Developing Wisdom

Developing Teenage Wisdom

You may have heard the old saying, “Wisdom is something that comes with age”, and while there is truth to this, children and adolescents can develop wisdom as well. According to Dr. Thomas Plante,, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, wisdom involves the active process of reflection and discernment – two actions that anyone can take. We use reflection when we think about our lives thus far and consider if we are living in accordance with our values, and we use discernment when we make decisions and judgments that guide us towards more meaning and purpose in our lives.

Research shows that our brains are hard-wired to help us acquire wisdom, by ensuring that we learn from our mistakes. In fact, there is a specific region of the brain (anterior cingulate cortex) whose function is to alert us when we have made a mistake or when a mistake is likely to occur. This region also ensures that we pay attention to and learn from our mistakes, so that we are less likely to repeat those mistakes in the future!

Therefore, learning from our mistakes is an important part of our development, especially for children and adolescents. In fact, Dr. Plante believes that children and adolescents are at a critical period in their lives for thoughtful reflection, discernment, and character formation because they are in the constant process of learning. Dr. Mark McMinn, a professor of psychology at George Fox University, agrees, pointing to research that suggests that wisdom increases most between the ages of 13 and 25.

Though it’s unclear why wisdom increases during these specific years, Dr. McMinn suspects that adolescents and young adults may learn wisdom by confronting age-appropriate dilemmas, such as learning from mistakes. Thus, understanding the different ways children learn about behavior is key to understanding how they also develop wisdom.

In addition to learning from their own actions, children and adolescents also look to the outside world to understand norms about how to act and what behavior is appropriate. In one famous psychology study (the Bobo Doll Experiment ), Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura discovered that children were much more likely to behave aggressively towards a large doll if they saw adults hitting and punching the doll first. Bandura’s research suggests that children and adolescents learn by watching those around them, and that children learn from authority figures such as their parents and teachers.

Children also learn from comparing themselves to their friends, a process known as social comparison. In social comparison, people compare themselves to others and try to determine if they are doing better or worse in areas that are important to them, such as performance in school. If children and adolescents see their friends being rewarded or otherwise doing well for making good decisions, this will lead them towards the path of self-improvement and character development as well.

In addition to parents, teachers and friends, Dr. Plante points out that our current culture is also an important source of influence on children and adolescents. Children learn from popular media such as movies and television as well as from social media, apps and games.

Therefore, telling stories that showcase people learning from the consequences of their actions serves as a great example of wisdom development for an audience.

Apps and games which are interactive are also essential for the development of wisdom, because they allow people to receive real-time feedback about their actions and choices. Apps and games that incorporate decision-making can help children and adolescents learn from their mistakes, especially if feedback is provided on how to improve.

This is not to say that an app, in and of itself can lead to wisdom development, but might instead be a useful supplement to aid in the development of wisdom. Dr. McMinn points out that we primarily use our phones to do things quickly, and wisdom is developed slowly, because the learning process is gradual and as we’ve established, wisdom relies heavily on one’s ability to learn.

Dr. McMinn has been most successful in helping others develop wisdom in the context of in-person small groups involving conversation, silence, spiritual components, and practice confronting various dilemmas with the support of “wisdom mentors”.

It’s important to note that Dr. McMinn’s research suggests that children and adolescents would benefit greatly from having mentors that do not rush to provide them with answers in the midst of the dilemmas, but instead take on a supportive role and allow children to arrive at their own solutions. This research suggests that media that helps facilitate in-person conversations may be a way for content developers to assist with wisdom development. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for problem solving, develops during adolescence and is not fully formed until the early twenties. Therefore, children and adolescents greatly benefit from adult guidance to support their learning process in developing wisdom.

Finally, wisdom is not just something to be applied towards the self; it can and should also be part of our interactions and relationships with others. When we turn wisdom outwards, it becomes compassion towards others. Compassion is simply having concern for others and expressing care towards them. It can be developed through learning about diversity and the value of people from different backgrounds, as well as from experiencing religious services and serving the community.

While wisdom is certainly something that improves with age, we know that it begins developing long before adulthood. Children and adolescents are full of unsuspecting insight, but targeting specific components of the mechanisms utilized in learning about behavior can help facilitate and support the development of wisdom and compassion.

Actionable Insights:

  • Develop media which encourages children and adolescents to practice making choices

  • Use media and apps to facilitate small-group, in-person conversations

  • Help people reflect on the consequences of their actions

  • Check that people are learning from their mistakes

  • Provide feedback about how to improve on mistakes

  • Use parents, teachers and peers as role models for making good decisions

  • Teach children and adolescents to care for others

  • Portray cultural diversity in media to facilitate development of compassion

H. Wenwen Ni, PhD Candidate, UCLA

Wenwen Ni is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at UCLA. She is passionate about using psychological research to improve well-being.

This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.