What would you say to a Harvard-trained psychologist who told you that your twelve or thirteen-year-old should be allowed to drive, get married, drink alcohol, and join the military and vote, among other things? Well, I thought the same thing until I read The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen and then talked with Dr. Robert Epstein. Believe it or not, much of what he said regarding teens made sense to me.
Dr. Epstein argues in his book that teens are very capable people who aren’t given enough responsibility—or credit—in modern society. He also states that “adolescence is an artificial extension of childhood,” a man-made invention that was created after the Civil War. And yes, he really does think teenagers as young as twelve should be given every right that an adult has, so long as they are able to pass a government administered competency test.
I have to admit, when I first picked up his book I didn’t think there was any possible way I would agree with his views—come on, let my son join the army when he’s thirteen? I don’t think so. I mean, I may watch Kid Nation, (CBS’s new reality show that has children fending for themselves in a ghost town in New Mexico) but letting my child live it is another matter entirely. Yet after I finished reading The Case Against Adolescence and subsequently spoke with Dr. Epstein, I began to see that much of what he says makes sense, and I understood completely why Dr. Joyce Brothers said, “If you care about America’s young, this is a must-read.” I particularly agree with Dr. Epstein’s take on teen isolation—he maintains that teenagers are being raised “by their peers and the media” in America, and that they don’t have enough input from adults and seniors, the very people who should be their role models. “The child-adult continuum has been broken,” he says, and I for one agree with him 100 percent on that front.
On the other hand, I’m not sure I could endorse emancipation for junior high school students just yet, although I believe most teens would benefit greatly if given more responsibility. Dr. Epstein also states in his book that spanking is useful in child-rearing, and could be done until a child is emancipated, although he stresses that “corporal punishment should be used only as a last resort, and that parents need to learn positive alternatives to it.” While I believe that decision should be left up to the parent, I personally don’t think of spanking as an effective tool. However, The Case Against Adolescence made me see teens in a new light, and has definitely influenced the way I will raise my son—though you can bet he won’t be getting married any time soon!
Read on—Dr. Epstein’s ideas just might make you change your mind about how teens should be treated.
Dr. Epstein, what do you believe is the greatest harm we do to our teens by extending their childhood into adolescence?
We give teens the sense that they have no control over their lives, which often expresses itself in dark ways: anger, depression, conflict with parents, risk taking, secrecy, and so on. We think teens are inherently irresponsible and risk-prone. We think they’re inherently incompetent. We think, thanks to the drug companies, that they have defective or undeveloped brains. Three years ago, we passed an insane threshold where more money is being spent on psychoactive drugs for teens than all other prescription drugs combined. We have deeply entrenched views about young people and teens that are completely wrong.
How are we prolonging childhood in America, and what are the effects on our young people?
We prolong childhood through infantilization and isolation. Infantilization, or treating teens as if they are small children, causes many teens to become angry or depressed, which is why we now have more than five millions teens in counseling and why suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens. Teens don’t act out because of hormonal or brain problems but rather because of the way they’re treated in our society; in more than 100 cultures around the world, there is no teen turmoil at all – absolutely none. Past puberty – and for obvious evolutionary reasons – teens feel like adults, but we still treat them like children. That discrepancy can lead to depression, anger, aggression, risk taking, and so on. Meanwhile, isolation from adults traps teens with their peers, from whom they learn virtually everything they know. But peers are the last people on earth from whom they should be learning! Teens should be learning from adults. It’s common sense. If you want to be a plumber, you apprentice with a plumber; you don’t just hang out with people who might want to become plumbers some day. Isolation from adults takes away meaningful role models, and in fact in provides our teens with stupid, irresponsible role models manufactured by the media industry. Teens in our country, according to one recent study, have 70 hours of contact every week with their peers. In Europe that number is much lower. In some pre-industrialized countries, teens spend just five hours a week with peers and the rest of their time with adults. Teens need to learn socialization skills, but mainly from adults, not from peers.
So how can we prevent teen isolation from happening?
The connection between young and old has broken down in our country. We need to restore “the child-adult continuum.” Countries around the world that preserve strong connections between young and old have little or no teen turmoil. They key is to allow young people to enter the adult world, one by one, just as soon as they can show they’re ready.
You recommend letting teens have more adult responsibilities—drinking, driving, marrying—after they pass various “competency tests.” What would the world look like if people adopted your philosophy?
The standard I’m suggesting is actually very conservative. Teens will have to pass rigorous competency tests at least as well as 50 percents of adults can. If a young person can pass a test at that level, we would be foolish to not let him or her enter adult life. To people who can’t imagine such tests, I say: People were also skeptical about testing 60 years ago when you didn’t need to get a license to hunt, fish, or drive a car, but we now take testing and licensing for granted in dozens of areas of our society. Except for the testing, the world I’m envisioning for teens will look like the past: Young people will be working side-by-side with adults in every walk of life – not just on farms but in every business and industry. Fewer young people will be in schools learning worthless information – and also learning to hate education – and more young people will be learning through work and apprenticeships. Our high tech world will allow education to be spread over a lifetime and will allow learning to become self-paced. I’m not talking about something radically new; rather, I’m putting a modern twist on sound traditions: judging people by their abilities rather than their age, spreading education over a lifetime, keeping strong ties between the generations, and keeping work central in our lives.
As a parent, my child is in the public school system and growing up in a fairly mainstream household. The world you describe is not here yet, so what can I do as a mom, now, to give my four-and-a-half year old son more responsibility? How about for a teen?
Try to integrate him into the household in meaningful ways. As young people get older, they can become more integrated into every aspect of the parent’s household or profession–whatever their parent’s profession is. By helping mom or dad do real work and not just mindless chores, they’re going to gain experience that’s infinitely more valuable than participating in extracurricular activities at school. For example, my nine year old helps me edit my audio files for my radio program, and he loves it. So although extracurricular activities might look good on college admissions applications, they just trap teens, once again, with their peers.I also think home schooling needs to be explored. Every family needs to explore it. Thanks to the Internet and new software, it’s getting much easier to do.
Finally, in light of your research, what do you think of CBS’s new show, Kid Nation?
Instead of pointing to the obvious upside to CBS’s bold experiment, the media has focused entirely on a very minor injury—an 11 year old who was splattered by some grease while cooking—and a slew of archaic laws designed to prevent young people from entering adult society. The New York Times pointed out that these young people were supposed to be in school when they were filming, that authorities in New Mexico were never consulted about the show, that people are saying that the show is a form of “child abuse.” But that’s not what this show is about, not at all. It’s a potent, incredibly graphic reminder about the extraordinary abilities of young people, abilities we have increasingly buried while trapping millions of young Americans in the bizarre, media-driven world of “teen culture.” When we infantilize our young, we foster anger, depression, and conflict with parents; when we give them meaningful responsibility, they mature overnight, with extraordinary benefits for our families and our culture.
Robert Epstein is the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine, as well as a contributing editor for Scientific American Mind and the host of “Psyched!” on Sirius Satellite radio. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego. In addition, he is the founder and director of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts. Dr. Epstein is also the proud father of four children. For more information about Dr. Epstein, visit http://drrobertepstein.com/
About Elisabeth Wilkins
Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.