Home | Robert
Epstein | Teen
Case Against Adolescence
Article from Psychology Today about
Psychologist Robert Epstein argues
in a provocative book, "The Case Against
Adolescence," that teens are far more competent than
we assume, and most of their problems stem from
restrictions placed on them.
By: Hara Estroff Marano
Psychologist Robert Epstein spoke
to Psychology Today's Hara Estroff Marano about the legal
and emotional constraints on American youth.
HEM: Why do you believe that adolescence is an artificial
extension of childhood?
RE: In every mammalian species, immediately upon reaching
puberty, animals function as adults, often having
offspring. We call our offspring "children"
well past puberty. The trend started a hundred years ago
and now extends childhood well into the 20s. The age at
which Americans reach adulthood is increasing30 is
the new 20and most Americans now believe a person
isn't an adult until age 26.
The whole culture collaborates in artificially extending
childhood, primarily through the school system and
restrictions on labor. The two systems evolved together
in the late 19th-century; the advocates of
compulsory-education laws also pushed for child-labor
laws, restricting the ways young people could work, in
part to protect them from the abuses of the new
factories. The juvenile justice system came into being at
the same time. All of these systems isolate teens from
adults, often in problematic ways.
Our current education system was created in the late
1800s and early 1900s, and was modeled after the new
factories of the industrial revolution. Public schools,
set up to supply the factories with a skilled labor
force, crammed education into a relatively small number
of years. We have tried to pack more and more in while
extending schooling up to age 24 or 25, for some segments
of the population. In general, such an approach still
reflects factory thinkingget your education now and
get it efficiently, in classrooms in lockstep fashion.
Unfortunately, most people learn in those classrooms to
hate education for the rest of their lives.
The factory system doesn't work in the modern world,
because two years after graduation, whatever you learned
is out of date. We need education spread over a lifetime,
not jammed into the early yearsexcept for such
basics as reading, writing, and perhaps citizenship. Past
puberty, education needs to be combined in interesting
and creative ways with work. The factory school system no
longer makes sense.
What are some likely consequences of extending one's
Imagine what it would feel likeor think back to
what it felt likewhen your body and mind are
telling you you're an adult while the adults around you
keep insisting you're a child. This infantilization makes
many young people angry or depressed, with their distress
carrying over into their families and contributing to our
high divorce rate. It's hard to keep a marriage together
when there is constant conflict with teens.
We have completely isolated young people from adults and
created a peer culture. We stick them in school and keep
them from working in any meaningful way, and if they do
something wrong we put them in a pen with other
"children." In most nonindustrialized
societies, young people are integrated into adult society
as soon as they are capable, and there is no sign of teen
turmoil. Many cultures do not even have a term for
adolescence. But we not only created this stage of life:
We declared it inevitable. In 1904, American psychologist
G. Stanley Hall said it was programmed by evolution. He
How is adolescent behavior shaped by societal strictures?
One effect is the creation of a new segment of society
just waiting to consume, especially if given money to
spend. There are now massive industriesmusic,
clothing, makeupthat revolve around this artificial
segment of society and keep it going, with teens spending
upward of $200 billion a year almost entirely on trivia.
Ironically, because minors have only limited property
rights, they don't have complete control over what they
have bought. Think how bizarre that is. If you, as an
adult, spend money and bring home a toy, it's your toy
and no one can take it away from you. But with a
14-year-old, it's not really his or her toy. Young people
can't own things, can't sign contracts, and they can't do
anything meaningful without parental
permissionpermission that can be withdrawn at any
time. They can't marry, can't have sex, can't legally
drink. The list goes on. They are restricted and
infantilized to an extraordinary extent.
In recent surveys I've found that American teens are
subjected to more than 10 times as many restrictions as
mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as
active-duty U.S. Marines, and even twice as many as
incarcerated felons. Psychologist Diane Dumas and I also
found a correlation between infantilization and
psychological dysfunction. The more young people are
infantilized, the more psychopathology they show.
What's more, since 1960, restrictions on teens have been
accelerating. Young people are restricted in ways no
adult would befor example, in some states they are
prohibited from entering tanning salons or getting
You believe in the inherent competence of teens. What's
Dumas and I worked out what makes an adult an adult. We
came up with 14 areas of competencysuch as
interpersonal skills, handling responsibility,
leadershipand administered tests to adults and
teens in several cities around the country. We found that
teens were as competent or nearly as competent as adults
in all 14 areas. But when adults estimate how teens will
score, their estimates are dramatically below what the
teens actually score.
