Teen Babies – Brain Launch



I could end with that word and many knowing parent heads would bob up and down with understanding and reminiscence. In contrast, the heads of Baby parents are stock-still, eyes unblinking. They know about adolescence in theory, but not in practice – therefore they don’t really think it will happen to them. Endless hours of careful schooling, cajoling, disciplining, refining, exposing and pacing, will steel their child from the ravages of erratic teen behavior. Their Baby will be immune to those teen traits that they hear about. Their Baby will sail through the teen years and with every challenge, will hearken back to a parent’s wise counsel. Teenbaby will then follow said parental counsel and correct choices will prevail.

Allow me to explain why this is an unlikely scenario.

Brain development happens like body development with periods of quiescence mingled with intense growth. One of the most intense periods happens during puberty – especially in the 15-16-year-old age range. While the study of neurological underpinnings of the Teenbaby crazies yields something new every year, I will pass on what is currently believed by science.

Starting with the end of middle childhood and continuing into the twenties, the brain undergoes significant remodeling. There is a flurry of activity to reconfigure the child into the adult thinker. Some of the things going on in their noggin are:

Weeding the Garden, or Synaptic Pruning

Babies are born with about a hundred billion brain cells or neurons. The size of the brain reaches 90% of an adult at age six. Each neuron looks like a tree with a very long trunk and all the branches connect with other branches making a synapse – a tiny gap where the signal jumps across. As Baby grows and experiences the world, some of those connections are used frequently and others are not – and may begin to waste. Pruning eliminates unused pathways and allows for the well-used ones to become stronger. In addition, the brain greases up (provides a special coating) the well-used pathways so thoughts can run along them at lightening speed.


The Bloom of Seeking Novelty and Taking Risks

Adolescence is when the brain is most sensitive to the substance dopamine, a neurotransmitter that directly influences reward and pleasure. We used to think that Teenbaby did not realize he was mortal, but now we know better. They have more “eye on the prize” and are willing to accept greater risk in return for a reward. Adults, not so much. Ultimately, this trait enables Teenbaby to leave the parents and home in search of independence but also renders them more vulnerable to harmful consequences in the mean time. Unfortunately, it is this reward chemical, dopamine, that is affected with illicit drug and alcohol use. The remodel can be permanently affected and the resulting structure lacking sense and order.

Building the Fences – Control through Executive Function Development

Where are we without a leader? Without someone to hold workers accountable, everyone just does what they want when they want. Bosses serve useful purposes. They remind every one of their specific duty and with the big picture in mind, corral the workers so the business runs for maximum output. The prefrontal cortex is the boss – and it is what makes us human. We have the ability to bite our tongue, control our anger and defer a pleasure because this area of the brain filters and directs – and suppresses those centers that would have us respond with raw rage. With teens, the Executive function development lags behind those busy independence and novelty-seeking parts of the brain. You get the picture.

“Let’s go get our ____ tattooed .” “Let’s see what happens if we ______.” “I’ll bet you can’t ____. “

With Executive Function out on an extended lunch, Novelty Seeker wins much of the time. Parental reminders, expectations and checks are essential to Teenbaby survival.

So think about what a house looks like during a remodel. Demolition – walls are coming down, dust is flying and the place is a mess.  However, amid the chaos, new and improved structures are appearing with updated wiring that allows faster and more comprehensive communication between rooms. That is why those Teenbabies can seem so very together one day and a disorganized mess the next. They are not comfortable in their own in-process brains.

“Should I do X or y or Z,” says Teenbaby brain. Or, should I do A like my mother wants me to?

img579Teenbaby brain has all channels wide open, with choice A being the least attractive because Teenbaby brain says that it is “other” generated and not “self” generated. Also, it is not a “new” or “unique” avenue so it is much less desirable. Teenbaby brain is searching for launch. So, Teenbaby brain will choose X, Y, or Z over A almost every time. Or, it will choose X on Monday, Y on Tuesday and Z on Wednesday. Think about how many persona’s a teen tries out during those years.

So we have conflict. Teenbaby is following the new options. Conflict is set up. Conflict is necessary to separate from the parent. In its extreme state, this conflict requires that Parent forcibly eject Teenbaby. There we go – Baby Launched.

