Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen
By: Robert Epstein, Ph.D.
Sanger CA:Quill Driver Books/Word Dancer Press:2007
Review by Lon Woodbury, MA
The main point the author makes in this book is that the stage of life we call "Adolescence" is a modern and artificial creation coinciding with the Industrial Revolution. He bases this partly on the observations that the concept of adolescence doesn't really exist in pre-industrial civilizations and that third world societies rarely even have a word that can accurately be translated as adolescence. The author concludes that children in these societies transitioned from childhood directly into adulthood upon puberty. He says this is the naturally evolved life schedule of humanity.
He points out that until the fairly recent past, young people had almost always been accepted as adults after puberty and were expected to be responsible for themselves. He cites examples of tremendous accomplishments throughout history by young people in their teens, and even that it was common for teens to have married and created their own independent families before either parent reached the age of 20. He argues that the human species had evolved in a manner where young people after reaching puberty frequently had the urge and capability of taking their place as adults shouldering adult responsibilities.
Against this facet of evolution, industrial society for a variety of reasons began extending childhood. A teen's strong urges toward independence and a desire to be accepted as an adult with adult responsibilities and rights flow naturally from how we evolved. At the same time society demands that the teens postpone adult status. This extension of childhood he concludes conflicts with the teens natural inclinations.
The result is the teen becomes infantilized, put into a conflicting limbo of desires conflicting with societal limitations. The result, he asserts, is teen rebellion that only occurs in industrialized societies which require teens to postpone starting their adult lives.
This almost 500 page book is the author's attempt to make a complete case that many of our problems with young people are caused by the artificial extension of childhood. He points out that measurements of maturity show the existence of maturity potential is nearly as common in teens as in those society legally accepts as adults.
Tests show teens' ability to use common sense, solve problems and use moral reasoning are about as common as those of legal adults, with about the same percentage of teens having maturity potential as that of legal adults. The only significant difference between teens and legal adults is in tasks that require years of extensive training.
The author concludes that the widespread immaturity of teens we currently see is the result of restrictions that prohibit them from adulthood responsibilities and rights. To buttress his case, he also points to many examples of ostensibly immature teens immediately acting with great maturity and responsibility when some emergency or tragedy demanded it. In other words, even in our current society, many teens can rise to the occasion when necessary.
He points out that many teens are ready to take on adult responsibilities and rights, as well as desiring to control their own lives, but are prohibited simply by being part of the general category of "minor." So they assert what control over their own lives they can by rebelling, participating in risky behavior or doing a form of dropping out by developing their own peer driven teen culture.
The solution, the author suggests, is to allow a teen to have rights and responsibilities when they can demonstrate competence. Thus, if a thirteen year old can demonstrate the capability and maturity to handle the responsibility of driving a car, that that teen should be allowed to get a driver's license, instead of the current situation of assuming that no thirteen year old is competent in that area. The same would hold true with marriage. If a teen can demonstrate he or she knows what they are getting into and can show they are as competent as adults in making a wise decision and shouldering that responsibility, it should be allowed. He makes similar suggestions in a number of other areas. In other words, get away from labeling all teens as incompetent and totally dependent, and treat them as individuals.
He makes the comparison with senior citizens. Not too long ago, people aged 65 and older were labeled as losing their ability to contribute to society and were almost universally forced to retire from work and were sidelined. Society since has changed its attitude and senior citizens are now accepted as contributing adults so long as they can demonstrate competency. The author is suggesting a similar change in attitude toward youth, that is allowing rights and responsibilities as young people demonstrate their competency.
He thinks that could go a long way to reduce teen rebellion, teen crime, unwanted pregnancies and all the rest of the problems that we consider are part of the teen world. His assessment of the problem and suggestions for possible solutions are radical and fly in the face of numerous deeply held assumptions about young people and what they need. However, re-exploring our basic assumptions about the stage of life called adolescence might be very helpful. Who knows what might be discovered if we really question and debate our current attitudes and laws!