Here’s a litmus test: do you think there is anything intrinsic to being 16-years-old that incapacitates one from making important decisions about, say, marriage? If not, then why does nearly every state have laws restricting the age of marriage?
For most people, the thought of 16-year-olds marrying is deeply counterintuitive. We are far more comfortable protecting young people from making mistakes that they may later regret. But in doing so, argues Robert Epstein’s excellent The Case Against Adolescence, we may be contributing to the infantilization of American teenagers.
It’s difficult, in fact, to find a more polarizing claim. Of the nine current reader reviews at Amazon, five award it the full five stars, while four give it exactly one star. People, it seems, either love or hate Epstein’s work. Count me among those who love it–Epstein’s book is a timely word that should be heeded by anyone who has any sort of contact with those whom we currently call “adolescents.”
The book starts with a simple premise: when it comes to health and happiness, teenagers are, on the whole, in fairly serious trouble. In essence, the turmoil that we think is necessarily associated with adolescence seems to have increased in recent years. Not surprisingly, restrictions on teenage behavior have increased as well, such that (Epstein argues) most teens enjoy so few “adult” privileges that they are functionally children.
So what? Epstein is careful to avoid the “correlation entails causation” fallacy, but he does cite his own research, which finds strong correlation between teenage infantilization and psychopathology. In other words, the less autonomy we give teenagers, the more problems they have. Give teenagers—even troubled teenagers—more responsibility for their own lives, and almost universally they respond.
The hypothesis is provocative and Epstein goes to great lengths to demonstrate not only that teenagers are troubled, but that they are capable of acting like adults. They are capable thinkers, capable of forming deep, loving connections (i.e. marrying), capable of enduring adversity, of being creative, of taking responsibility, etc. Anything adults can do, teenagers can do too.
Epstein carefully documents where the modern American perspective–and as he points out, though we are outsourcing it via Hollywood all over the world, it is a distinctly American perspective–stems from, examining movies, the history of psychology (G. Stanley Hall in particular), and other social forces.
But how to correct the problem—that is the rub. Epstein’s recommendation is nothing less than a radical and wholesale reappraisal of how we approach young people. Epstein argues for “competency based emancipation” that will remove adolescents from the restrictions currently placed on them. His proposals are sweeping: the dissolution of the juvenile justice system, the end of compulsory education, the end of age limits for the working world, the extension of property rights to young people, the ability to marry if they are able to show themselves relationally competent, and more.
Epstein’s work is nothing less than provocative. On a personal level, having worked with high schoolers for the better part of three years, his proposed method of viewing teenagers as adults has proved extraordinarily successful. The more I viewed and treated high schoolers as adults who were solely responsible for their own education and growth, the more responsibility they took.
But the fact remains that my opinions went against the grain. Coworkers and bosses repeatedly suggested that students weren’t smart enough, responsible enough, or capable enough to be treated and talked to like adults. “Lower my expectations,” I was admonished. In some ways, the irony of the homeschool community (in which I was working) is that while they have withdrawn from the public schools, they have taken the infantilizing mindset with them. Parental control over teenagers is, in some ways, not a whole lot better than state control if parents are not willing to give their teenagers responsibility for their own lives. In preventing some vices, they may be fostering a perpetual adolescence that they may later regret.
Young people, however, are capable of more than we realize. The short version of Epstein’s argument is that if culture raises its expectations, young people inevitably respond. As a teacher, as a public speaker, as a friend and counselor, I have repeatedly found that to be true.
Epstein’s book is thorough and well-researched. It is must reading for any parent, educator, youth worker, or anyone else who works with teens or is interested in American culture.