Robert Epstein, former editor in chief of Psychology Today, shows that teen turmoil is caused by outmoded systems put in place a century ago which destroyed the continuum between childhood and adulthood. Where this continuum still exists in other countries, there is no adolescence.
Isolated from adults, American teens learn everything they know from their media-dominated peers the last people on earth they should be learning from, says Epstein. Epstein explains that our teens are highly capable in some ways more capable than adults and argues strongly against infantilizing young people. We must rediscover the adult in every teen, he says, by giving young people adult authority and responsibility as soon as they can demonstrate readiness.
This landmark book will change the thinking about teens for decades to come.
Reviewer: Carrie Ann Taylor
Date: October, 2007
What is the biggest threat to the well-being of adolescents today? Is it new and more powerful street drugs? An erosion of family values? Poverty and violence in major urban centres? The influence of TV and video games? No, no, no and no, again. According to well-known American psychologist Dr. Robert Epstein, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine and proud father of four children, the biggest problem teenagers have today is….the rest of us!! More precisely, in his new book, The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen, Epstein proposes the startling idea that the biggest challenge facing today’s young people might be the very fact that they are expected to live as teenagers when in fact they are young adults. ‘Adolescence’ itself is the problem, he insists, not the adolescents who are lost and trapped within it.
Epstein paints a picture of young people cast adrift, stranded in the doldrums, as it were, of the relatively purposeless years of adolescence. It is a time of life when young people naturally push back against the restrictions and authority of the adults around them in order to grow. The problem, says Epstein, is that our society responds to this ‘push’ with greater restrictions, greater control, more rules, more coddling and ‘care’, a process he labels the “artificial extension of childhood”. The result? The litany of problems (depression, rebellion, drug use, and so on) often associated with the teen years. What these tumultuous years actually represent, according to Epstein, is a failure of modern society to maintain the continuum between childhood and adulthood. The consequence of derailing and delaying this transition, he argues, is the conflict-laden and trouble-filled years of adolescence. Such problems must be recognized as symptoms of the needs of young adults not being met, rather than viewed as a lack or failing on their part. Epstein’s solution is straightforward and bold. “Adolescence as we know it should be abolished,” he states, “…the teen years need to be what they used to be: a time not just of learning but of learning to be responsible adults1” . In short, Epstein believes teenagers need to be connected to and participate in the adult world of work, rights, and responsibilities. And yes, he has a concrete plan of how to achieve these ends.
The goal of this book, according to Epstein, is to present the case against ‘adolescence’ comprehensively, as a problem which should concern people of all political stripes, and with hopes to create change. In making his argument, Epstein structures his book into three parts. The first section, “The Case Against the Artificial Extension of Childhood”, is concerned with tracing the history of the creation of adolescence in America and abroad and exploring the social problems that arose as a direct result of this shift. The second portion of the book, called the “Capabilities of Young People” is a stunning display of respect and optimism in regards to youth. Seven chapters chronicle the abilities and achievements of teenagers, in areas including Thinking, Loving, Creativity, Resilience and Responsibility. The final section, “How We Must Change”, clearly involves the author, the reader, and indeed all adults, as part of the solution.
Part I: The Case Against the Artificial Extension of Childhood
*In the first portion of the book Epstein establishes three things: that adolescence is a recent – and cultural – phenomenon, that the teen years involve a high level of risks and problems, and that the problems mentioned are a result of ‘adolescence’ itself. Epstein achieves these ends by utilizing a great deal of research from various fields as well as cross-cultural comparison.
Epstein looks to research across cultures to understand adolescence and finds that American-style adolescence is an anomaly in human history and beyond the industrialized west. In America, Epstein states, teen years are times of tumult, rebellion, and trouble, but until a century ago, “adolescence”, as we know it, did not exist. For most of human history, Epstein notes, young people worked alongside adults as soon as they were able. Young people would often marry and have children shortly after puberty, gaining all the rights and responsibilities of adulthood as they transitioned into these roles. But the industrial revolution and the social changes that went along with it (e.g. mandatory schooling, labour laws, ‘child-centred’ families, urbanization, greater affluence, and so on) changed all this, Epstein states, and new laws and restrictions were placed on the lives of young people.
Epstein calls this process the ‘infantalization’ of teens and he outlines the many ways that young people are restricted and controlled (e.g. laws regulating sexual activity, impromptu school locker searches, smoking laws, mandatory schooling, curfews and voting age, and so forth) in great detail. To illustrate his point, Epstein, along with Dr. Diane Dumas, created a checklist of forty-two restrictions that one could face2 “and they administered this questionnaire to a large number of teens, as well as a number of ‘regular adults’, adults in the military, and incarcerated felons. Outcome: teenagers are much more restricted than all of the above groups, even prisoners.
