Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Case Against Adolescence

Some time ago I read a book called THE CASE AGAINST ADOLESCENCE, by Robert Epstein. Glancing through my old newsletters looking for something else, I came across my review of the book and decided to share it with this blog. Here's essentially what I said about this very iconoclastic work:

Epstein, a psychologist, advances the premise that teenagers are *not* typically lazy, incompetent, immature, and impulsive as popular belief has it. He deconstructs the notorious "teen brain" hypothesis widely reported in the media. To my astonishment, the best-known experiment on which that conclusion rests involved only 24 subjects (!) and, as described by Epstein, doesn't even necessarily prove what the reports claimed it proved. (Furthermore, Epstein reminds us that observed changes in brain wiring can be the result rather than the cause of behavioral changes.) Well, inaccuracy and sensationalism in news stories about science don't surprise me, but this author goes far beyond debunking the "immature teenage brain" theory. He maintains that "adolescence" as we know it is a cultural, not a biological, phenomenon, pointing out that it didn't exist as a concept in most of the world's societies throughout history. He quite rightly reminds us that in preindustrial cultures teenagers were considered young men and women, not overgrown children. Rather than rebelling against adults, they were in the process of becoming adults and worked alongside their elders in productive occupations. Even today, many societies don't suffer from the teenage rebellion, angst, and turmoil we think of as normal and inevitable. However, when these cultures become saturated with Western products and ideas, their young people often begin to think and act like American adolescents.

I notice some weaknesses in the way he presents his background information. For instance, it would be easy to get the impression that he thinks the anti-child-labor laws of the late nineteenth century were altogether bad, which he surely isn't saying. On the whole, though, his premises appear sound to me. Epstein attributes our teenagers' problems to their "infantilization" resulting from the "artificial extension of childhood." American teenagers are subject to more restrictions on their freedom than the average incarcerated felon. (I've read somewhere else the idea that our treatment of children, in terms of freedoms and responsibilities, is exactly backwards. We expect too much maturity of little kids, such as making them sleep alone in a dark room from birth and placing them in a highly structured school environment in kindergarten with a curriculum that used to be postponed to first grade or later. Yet we bar our teenagers from meaningful work, criminalize much of their behavior with mindless "zero tolerance" rules, and stifle their free expression in speech, clothing, etc.) So far, my reaction to THE CASE AGAINST ADOLESCENCE is "right on, preach it, brother!"

His proposed solution, however, is more controversial. He would like to see young people of any age (though he hints that, in practice, the decision-making competence he considers the potential of most kids probably doesn't begin much before age thirteen) who can pass standard "competency tests" given adult status in whatever area they've passed the test for. Yes, even drinking, sex, and marriage (as was the case in most cultures throughout history—remember, Juliet wasn't quite fourteen). He proposes a drinking license or cigarette-buying license, similar to a driver's license and revocable if the holder breaks the rules associated with this privilege. The permissible school-leaving age would be lowered, with education spread out over a lifetime and tailored to the individual's needs. In lots of ways, his utopian vision of integrating teenagers into the adult world, with as much responsibility they can prove themselves ready for, appeals to me. But it won't happen, given the vehement opposition even the most modest of his proposals would incite if anyone tried to translate them into practical social policy. The biggest problem with his plan, to me, is that we'd still have the intractable economic realities that underlie the "artificial extension of childhood": Very few people can support themselves independently without those 22 or more years of schooling we've come to accept as the norm. And it's hard to work at a self-supporting job while attending school full-time. Our entire educational system would have to be re-structured. Which is one of Epstein's proposals, but it's even less likely to come to pass than a drinking license for high school students. At age eighteen, I would have wholeheartedly endorsed Epstein's program. (I got married at eighteen, and we're still married; in fact, we had our 44th anniversary earlier this week.) Now, having survived the teen years of our four sons, I have a more ambivalent reaction; I find some of his suggestions more than disturbing. Still, they comprise a serious attempt to tackle a grave social problem. Try to find a copy of this book at your public or college library. It will stir up some uncomfortable thinking.

And for a similar take on the subject of adolescence, read "Why Nerds Are Unpopular." Why DOES intelligence often cause teenagers to be ostracized by their peers? This mind-blowing essay gives a very convincing explanation, which relates to the "infantilizing" practices discussed by Epstein:


Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. I haven't read that book, but since the adolescent brain handles medicines for mental illness differently than adults, and some mental illnesses don't manifest until late adolescents, I would be hesitant to dismiss all the studies on adolescent brain development. There do seem to be actual differences between adolescent and adult brains.

    There is also the issue of the much higher incident of car crashes and car fatalities in youth.

    As the mom of three teens, quite honestly I see the biggest issue teens I know have is alcohol abuse. Some studies indicate that alcohol affects the adolescent brain more severely than an adult's brain, and there may be long term effects.

    From what I see about parenting--the teens doing the most drinking are not the ones with strict rules being infantilized etc--they are more likely the ones left to their own devices without a lot of parental oversight. Seems to me the teens with more appropriate parental oversight end up making better choices.

  2. Thanks for your very kind words about my book, which is now available in an updated an expanded edition entitled Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence. You can get further information about it at

  3. And thanks for visiting our blog and telling us about your new edition.

  4. I've heard of this book and find the concept of adolescence being a "new fangled" state of existence quite believable.

    But wait a second. He's saying that the problem is we ought to take this new found cultural idea and legislate it using the cultural concept of legality and should solve the problem. Hmmm... I wonder.

    Also here's some related food for thought - I recently saw an article on how kids are becoming less socially capable of face to face interactions these days. Here's one article that talks about it in the NYT