The more likely scenario, however is for a multitude of lesser conflicts to arise – with both parties realizing that Teenbaby must leave Parent. And that if Parent has done a superb job, Teenbaby will leave and establish an independent life. Executive function takes over and an independent adult is born. Eventually, in an ideal world, all are happy with this situation. Parents are happy that the conflict is over, launch has occurred and Teenbaby is independent Adultbaby and deciding that Parents may have had a point after all.

Sometime after 25, (which, by the way, the average time the remodel job is finished) they get back together in a new and improved relationship. But the transition is hell. And almost no one is immune – because of developmental neurobiology, of course. And the human condition.



When Babies Marry


Around the time Babies launch, they usually date – and then marry. Now if dating leads to marriage, then parents of Babies tend to scrutinize every dating choice. It is at this time, parents start researching Arranged Marriages. That rarely works out unless it is already an integral part of your culture. So then, we are left with the role of Bystander. While they are underage, parents do have more control over who Baby spends time with – at least we want to believe that. However, there is no control over who piques the interest or plucks the love strings in the heart of your beloved Baby.

Counseling, cajoling and commanding are the most commonly used tools when Baby’s eyes are glazed over swooning about for a less than desirable Other. Your baby deserves the best. You can choose the best. Baby usually does not appreciate your choice. Now if Baby appreciates your taste and choices in characteristics of a future mate, and follows your advice carefully, then read no further. All is well and you can look forward to a long, smooth, trouble-free relationship with your future son or daughter-in-law. But that is as rare as a hen’s teeth.

The majority of the time, parents don’t choose Baby’s mate and have very few options when Baby chooses a worrisome future mate. You calculate the fine line between discharging your parental duty and pointing out the obvious. “Sally, you are buying a lifetime of trouble with this one because ______.” You fill in the blanks. This assumes you know what you are talking about. Beware the clouding that comes to the parental (especially mother) brain when entertaining the worthiness of a future daughter-in-law. Yes, you are going to lose that boy Baby to this woman. Can you really see clearly?

Let’s say you can see clearly. You see traits or qualities that you don’t believe Baby can see. Go ahead – discharge your duty – before the ink is dry on the marriage license.  Say it.  Point it out.  Check for understanding of what you have said. If you believe your words have been received and understood – you then sit down and shut up. Say no more. Go shopping for the beige mother of the bride/groom dress. Plan on shutting up for a long time – try forever. No criticism of Baby’s mate will be received with any gratitude. If Baby finds out years later you were right, and Baby is completely miserable, you still just say, “I’m so sorry.” – or – “I wish you well.” Nothing more.

Your next project is to welcome your new son or daughter-in-law into your family.  Often, the traits you found so disturbing, may be the traits that you share with this future baby-in-law.  This is the person your child chose and loves. And, perhaps even more important, this is the person that loves your child and is therefore deserving of your care. You are now his or her greatest supporter.  It is all quite simple, really.

Most humans are free to make big choices, and then to live with them. There is a reason why we get to make those choices and it is called agency – the ability to choose. A parent has very few years to influence a child. After that, the agency thing kicks in with robust force. You were able to make your mistakes and then meander through the consequences, reaping the rewards of growth and hard-earned wisdom.  And so will Baby.

Just keep the love lines open.


Photo credit:  Tammi Jensen Photography

No Babies

IMG_7016Babies or No Babies – Do we get to decide?  How do we decide?  Do we decide and then something else happens anyway?  Do they come to us, but are taken away?   Sometimes the final result is that we are in the No Baby land.  What is that?

Choice: No Babies

We live in a wonderful land where we have been given the freedom to choose our life and lifestyle. – mostly. This means that most have the choice to marry and whether to bring children into the marriage. Some married couples make the purposeful choice to not have babies. The rationales are many and varied. For some, it is a political or societal belief system that they hold closely that includes not bringing more human beings into the world to populate the planet. For some, it is less about population and more about chosen lifestyles where children would not fit. Others may have family history of a disease, genetic disability, or mental disorders and decide not to chance passing these things on. I’m certain there are others and certainly variations on the ones I have mentioned.