And is there actually a ‘problem’ with adolescence? Is it true that the teenage years are filled with struggles and strife? The answer, according to Epstein, is an unequivocal “yes”. Epstein presents an overview of the turmoil in today’s teens, including violence and crime (school violence, gambling, gangs, guns, etc.), drugs and alcohol (prescription drugs, overdoses, marijuana, steroids, street drugs and cigarettes, etc), sexual activity (AIDS, rape, teen pregnancy), cognitive, emotional and behavioral disorders (suicide, depression, giving up, eating disorders, anger, etc.) and concludes teen years are the most difficult years we face in life. Epstein presents evidence that American teens are the most distressed young people in the world and furthermore, that they are also the most distressed segment of American society. In addition, he insists, “new research shows a relationship between the degree of [problems such as crime, conflict with parents, high-risk behaviors, substance abuse, and mood disorders in teen years] and the degree to which teens are infantilized3” . Epstein also warns us to check our assumptions when we think about these issues. He points out that some such behaviors may make a kind of sinister ‘sense’ beyond the label of ‘self-destructive tendencies’. “Many young people today aren’t willing to wait; they want adulthood now….[and] what are quick routes to instant adulthood?” he asks. The thought-provoking answer: getting married, having a baby, and committing a serious crime4.
The book includes some reference to educational thinkers on these topics. In particular, Epstein notes that a number of books of the 1970s addressed similar themes. John Holt, an accomplished teacher and a pioneer in the home-schooling movement, condemned the “sentimental prison” we’ve built around children in his 1974 book, Escape from Childhood. Epstein also notes radical social thinker Ivan Illich (who influenced Holt), who condemned organized schooling as harmful to children (in his book Deschooling Society), as well as proposing a list of “rights” children should have, including the right to vote, work, own property, to choose one’s guardian, control one’s learning, control one’s sex life, and so forth. To quote Holt: “What is both new and bad about modern childhood is that children are so cut off from the adult world5” .
So what is to be done? Through the compilation of these facts Epstein leads the reader to a series of questions: “Is it possible that teens today feel empty, frustrated and angry because their lives lack real meaning? How do teens fare today in cultures around the world which integrate young people into adult society fairly early in their lives? Are teens damaged by such integration6?” In response, Epstein cites studies by various anthropologists, sociologists, and other scholars from North America, Europe, India and Japan, all of which conclude that the notion of adolescence is absent in pre-industrial nations and that adolescence is a cultural invention, a social phenomenon that accompanies westernization and industrialization, and one that brings with it a host of connected problems, such as crime, ennui, anger, pre-marital sex, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, drug abuse, and family conflict. In contrast, in the many cultures where young people participate in the work of the community as they are able to from a young age, the result is harmony, connection, and an absence of the rebellion and tumult we associate with youth.
Aren’t the answers to many of the problems with teens – drug use, violence, alcohol abuse, for example – more control, not less? In Epstein’s opinion more control may lead to more ‘acting out’ and tougher restrictions are simply part of the cycle. The problem, insists the author, is that young people are forced into an artificially extended childhood at precisely the time when they should be growing up. Instead of assuming a more mature role with greater control over their lives, he says, they are confined to a world of protection, rules, and regulations and they are segregated into a peer-oriented, recreation-centred teen culture.
Epstein’s research leads to a clear conclusion: responsibility helps young people mature, so give it to them. When allowed to function like adults, young people quickly rise to the challenge. As sample of proof, Epstein looks to a number of projects, past and present. For example, he holds up the huge success of the original ‘boys’ republics’ and ‘boystown’ settings for young offenders in the United States (most existed in early to mid-twentieth century), where youth ran all aspects of their community, assuming all roles from city council to barber to police force and organizing everything from meals to law enforcement to garbage collection7. Epstein also notes that programs such as Outward Bound function on this basic premise as well, that is, that “…one of the most effective ways to straighten people out is to inoculate them with a significant dose of responsibility and authority8”.
By the end of Part I, Epstein has provided the reader with both his case against ‘adolescence’ and the basic premise of his ‘solution’ to the associated problem(s), but does not yet alert the reader to the extent to which he is willing to go to solve them. That is Part III of the book. Suffice to say, that Epstein likes Outward Bound model, but notes it is only “a half-way measure; it gives people real challenges and real responsibilities – but not in the real world9” . That is, young people thrive and grow in the Outward Bound environment, but when sent back to a word that treats them like helpless children, their behavior will largely shift back, too.