Other long-standing data show that teens are at least as
competent as adults. IQ is a quotient that indicates
where you stand relative to other people your age; that
stays stable. But raw scores of intelligence peak around
age 14-15 and shrink thereafter. Scores on virtually all
tests of memory peak between ages 13 and 15. Perceptual
abilities all peak at that age. Brain size peaks at 14.
Incidental memorywhat you remember by accident, and
not due to mnemonicsis remarkably good in early to
mid teens and practically nonexistent by the '50s and
If teens are so competent, why do they not show it?
What teens do is a small fraction of what they are
capable of doing. If you mistreat or restrict them,
performance suffers and is extremely misleading. The
teens put before us as examples by, say, the music
industry tend to be highly incompetent. Teens encourage
each other to perform incompetently. One of the anthems
of modern pop, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by
Nirvana, is all about how we need to behave like we're
Teens in America are in touch with their peers on average
65 hours a week, compared to about four hours a week in
preindustrial cultures. In this country, teens learn
virtually everything they know from other teens, who are
in turn highly influenced by certain aggressive
industries. This makes no sense. Teens should be learning
from the people they are about to become. When young
people exit the education system and are dumped into the
real world, which is not the world of Britney Spears,
they have no idea what's going on and have to spend
considerable time figuring it out.
There are at least 20 million young people between 13 and
17, and if they are as competent as I think they are, we
are just throwing them away.
Do you believe that young people are capable of
maintaining long-term relationships and capable of moral
Everyone who has looked at the issue has found that teens
can experience the love that adults experience. The only
difference is that they change partners more, because
they are warehoused together, told it's puppy love and
not real, and are unable to marry without permission. The
assumption is they are not capable. But many
distinguished couples todayJimmy and Rosalynn
Carter, George and Barbara Bushmarried young and
have very successful long-term relationships.
According to census data, the divorce rate of males
marrying in their teens is lower than that of males
marrying in their 20s. Overall the divorce rate of people
marrying in their teens is a little higher. Does that
mean we should prohibit them from marrying? That's
absurd. We should aim to reverse that, telling young
people the truth: that they are capable of creating
long-term stable relationships. They might failbut
adults do every day, too.
The "friends with benefits" phenomenon is a
by-product of isolating adolescents, warehousing them
together, and delivering messages that they are incapable
of long-term relationships. Obviously they have strong
sexual urges and act on them in ways that are
irresponsible. We can change that by letting them know
they are capable of having more than a hookup.
Studies show that we reach the highest levels of moral
reasoning while we're still in our teens. Those
capabilities parallel higher-order cognitive reasoning
abilities, which peak fairly early. Across the board,
teens are far more capable than we think they are.
What's the worst part of the current way we treat teens?
The adversarial relationship between parents and
offspring is terrible; it hurts both parents and young
people. It tears some people to shreds; they don't
understand why it is happening and can't get out of it.
They don't realize they are caught in a machine that's
driving them apart from their offspringand it's
What can be done?
I believe that young people should have more
optionsthe option to work, marry, own property,
sign contracts, start businesses, make decisions about
health care and abortions, live on their ownevery
right, privilege, or responsibility an adult has. I
advocate a competency-based system that focuses on the
abilities of the individual. For some it will mean more
time in school combined with work, for others it will
mean that at age 13 or 15 they can set up an Internet
business. Others will enter the workforce and become some
sort of apprentice. The exploitative factories are long
gone; competent young people deserve the chance to
compete where it counts, and many will surprise us.
It's a simple matter to develop competency tests to
determine what rights a young person should be given,
just as we now have competency tests for driving. When
you offer significant rights for passing such a test,
it's highly motivating; people who can't pass a
high-school history test will never give up trying to
pass the written test at the DMV, and they'll virtually
always succeed. We need to offer a variety of tests,
including a comprehensive test to allow someone to become
emancipated without the need for court action. When we
dangle significant rewards in front of our young
peopleincluding the right to be treated like an
adultmany will set aside the trivia of teen culture
and work hard to join the adult world.
Are you saying that teens should have more freedom?
No, they already have too much freedomthey are free
to spend, to be disrespectful, to stay out all night, to
have sex and take drugs. But they're not free to join the
adult world, and that's what needs to change.
Unfortunately, the current systems are so entrenched that
parents can do little to counter infantilization. No one
parent can confer property rights, even though they would
be highly motivating. Too often, giving children more
responsibility translates into giving them household
chores, which just causes more tension and conflict. We
have to think beyond chores to meaningful responsibility
- responsibility tied to significant rights.
With a competency-based system in place, our focus will
start to change. We'll become more conscious of the
remarkable things teens can do rather than on
culture-driven misbehavior. With luck, we might even be
able to abolish adolescence.
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