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Puberty, Morality and Maturity

H. Les Brown

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As anyone who has read many of my articles must know, I'm a great fan of Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development. He maps out three major ‘stages’ of moral evolution that people navigate as they grow: the ‘preconventional’ stage, the ‘conventional’ stage, and the ‘postconventional’ stage. The preconventional stage maps (broadly speaking) to prepubescence. It's that period of life where the young person is under the formal protection and tutelage of adults, and behavior is more or less constrained by adult supervision. Puberty changes all that, of course, as a young person rebels against his or her constraints and seeks a sort of autonomy. None of this should be news.

I believe that the sift from prepubescence through puberty ought to parallel the transition from tutelage to autonomy and also the transition from preconventional to conventional morality. The term ‘morality’ has so many different connotations that I want to state clearly what I mean by it: for me, ‘morality’ is an evaluation of the internal motivations for people's behavior. Puberty, then, corresponds to a motivational shift from adult constraint (preconventional morality) to personal autonomy (conventional morality) even if there's no change in the behavior itself.

If you think about the difference between the two stages, you'll see how the preconventional stage could be likened to a young bonsai tree with its branches wrapped in copper wire to train them as they grow. Once the bonsai matures and the wires are removed, the tree grows on its own, even though there's no visible difference in the branches’ shapes. In the earlier stage, the organism conforms to an external norm, while in the latter stage, that norm has been internalized even though it remains the same norm. This vaguely suggests Freud's concept of the ‘superego': the parental voice internalized. As a young person passes through puberty, the process of acculturation also moves to a different, higher level. The preconceptions acquired in childhood become the prejudices of adulthood.

Culture itself has been described (by Geert Hofstede) as ‘the software of the mind. ’ I prefer to think of it as though it were a computer operating system: the background functionality that provides a procedural environment in which all other software operates. Your cultural formation provides you with your fundamental sense of what's right and wrong while remaining an unconscious set of presuppositions. Your culture determines not only how you see objects in your environment, but also which objects you see and which you ignore. In this way, your culture provides you with the world of your experience. You can't see the things that your culture ignores. It's as though, for you, those things don't exist. Have you ever tried to discuss something with someone who just can't seem to grasp your point? Chances are, that, in that situation, you're dealing with a blind spot caused by cultural differences.

Here's my point: for much of their lives, most adults remain fixed in conventional (superego-based, culturally-defined) morality. This stage works fairly well for most people most of the time . . . up to a point. If you live in conventional morality, the problem that you're going to have to face sooner or later arises from the conflict between those conventional moral assumptions that guide your behavior and your authentic self. Here's a bit of ethical heresy for you: your authentic self is not constrained by conventional culture and morality. As you continue to grow and evolve as an authentic person (and I assume that you will), conventional morality begins to feel more and more like a straight jacket on your soul. The transition from conventional morality to postconventional morality can descend on you like a second puberty. In women, it may correspond with menopause. In men, the physical symptoms are far less striking or obvious. However, it does happen, and it very often precipitates the infamous ‘midlife crisis. '

I believe that people - men especially - need to have a better appreciation of this period of conventional morality, because that stage is generally poorly understood. We have a term for prepubescence ('childhood'), one for pubescence ('teenage'), and one for postpubescence ('adulthood'). We don't seem to have an adequate term for postadulthood, except, perhaps, ‘maturity. ’ Unfortunately, our cultural bias has given ‘maturity’ a bad name when, in fact, it's as huge a step forward as the step from childhood to adulthood. Kids want to be adults, adults long for the ‘joys’ of childhood, but nobody wants to be thought of as ‘mature. ’ No wonder we have a problem with aging in our culture: we've forgotten what it's all about. It's my conviction that this has got to - and will - change.

H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown


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