The most unfortunate thing I see transpiring between the Babies by Choice and the No Babies by Choice groups is a lack of compassion toward each other. We do not walk in each other’s shoes. We walk in our own. This is an enormous life decision for each group and there is no room for cluck-clucking or derision – as in the Baby-full crowd bemoaning all the fine experiences missed by the No Baby crowd – or, the No Baby crowd calling the Baby-full crowd “breeders.” Please. Let us be respectful of our fellow life-travelers.

No Choice – No Babies

This is a tough one. Those who would choose to have Babies, but through the vagaries of life, were denied that request. Perhaps their life partner failed to show up in a timely manner. Or, as a married couple, no babies came after years of trying. Sometimes, pregnancies occur, but, as a friend of mine explained, “they just keep falling out too early,” which was her way to apply humor to her series of early miscarriages. Whatever the reason, the result is the same: no children of our own in this life. Adopted Babies come into the lives of some – but not all. Many are still without Babies.

Double Rainbow 0307

There is usually a grief process to slog through when the final curtain falls and there is certainty that no babies are coming. Profound losses deserve grief time. And, as with anyone walking with grief, a time comes when a new direction is required – a reconstruction of the former life plan – a reconnoitering and mobilization. I have witnessed this process with a variety of people and they are among some of the most-admired people I know.

When denied babies of their own in this life, some go find themselves some Babies in other places. One especially grand lady I know explained to me that while she and her husband planned “to have a dozen,” nature would say no to them. She had many siblings who had children and she found that as the childless aunt, she had both the resources to fill in for their physical needs and the available ear and understanding heart to care for Babies in need or crisis. She was able to place bicycles under Christmas trees when otherwise there would have been none. She has been consulted on many occasions in the role of confidant that sometimes the Parent cannot fill.

I have two other wonderful people in my life who have shown me how this is done with style, skill, and phenomenal grace. No babies of their own, they have entered the lives of nieces and nephews and provided shoulders, ears, transportation and cheering section. The resources, examples, bonding, support and parenting they have provided will hold sway with those children forever. I have seen mothering and fathering at its finest in these so-called “childless” people. One never knows when and how Babies can come into a life. It is best to have a channel always open for when they come.

If your arms are aching for Babies, somewhere there are Babies aching for your arms. Impacting the next generation – no matter whose body they come from, is a noble calling indeed.


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Church Babies – Sunbeams

Church is good for babies. They learn many things. Babies at our church are

CC Max leavesexpected to stay with parents until they are 18 months old and then, from 18 months to three years, they are in Nursery class. Nursery is a lot of play with a little lesson. This is where they learn the beginnings of sitting on tiny chairs, singing songs and listening to brief stories with lots of pictures. When they reach the age of three, they graduate to “real” Primary, where they have a 45-minute classroom lesson and a 45-minute “Sharing and Singing” time where they join the big kids in the big room.

I teach the three-going-on-four-year-old church babies called Sunbeams. A Sunbeam’s job is to learn the ropes of being a kind, attentive, and reverent class member. We start slow. Very slow.

Sunbeams are in Piaget’s preoperational stage of thinking. They are fully egocentric and of course they are the center of the universe. “Look, Mom – the moon is following me!  They are also grounded in animism – that is they give life to inanimate objects. The bottom line is that they still can’t quite tell what is real and what is not at times. And they are trying SO HARD to control their impulses. That’s why I strive to make Sunbeams a friendly place – no scary stuff.

One of the first things we learn is the social magic of chairs in a semi-circle. If the semi-circle shape remains for five minutes, I consider it a success. They like to turn them upside down, stack them, and then place them in a straight line for running an obstacle course. With all this chair movement, however, one must never make the mistake of thinking they don’t know which is THEIR chair. They have an acute sense of chair ownership.

Learning the rules of social groups is a beginning skill for this age. Developmentally, they are ready to learn some manners like taking turns and how to follow simple directions. The also can engage in cooperative (I use the word loosely) play. They are, however, not ready to do any of these things for very long or with great consistency. It is as if one hour they are two years old and the next hour they are four or five years old. But that is the nature of child development – no straight lines.

