The Controversial Case Against Adolescence

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.

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  • http://TheCaseAgainstAdolescence.com Dr. Robert Epstein

    I just wanted to thank you for your supportive blog. For further information, please see: http://TheCaseAgainstAdolescence.com. You might also want to check out the online adultness test at http://HowAdultAreYou.com. BTW, I don’t think the book is turning out to be particularly controversial, those few complaints on Amazon notwithstanding (no sign that those individuals actually read the book). It’s turned up on at least 200 blogs so far, every one of them supportive, and I’ve received only one negative letter – from an elderly woman who acknowledged never having read the book and was completely wrong in her perception of it. Frankly, I don’t see how anyone who takes a close look at the book could fail to be persuaded – or at least shaken up.

  • MatthewLee

    Dr. Epstein,

    Thanks for commenting. I wonder how much the demographic of bloggers skews the sampling. In the private conversations I have had about your ideas (which I think I have faithfully communicated), I have found an immense amount of skepticism and contention. That, however, may be particular to the circles I travel in (evangelical Christian, a lot of homeschoolers, etc).

  • Rich Maurer

    This looks like a must read book. Thanks for the review!

    Matthew, I am surprised that you would find such a strong negative reaction from homeschoolers. My experience has shown that homeschooling parents are the more likely to treat the “adolescents” like adults. Even the families who are much more isolated than I would ever be, still give their teens more responsibilities. I would think the research in homeschooling would back this up.

  • beth

    Thanks for the book suggestion. I look forword to reading it in the future. As someone who feels called to teach highschoolers, I’ve often wondered whether the notion of adolescence is a twentieth century invention or actually a natural part of the developing human person.
    Sadly, your evaluation of homeschoolers was right on. Speaking from experience, while not blaming my parents, the move to keep children in the home and “shelter” them from the evil influences of the world has the result of leaving them ill prepared for ministry and work within that world. But let us look at our legacy; John Quincy Adams went as an ambassor to Russia when he was thirteen. “Was he ready,” we in the twenty-first century ask ourselves. Maybe he was, or perhaps he wasn’t, but he rose to the challenge even with some very probable mistakes. The example of Christ is significant as well. He laid responsibility and leadership on his disciples knowing that they would fail. But how else would they learn to change the world? How else will we learn, and how else will our students, created in the image of God see and operate in that truth?

  • prufrock

    Although my parents removed me from public school for religious reasons, my time as a home-schooled student was probably the most important period in my intellectual development and, while it was an attempt to shelter me from the vagaries of public education, my studies at home were largely self-directed and I was able to remain connected to the world at large through my reading.

    As for the thesis of the book (as conveyed by your blog post), I agree that adolescents would respond positively to increased responsibility because people tend to live up to expectations. This dramatic shift in how adolescents are viewed would have to be accompanied by improved education to better equip them to handle these added responsibilities.

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Rich (and Beth and prufrock, too!),

    Thanks for commenting. It’s fun to have new voices around here!

    I didn’t mean to unfairly criticize the homeschool community. I defend it frequently, as the best students I have ever met are homeschool students. I still maintain regular contact with a number of them–they are eager, bright, interesting and genuinely good individuals. I am a fan of homeschooling, if it is done well. If I could manage it, in fact, I would love to be the one to homeschool my kids. My kids, doubtlessly, will think differently. Heh.

    In other words, I didn’t mean necessarily to single out homeschoolers as more problematic than anyone else–rather, my experience comes from the homeschooling community, where I see the same degree of problems as elsewhere. The infantilization of America’s youth is a *deep* problem in that it can masquerade as a loving concern for young people’s safety and well-being. But because all my experience is in the homeschooling community, that’s where I point to.

    The danger that is particular to homeschooling families, though, is the one that I tried to underscore: those who pull their children out to shelter them from the evils of the world may be doing so on grounds that undercut their activity.

  • prufrock

    Hey, I agreed with you. Your commentary did single out home-schoolers, although not in a discriminatory fashion; you were writing about the adolescents with whom you have worked that just happened to be home-schoolers.

  • http://anyeventuality.wordpress.com Nobody

    Though I can’t speak for my parents of course, as even they didn’t agree on everything, my impression of the reason I was homeschooled wasn’t to shelter me from “the world” but simply to bypass the artificial world of the primary school, while getting more schoolwork done in less time.