Part II: The Capabilities of Young People
What exactly is ‘adultness’?, Epstein asks. Obviously, the rights and responsibilities conferred upon us at the magical age of eighteen or twenty-one are obviously associated with our status as an adult. That is, it is assumed that by this age we must possess capabilities that differ from those of children. But what makes an adult different from a child? In response to this question Epstein and his associate Diane Dumas created a test of adultness, an inventory of skill-sets, of competencies that distinguish adults from non-adults10. The resultant Epstein-Dumas Test of Adultness (EDTA), was comprised of one hundred and forty questions, covering such diverse areas as love, sex, leadership, problem-solving, physical abilities, verbal and math skills, handling responsibility, managing high-risk behaviors, education, managing work and money, personal care, and citizenship. The two gave the EDTA to one hundred adults and one hundred teens – and just how superior were adults to teens in fourteen competency areas that define “adultness”? The answer is “barely, if at all11”. Yet, Epstein points out, adults often perceive teens as having little competence in many or most of these areas. So, why don’t we appreciate our teens? Epstein asks. The author lists a number of possible reasons, from preconceptions, to infantalization (they don’t get the chance to demonstrate their competence), to the fact that the current climate of ‘adolescence’ brings out the worst, rather than the best, in young people.
The subsequent six chapters in this section read as a glowing and enthusiastic testament to the capabilities of young people. To begin, Epstein explores at length a variety of research studies that demonstrate that many intellectual abilities peak in early teen years. In addition to facts and statistics, he then provides endless examples of how teens are resilient and tough; creative and inventive; responsible and ambitious. Epstein includes stories about teens thriving and surviving in a variety of situations, from young computer entrepreneurs to teen mothers, from Anne Frank to chess champions, from teen-run courtrooms to the “Lost Boys of Sudan12” . Epstein covers all his bases, even including a chapter on what the Bible has to say about young people (i.e. they often achieved great things at a young age).
The point of all this these facts and stories? Epstein believes that “many young people are highly capable individuals whom we should take seriously and treat with respect13”. To quote the author: “In a culture that holds teens back and brings out their worst, it’s especially easy to find ‘evidence’ that teens are incompetent and impaired…however the hard evidence shows overwhelmingly that the turmoil experience by American teens is a creation of modern culture and that teens have the potential to function at least as well as most adults do. Whether we choose to try to tap that potential is up to us14”.
Part III: How We Must Change
Here is Epstein’s solution and the key to what is provocative and radical about this book. Epstein believes that the artificial extension of childhood must be reversed. His core solution is that “young people should be extended full adult rights and responsibilities in a number of different areas as soon as they can demonstrate appropriate competence in that area15”.
One core concept in his plan is the idea of “emancipation”; that is, if a young person of any age can demonstrate adult-level competency, they may receive a Certificate of Emancipation from the state and assume full adult status. That is, the young person would achieve freedom from parental and/or state control, and take on all the authority and responsibilities of being an adult. Of course, Epstein proposes that we set the ‘bar’ very high; he envisions a battery of tests, probably including something like the Epstein-Dumas Test of Adultness, in addition to exams that cover school content. He also suggests that in order to achieve emancipation, the young person must score in the fiftieth percentile, that is, one must score higher than 50% of the adult population.
Epstein suggests that in terms of connecting teens and adults, providing real responsibility and meaningful connection to the adult world might mean that young people “won’t have quite so many legitimate reasons to direct anger towards their elders, because their elders will no longer be their jailers16”. He also encourages the reader to envision the resultant harmony when kids live with their parents and attend school by choice.
In addition to the option of emancipation, or full adult status, Epstein also advocates young people having the opportunity to assume authority within one or more specific/limited areas, such as youth justice, education, work, sex and marriage, medical and mental health decisions, driving, drinking, smoking, free speech, dress, entertainment, pornography, religious decisions and/or voting. The basic foundational argument is that if a young person can demonstrate clear competency in a given area (and they should be given the opportunity to do so) then they should be awarded adult rights and responsibilities in that arena.
In discussing his proposed solutions, Epstein notes that some people see the solution to ‘teenage strife’ as more school (for example, a California district superintendent proposed the creation of Grades 13 and 1417). But Epstein has clearly been influenced and convinced by education critics such as lauded New York teacher John Gotto, who protest that compulsory government-run education often amounts to the ‘warehousing’ of youth, and who see schools as places where creativity, initiative and a love of learning are frequently crushed. Epstein includes this powerful Gotto quote (excerpted from Gotto’s Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal) early on in the book:
“Government schooling…kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and teaching disrespect for home and parents….David learns to read at age four; Rachel, at age nine:…when both are thirteen, you can’t tell which one learned first…But in school I label Rachel “learning disabled” and slow David down a bit, too. For a paycheck, I adjust David to depend on me to tell him when to go and when to stop. He won’t outgrow that dependency. I identify Rachel as discount merchandise, “special education” fodder. She’ll be locked in her place forever…I can’t teach this way any longer. If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living, let me know18”.