Should you aspire to the ultimate church calling, I include the following:

 Qualifications for being a Sunbeam Teacher:

  • A testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Lots of prayer and intention to carry out God’s will.
  • A set of Sunbeam clothes – wrinkle and cookie residue resistant – free enough to allow lots of movement.
  • Interesting but sturdy jewelry – preferably something that doesn’t break easily and fling beads all over the floor. Trust me on this one.
  • The ability to get on the floor – and to get back up.
  • Some kind of singing voice.
  • Lots of songs in your memory repertoire.
  • A flannel board and figures to tell lots of Bible and Book of Mormon stories.
  • Vanilla wafers and small cups for their dispersal
  • Versatility – the ability to change plans in a heartbeat.
  • Preparation – Know the single most important concept to get across the children without looking in the lesson manual.
  • Eye contact – you turn away and they go sideways – for sure.
  • A Sunbeam Bag (with roller wheels) containing:  Knotted Rope (for walking activities not for tying them up), Crayons, scissors, glue sticks, Hand sanitizer and wet wipes and a variety of paper for coloring or to make paper airplanes when times are desperate.

We encourage and praise their efforts to be civil and social. We also teach them about God and his Son, Jesus Christ. That is the easy part because Love is at the heart of all teachings and lessons – just as Jesus intended. Children respond to Love. Children are Love.

I Love my Sunbeams.

Aunt Lois and Banana Bread Babies

Lois Odle youthOur sense of smell can release memories to bombard our consciousness faster than any of our other four senses.  That is why banana bread is a must when bringing up Babies.   From the mashing of the five large bananas, to the addition of the butter, brown sugar and vanilla, heavenly odors fill the kitchen.  And then there is the baking.  Now, mind you, Aunt Lois’ recipe calls for shortening, but in the last iteration she sent to me, carefully folded and posted in a square envelope, she made the extra notation by the shortening requirement “but I use butter instead.”   There it is, use butter instead to make it more rich and more tasty.  That was a very important contribution to life from my Aunt Lois.  She made the life of all Babies within her reach richer and tastier.

No one ever loved her own (and other people’s) babies more than Aunt Lois.  She had a difficult time getting the first one here, and while she waited, she rescued the sweet and neglected girl across the street.  She clothed her, fed her and pointed her in the right direction.  Then, two baby girls blessed her life – born 13 years apart.  They were her life.  She was the consummate mother.  She took care of them and Uncle Ned – and took in more cast off children along the way.  When her sister died at a young age, she mothered her sister’s babies and they honor her to this day.

Her own mother died when she was very young and she did not receive the nurturing that baby girls deserve.  She received quite the opposite.  But rather than let anger and resentment twist her, she turned to love and poured it into the babies she encountered.   She set a high mark as a mother and homemaker for us.  I loved her very much.

Aunt Lois’ World’s Best Ever Banana Bread Recipe

Aunt Lois Banana Bread Recipe

Grief Chant

Todd Funeral BagpiperGrief and I are on a journey together.  I am grateful for the times Grief sits by the roadside, or takes a side street, leaving me alone for a while.  When Grief returns, perhaps I am slightly stronger, because it demands to be carried.  Grief cannot sustain itself forever.  It needs to be allowed, but not fed.  I think it will become lighter, but the loss of my baby Todd, the loss of his presence, the missing demonstrations of his love,  demands it will always be standing nearby, waiting to rejoin me when necessary.  I will learn to allow it to retreat as much as possible.

More loss in the past few days.  An older, friend-Baby, and a young, vibrant, emerging-adult Baby.  I need to crumble, but cannot.  A thought enters my head – I have not so much as approached the trials of Job nor suffered as the Savior.  So, I take my new friend, Grief, aside and we have a talk. Grief must stay on the sidelines for a while because there is much work to do for the living now.

The air is heavy with rain tonight, but the pungent odor of orange blossoms dominates.  Hope and growth break through the tears.

The Unthinkable has Happened


Why did I think I was immune to losing one of my babies.  Only other people lose their babies – and I am always there to comfort them with all the right silences…or words. It is me, this time.

This baby was 38 years old and the father of several babies of his own.  How can this be?  When will I wake up from this dream and have all my babies back in  their proper place?  I am awake, and he is gone from this earth.  My faith speaks to me and says I will hold him again in the next life.  For now, I hold his grieving wife and children.  This was not in the plan.