Why teenagers are vital (yes, honestly)

Dilemmas about sex and drugs . . . acne and angst . . . just another day in the life of a teenager - and all played out to a soundtrack of dreadful music and monosyllabic grunts.

Steven Russell

Dilemmas about sex and drugs . . . acne and angst . . . just another day in the life of a teenager - and all played out to a soundtrack of dreadful music and monosyllabic grunts. Just the way it's meant to be, scientist David Bainbridge assures us. Steven Russell hears how evolution helps us grow up, whether we like it or not

IS it tempting fate to write a book about teenage behaviour when your own daughter is on the cusp of adolescence? David Bainbridge is aware of the potential elephant trap he's constructed. “Lots of people have said to me 'Do you think it will make it easier to be a parent of your own teenagers?' I'd love to say it will make it much, much easier, but I have a strong suspicion it probably won't. You can explain why teenagers behave the way they do and why there's this incompatibility between parents and teenagers, but I don't think that makes it any less irritating!”

It's not all one-way traffic, though; youths can find some adults a pain in the derri�re.

“My daughter's only 11, but two weeks ago she said to me 'Daddy, when I grow up, will I have to be boring as well?' I thought 'Oh, thank you very much!'”

According to the publicity blurb, Teenagers: A Natural History will change the way we think about them. Far from being the scourge of society, as some media reports would have us believe, youths are actually the pinnacle of human achievement. Honestly.

Most Read

David - an Essex Man by birth and adopted son of Suffolk by design - reveals why the second decade of life is the most important, and the most exciting, in the human life cycle.

As befits a biologist, he explains the science behind changes like smelly feet, new clumps of hair, lanky limbs and unpredictable skin. He also explores what happens deep within the brain to make teenagers so prone to falling in love, worrying obsessively, and lying in bed - and why they are so irresistibly drawn to drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll.

Those teenage years are a rollercoaster ride featuring the most intense physical, emotional and mental experiences of our lives - feelings that can see us joyful or suicidal, or yo-yoing between those extremes. It might all seem chaotic and random, but really it's a beautifully-choreographed sequence of steps on the journey to maturity. And, in evolutionary terms, adolescence is not only what makes us truly human, it is the key to the success of our species.


“We cannot live for ever, so we must replace ourselves with new people - in other words, our offspring are our way of cheating death. Could adolescence be any more positive than that?” asks the clinical veterinary anatomist from Cambridge University.

This long pre-adult period, unusual in the animal kingdom, is a constellation of carefully-timed events, including puberty, detachment from parents and the building of relationships with friends. Everything's going on at the same time and that's why adolescence can seem confusing - or, as he puts it, it's a “wonderfully exciting collision when all the different strands of our life get tangled together in a way that will never happen again”.

This cocktail, as many exasperated families will vouch, can also set up an “inescapable conflict” with adult authority. “Just when we become mature enough to want to make our own decisions, everyone starts telling us to work hard, plan ahead, not to drink, not to take drugs and not to sleep with anyone. When teenagers then press their elders for the reasons for their advice, those reasons are rarely forthcoming.”

UK sex education, for instance, tends to dwell on the negatives, David tells the EADT. “It's all about the horrible things that can go wrong, like teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases. The thing about sex is that if you use barrier contraception you don't really need to worry about that stuff. You can worry about things like 'Why are you having sex? Do you really want to have sex with this person? Is it their idea? Was it your idea? Is it fun; is it not fun? Are you going to worry about it afterwards? Are you going to look back on it fondly for the rest of your life?'

“I think we worry about the simple, superficial things - and they're worth thinking about - but there are easy ways of getting round these things these days.”

The Daily Mail would damn him for this kind of heresy…

“Yes, it would. But just slagging off teenagers doesn't seem to be doing much good.

“We have this very high rate of teenage pregnancy but nobody thinks about why. Sometimes it's because people want to become pregnant. Lots of people have very definite reasons why they would want to get pregnant at 15 - like they see it as their way out of some awful family environment.

“Why do teenagers not use a condom at a time when perhaps they should? I think these are discussions that need to be had, because if you just have a war against teenage pregnancy it will probably be as ineffective as the war against drugs.

“I think you have to wonder about why people do things, and I think this is especially important with teenagers. They're little hypocrisy-sniffing-out machines, aren't they? Say 'Don't use drugs' and they'll say 'Well, lots of adults use drugs and many of those seem to be all right - and why are alcohol and cigarettes legal?' Don't have sex! 'Well, everybody has sex, and sex is fun, so why aren't we supposed to do it?' Teenagers see through all this stuff.”

David believes the key is for adults to give “a few simple messages about what you think is important - like: 'think about why you do things, use barrier contraception, think extremely hard before you use drugs.' Teenagers are listening more than people think they are, but the thing they don't respond to is nagging.”

It's straying slightly from the theme of the book but, as an admissions tutor at St Catharine's College. Cambridge, what does he think about the debate on academic standards?