Of particular interest to educators, Epstein advocates many changes to the education system itself. His recommendations include19:
Epstein is largely frustrated with the school system and is most excited about the internet, which he feels may “buckle the legs of America’s exhausted teachers with a shove behind the knees20”. In Epstein’s opinion, home-based internet learning has the potential to remove the excessive peer-focus of teen’s lives, as well as providing self-paced instruction, allowing youth to combine work and education.
The book’s final chapter, called “Why some will resist”, includes a list of teen enemies, and yes, teachers are on it. This list is a Nixon-style catalog of the many businesses, organizations, and government entities “who do teens harm, often unintentionally, and often simply by preventing them from joining the adult world21”. The list of Teen Enemies includes government agencies, religious institutions, media, business and industry, mental health systems, justice systems, public figures, organized labour, someNGOs, parents and the educational establishment!
‘Isn’t this everyone?’, the reader may ask. And perhaps this is largely the point. But Epstein does, of course, elaborate further on just why each group is included. For example, in criticizing the business world, he asserts that “large segments of the music, fashion, and publishing industries have also helped to create, define, and maintain the modern troubled adolescent22” and that the ‘teen culture’ they produce and promote largely “keeps teens imprisoned in a world of pain and trivia23”. And closer to home, perhaps, in his accusation against the education establishment (including teachers, administrators, parent associations, teacher unions), Epstein asserts that schools often act as prisons for kids, instill a dislike of learning, segregate people by age rather than ability, and work to maintain status quo even if it is not best for youth24. Notably, Epstein distinctly includes both himself and the reader in this list of teen enemies, saying that as parents/adults in our current society, we consistently underestimate the competence and potential of our children, and enter into adversarial relationships with teenagers25.
Epstein certainly gives educators lots to consider and to talk about. However, though Epstein does have much to say on the topic, be clear that educational reform is not the focus of this book; the current education system is viewed as simply one aspect of a larger, more deeply-rooted problem. Epstein is most concerned with critiquing the problems of teenagers as a whole, and with convincing the reader that these problems – and their solution – both lie in understanding that ‘adolescence’ is not helpful for teens.
Epstein particularly wants the reader to note that he does not advocate more “freedom” for teens. If anything, Epstein feels teens have too much ‘free’: free time, free rides, free cash, and too much freedom from consequences26! “The corrective for infantalization is responsibility, not freedom27”, he insists. Epstein is very clear on this point: adults have authority, not freedom, that is, they must be responsible for the outcomes of their choices and actions. And his solution is clear: “Let’s give teens who seek it and who can demonstrate appropriate competencies the authority they deserve, along with the responsibility that such authority demands28”. In summary, Epstein believes that allowing young people to ‘test’ their way into adulthood will help restore the child-adult continuum, force adults to look at youth with new respect and a new sense of optimism, integrate teenagers into adult society if they are ready, and reduce many signs of turmoil we see in young people today.
…(in 1926) educational philosopher William H. Kilpatrick produced one of the first works to suggest that social and economic changes require educational changes, education for a changing civilization.
Programs at Work
- Epstein, Robert. The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen (Sanger, California: Quill Driver Books, 2007), 375.
- Epstein, “Measuring Infantilization in Teens”, p 10.
- Epstein, 117.
- Epstein, 116.
- Epstein, 18. He quotes from: Holt, John. Escape from Childhood, The Needs and Rights of Children (Cambridge, MA: Holt Associates, 1995), 19.
- Epstein, 76.
- Epstein notes that the current Boys’ Town and Junior Republic models have deviated from the original vision of ‘give responsibility’ to the more modern ‘treatment approach’. For example, what is now “Girls’ and Boys’ Town” is currently more like a large group home, run by professional ‘helping’ adults. (Epstein, pp 99-101). For more on the history of the original Boys Town see the www.girlsandboystown.org and look under ‘history’.
- Epstein, 17.
- Epstein, 107.
- Note, as a psychologist, Epstein has developed about fourteen such tests – in different areas of study – over the course of his career.
- Epstein, 156.
- So dubbed by the western press (in the late 1980s), the “Lost Boys of Sudan” refers the more than 20 000 boys (ages 3-12) who walked for thousands of miles to reach refugee camps in neighbouring lands. More info: Epstein, 241.
- Epstein, 310.
- Epstein, 369.
- Epstein, 316.
- Epstein, 339.
- Epstein, 7.
- Epstein, 7.
- Education recommendations from Epstein, 319-322.
- Epstein, p. 336.
- Epstein, 353.
- Epstein, 71.
- Epstein, 71.
- Epstein, 359.
- Epstein, 359.
- Epstein, 338-9.
- Epstein, 338.
- Epstein, 339.