    As a result I’m sure I spent more time in “the real world” than my public/private school counterparts who were kept on asphalt playgrounds behind chain link fences for eight hours or more a day. At the time I never thought of it as part of my “education” but it was a regular job of mine to go grocery shopping with a list of items, some specified by brand, others left up to me to pick the best deal or most healthy, armed with my mother’s driver license and a blank check to fill out myself. Much better than filling out fake checks in a workbook about the real world, an exercise I recall seeing once then never again. Now I realize why.

    Perhaps I am conflating “sheltered” with being kept indoors, but the only reason I usually stayed at home till noonish was that in the 80s homeschoolers were advised not to flaunt it lest they invite reports of truancy. I imagine now that it’s less unusual and many states have improved their laws, but I met a homeschooler from North Dakota where for a long time there were very strict anti-homeschooling laws enforced by a truancy Gestapo. In such cases it was ironically the state which necessitated homeschooling families to shelter themselves lest they attract legal attention.

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Nobody,

    “As a result I’m sure I spent more time in “the real world” than my public/private school counterparts who were kept on asphalt playgrounds behind chain link fences for eight hours or more a day. At the time I never thought of it as part of my “education” but it was a regular job of mine to go grocery shopping with a list of items, some specified by brand, others left up to me to pick the best deal or most healthy, armed with my mother’s driver license and a blank check to fill out myself. Much better than filling out fake checks in a workbook about the real world, an exercise I recall seeing once then never again. Now I realize why.”

    That’s one of the reasons why I am in support of homeschooling. To be frank, Epstein’s book put another chink in the “compulsory education” wall for me. If by “education” we mean people taking tests and wasting time, I’ll pass.

  • http://anyeventuality.wordpress.com Nobody

    I am challenged by Epstein’s thesis to the extent that I had assumed large public schools were proof that societies of children tend to degenerate toward Lord of the Flies (cf. Mean Girls) rather than become Boystown, but I take it Epstein would argue that schools become that way because of their authoritarian element which, by the few adults assuming all responsibilities, encourages irresponsibility in the students.

    Such an argument seems fair enough to me, and I think it can even be extrapolated to the macrocosm of society at large: Government infantalizes its citizens the more it micromanages their behavior, which is being done now almost exclusively under the banner of “health” in both the US and UK, from criminalizing smoking in public places to restrictions against Fast Food. As Dennis Prager often says, health is the new morality — which makes sense if the physical world is the extent of reality.

  • beth

    Ah…Logic 101 taught it well; hasty generalizations are informal falacies. My own upbringing, however, and those of the children nearest me did leave me wondering whether we were prepared to interact with the world, not just at a civil level, but in a manner that would show and actually give them Christ. Perhaps though the doubt comes from my own feelings of inadequence which, I’m told, is perfectly normal in this stage of development…or is it? Man, I need to read this book.

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Nobody,

    “but I take it Epstein would argue that schools become that way because of their authoritarian element which, by the few adults assuming all responsibilities, encourages irresponsibility in the students.”

    To be clear, Epstein doesn’t actually argue for the end of compulsory education. He just wants it dramatically restructured and its limits curtailed (reading, writing, arithmetic and citizenship. In his words, “more than we require of immigrants before we grant them citizenship, but not much more.”

    Clearly, the authority is part of the problem. I didn’t quote Epstein much in my review, so I will here: “I am not advocating more “freedom” for teens…The corrective for infantilization is responsibility, not freedom.…The freedom adults appear to have is actually authority, not freedom. Adults can’t do anything they please; they can simply exercise authority in various domains in which they must also accept various forms of responsibility.”

    Epstein goes on to say that ideally, people who are given authority also have responsibility, and vice versa. If students demonstrated the appropriate competencies, they should be able to gain the authority and responsibilities that are associated with those competencies.

    Nobody, I think your point about government is also fair. When government becomes the enabler and steps in to protect them from themselves, it treats its subjects like children. And as a result, its subjects will act like children.

    Beth,

    We all make a hasty generalization now and then. Sometimes we like making them, in fact! : )

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