“School education is very frustrating. They [pupils] do work harder, but the nature of the courses is that they actually have achieved less at the end of it. It's not their fault. It's not teachers' fault, either. Teachers are stuck with whatever system they're supposed to impose.”

David argues the school curriculum is “disjointed and simplistic, really. You can test whether they've covered the curriculum in very simple ways, which makes it very easy to standardise and very easy to monitor. The things they can do when they leave school are much lower-level now than they used to be. The bright ones often realise it's a box-ticking exercise. You can learn the strategy for exams and that's what they do if they've got any sense.”

He sees a fair number of students who have spent their teenage years working and working, collecting certificates for their book of achievements to present at interviews, “and you think 'You really should go and try to get into some pubs under-age, or go out and do something irresponsible, because you're never going to get this chance again.' I think you've got to live - and your teenage years are where it starts.”

Hmmh… Really bright and able kids might be able to do both, but surely most adolescents' schoolwork will suffer if they let their focus drift? Then again, it's doubtless a question of balance.

“It is; and I think that's something you start to learn as a teenager. It's by playing that you start to appreciate your work, and vice-versa. You have to have both. Teenagers are learning this and developing their long-term goals, and defining their beliefs.

“It's a good sign if someone's had an active social life and done lots of fun things, especially if they haven't done things just to put them on their CV but because they've liked them. And, also, that they come to interview and can talk around a subject very articulately.”

So, handed a magic wand, what would David do?

For a start, he'd tighten academic standards and widen the range.

“There are many people who don't do very well at school but are very good at certain things - non-academic things - and I do think we've missed this. Lots of people who are going to be good in business or very good at certain other skills feel like failures when they leave school - because they're no good at maths or whatever. I feel school does fail people with non-academic skills.

“I think we [the country] should offer A-levels in plumbing, car maintenance and things like that - demanding A-levels. It doesn't devalue anything to do that. Instead of being obsessed with being able to measure academic achievement and compare it, I do think more rigour needs to come back.

“So many people emerge from the teenage years with a very low opinion of themselves. It causes problems later on. There are many people who go through life who are just 'sad'. They get into relationships that are unsatisfying or exploitative, and they don't seem to have much self-respect.

“It sounds very wishy-washy, but there are countries in the world - like Holland - where they've almost tried to make self-respect part of the school curriculum, and I believe so much of how you think of yourself is set in the teenage years.”

Okay. I've got a 14-year-old at home; how should I play it?

“I think the important thing to accept is, when they're about 14, what's probably most interesting to them is their friends. They're developing their view of the world in concert with their friends. They're not using you to any great extent. They're deliberately not listening to you any more - because they're not children any more.” (The good news is that many parents say their teenager “comes back” to them at the age of about 17.)

“So there is only a limited amount you can do - which is why all I would emphasise is the wishy-washy thing: make sure they're aware the general emotional support is there when they need it.

“The less vague thing is trying to emphasise one or two or three things that you think are very important. Most of the silly things teenagers do are not going to cause them life-long problems. There's a couple of things that do, and if you just emphasise those - think very hard before you take drugs; use barrier contraception - if you don't do those, and you can't drive yet, there are few things that can really scar you for life.

“Emphasise those in a low-pressure, tactful way, and just accept that lots of the time they're not listening to you, because if they were they'd still be children, and you don't want 20-year-old children, do you?”

David's written three other books: one about the brain, another on X chromosomes, and the third about pregnancy. Any ideas for a fifth?

“I'm 40 now. I'm tempted to write about middle age . . . My definition of middle age will always be five years older than what I am!”

Teenagers: A Natural History is published by Portobello Books at �13.99.

DAVID Bainbridge says his own teenage years were enjoyable. “Everyone was just sort of fumbling along ineptly in the same way I was!”

He came from Essex and went to Brentwood School. Fellow alumni include comedian Griff Rhys-Jones and Keith Allen - TV's Sheriff of Nottingham and father of singer Lily Allen.

David read zoology and veterinary medicine at Cambridge before spending a year at a veterinary practice in Shenfield and then studying for a PhD at the Institute of Zoology at Regent's Park Zoo.

Next up was some post-doctoral work at Oxford University's Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. It was at this point that people started asking him questions like “Why don't women come into heat like other mammals?” It led to his first book, on pregnancy.

David's convinced that science is essentially simple and can be explained as a story - as long as baffling jargon is avoided.

He arrived in his current job about six years ago. It also prompted a domestic move from Hertfordshire to west Suffolk.

“I'd never really been to Suffolk before, and it was really beautiful. It has a very distinctive feel to it: densely packed with lots of small villages, which is quite unusual. And very few towns. It was unlike anywhere I'd ever been before.”

Today, David and Michelle live in a village near Bury St Edmunds with children Eleanor, 11, Edward, eight, and Rose, six. For his wife, brought up in the fens, it's virtually alpine, he jokes.