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Understanding the Teen Brain

Understanding the teen brain requires patience, kindness, and grace. Learn from Dr. Ben Carson about how you can help your teen learn to THINK BIG as they continue to develop and grow.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Despite the difficult circumstances of her own life, Mother never complained about poverty, hardship, injustice, or any other challenges she’d encountered in life. Nor did she use any of those challenges as an excuse for not doing her best in any endeavor she pursued. She determined that whatever job she had to do, she would do it to the best of her ability. When she mopped a floor, she did not quit until it was as clean and shiny as she could make it. And she held her sons to the same standards.

Because she didn’t make excuses for herself, she refused to accept them from Curtis or me. Any attempt on our part to ever blame other people or circumstances for our own failures or misbehavior was a sure-fire guarantee to prompt that favorite question of hers: Do you have a brain?

She refused to think of herself as a victim, so she wouldn’t let us play the victim card either. And we soon learned that if someone quits listening to your excuses, you quit making excuses. And once you quit making excuses, you can finally begin to use the brain you’ve been given to find solutions.

Whenever we gave the only possible, positive answer to Mother’s brain question, she would often elaborate on her no-excuse, don’t-blame others policy by adding something like this: “Then it doesn’t matter what Susan or Robert or Mary or John did or said, you could have thought your way out that situation for yourself!”

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Dr. Ben Carson and the Teen Brain

Once, when I felt ostracized and unwelcome by my peers, I voiced my complaint to Mother. She responded by challenging me to use my brain in a different way. “Just suppose,” she suggested, “you walk into a classroom or perhaps a school assembly where every other person already there resents you based solely on the color of your skin. They don’t want anything to do with you and desperately hope you don’t sit down beside him or her. That could indeed make you feel awkward. But it shouldn’t and probably wouldn’t – if only you took the time to use your brain and consider your ‘predicament’ from a different perspective.

“No need to worry or feel awkward about your decision. Only those prejudiced folks who are afraid you might sit down next to them have reason to feel worried. So, the only awkward predicament is their – not yours at all. They have the problem, not you.”

My mother’s alternate viewpoint was so simple, persuasive, and freeing, that it almost made me laugh. I even gained a measure of empathy and pity for those who would worry that I might sit beside them. That thought-provoking change in perspective convinced me I wasn’t the one with the problem and I didn’t have to be a victim.

I’ve always believed my mother’s life story to be more remarkable and inspiring than my own. And many people who’ve heard it and have known her would agree.

The Faith of a Mother

Back in 1997, the Mother’s Day issue of Parade (the weekly magazine circulated in millions of Sunday newspapers around the country) featured Mother in an article telling our family story. They put her photo, accompanied by Curtis and me, on the cover with the article title, “What Mom Knew.”

The teaser read: “Sonya Carson missed school as a child, married at thirteen, and was eventually abandoned by her husband. She raised her two boys alone and in desperate poverty. Today one of her sons is a renowned surgeon, the other a successful engineer.”

Judging by the mail in response to the story, Mother finally received a measure of the respect and acclaim she richly deserved. The following year, in a star-studded, nationally televised gala in Atlanta, Georgia, she received the prestigious Trumpet Award given “to inspire, educate, stimulate, and enlighten human minds to the reality that success, achievement, and respect are void of color and gender,” presented annually “to men and women who, through consistency and longevity, have achieved success in a chosen profession or career … Potential honorees are those persons who are viewed not only for what they have individually achieved but also for the achievement they inspire in others.”

Importance of Education

Having succeeded in raising her sons, Mother continued to think, learn, grow in her faith, and do God’s will. She studied, obtained her GED, attended college, and became an interior decorator, specializing in furniture restoration, upholstery, and ceramics.

But the Sonya Carson I know and love considered her responsibilities as a mother to be her primary role. She prepared Curtis and me for our future, taught us how to think, and insisted that we use our brains to help our fellow man and achieve God’s purposes.

The greatest mentor I ever had is eighty-six years old. Her own brain is faltering these days as she suffers from Alzheimer’s. But she is well-cared for by loving family members and still proudly recognizes Curtis and me, who are forever indebted to her for teaching us, challenging us, and demonstrating for us how to use the brains God gave us to set high goals and pursue our dreams. Before we could ever think much for or of ourselves, she had the determination, wisdom, and faith to think and dream big for us.

How to Dream Big

Over the years, some of my favorite and most frequent audiences are students – from elementary school, junior and senior high, up through college and graduate schools. I love talking to younger people who have so much life ahead of them and so much potential to make an impact of the world. Whenever I address such groups, I always feel a responsibility to challenge them and impart some of those lessons my mother instilled in me – because I’ve lived long enough now to see what a difference those lessons have made for me.

What she taught and demonstrated for us provided a solid foundation on which to build rewarding and successful lives. I’ve shared that same wisdom with hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and now I want to unpack it for you in the remainder of this book.

Having spent my professional life studying, observing, examining, and operating on brains, I would argue that the human brain is the single greatest, most amazing, immeasurable, unfathomable wonder – not just of the world, but also of the entire universe. And each human being – you, I, every last one of us – has one of these marvels inside our skulls. Not only have we been given such an indescribably gift, but we’ve also been granted ultimate authority and full responsibility for using it. How we use it is entirely up to us; we can choose the way we think.

The Teen Brain and Thinking Big

To make what has developed into a life philosophy for me as simple and memorable as possible, I’ve boiled it down to two words. Two words that encompass every lesson Mother tried to convey to Curtis and me. Two words that make worthy marching order for anyone. Words that make up the usually unspoken, but only logical, conclusion to that inner dialogue she ignited so often with “Do you have a brain?”

The clear, ultimate implication and application of that truth can be summed up with think big. Those letters hardly express all of my thoughts on the subject. Nor do they represent the ranking of importance I’d give each particular point. But this simple acrostic does provide a framework for me to share the most important factors and principles that I know can work as well for you as they have for me. Here are the eight concepts, tied into the eight letters of THINK BIG.

  • T = TALENT
  • H = HONESTY
  • I = INSIGHT
  • N = NICE
  • K = KNOWLEDGE
  • B = BOOKS
  • I = IN=DEPTH LEARNING
  • G = GOD

Final Thoughts on the Teen Brain

There is nothing I’d rather do the remainder of my life than to help encourage people to give their best, strive for excellence in everything they do, and to use that incredible brain God has given each of them to think big enough to change the world by making it a better place for those around them. Because when a person does that, he or she will experience true joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment in life.

Explore more books from Dr. Ben Carson here and here.

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