Friday, June 15, 2012

Vital Connections

When my daughters were little, the popular understanding of brain development was that the most important time was ages 0-5. While it's true that 90% of architecture in the brain is formed by age 6, new science now tells us that the wiring of the brain as well as the remaining 10% or architecture happens between 12 and 25 years of age (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/10/teenage-brains/dobbs-text).

My response as a parent is, "Woo hoo, I get a second chance." When I was young and broke and overwhelmed, I loved being a parent, but there's a lot going on for a sleep deprived full-time working mom. In my young parent mind, if you hadn't done everything perfectly before junior high, you missed your chance. And, of course, none of us did it perfectly, which leads to mommy guilt.

Fast forward, my girls are now 12 and 14, and their brains are undergoing critical development at a micro level, which new technology tells us I still have the opportunity to nurture and influence. Imagine my relief, especially when a career in non-profit leadership, family disease impact, and divorce have happened in the meantime.

Turns out that the pre-frontal cortex is not completely developed until age 25. The pre-frontal cortex is known as the CEO of the brain, which oversees risk and reward, impulse control, and decisionmaking.

Equally important in terms of nurturing brain development, synapse pruning is the bulk of what's happening in our brains during the teen years. Synapse pruning is the natural process of weeding out the unused brain connections and strengthening and protecting the well used ones, much like thinning out seedlings in the garden.

The opportunity to influence that pruning is prime for my girls right now. Use it or lose it. Which is why I'm delighted to be rearranging my life to be more available to guide that process. It's also why I will be a lifelong supporter of Girl Scouts. In Girl Scouting, we expose girls to new experiences and new people they wouldn't get just from home and school. We strengthen their areas of interest and nurture skill building in new and practiced areas. Moreover, Girl Scouts guides girls in leadership, which focuses on self-knowledge, self-control, decisionmaking, responsibility, and working with and serving others.

We already knew that supportive adult relationships, meaningful activities, and volunteerism are protective factors for reducing risky behavior in youth. We now know much more depth about what is happening in older girls' brains. We also know that girls in Alaska want new experiences, adventure, and the opportunity to work with supportive adults and make a difference in the world.

Girl Scouts is perhaps most critical to girls 12-18, which is why we have to keep working to bring girls into Girl Scouting throughout the teen years. We can't, however lead our Senior Girl Scouts the same way we did when they were Brownies or Juniors. We have to play a supporting and guiding role to their leadership, or frankly they won't stick around. Girls need and want what we do in Girl Scouting, so let's make it work for them all the way through high school graduation, and perhaps even beyond.

Marge Stoneking has served as the first CEO of Girl Scouts of Alaska, from 2009-2012. Today marks her last day as a staff member, and she will now become a volunteer with Senior Girl Scouts.