: that teenagers are entirely capable of rational thought and observation, not just by childish standards, but in an adult context. Rather than an inability to form cogent arguments or opinions, the struggle is processing the sheer volume of information on offer, much of which is new. Areas which before held little or no interest whatsoever, such as politics, have suddenly hit the radar, while much of what was previously deemed important, like old hobbies, are being discarded.
There’s more to be said on the subject of teenagers: highschool, stereotyping by adults, social issues. But for now, I’m content to distinguish between maturity and intelligence, and to point out that both are equally significant to adulthood and development. The one might take years to learn, but the other is all too often overlooked.