Psychologist says “Teens are adults”

I happened upon this article, called “Trashing Teens”, on the “Psychology Today” web site and I thought it had some bearing on what happened at Boulder High School during the Conference on World Affairs. It’s an interview with psychologist Robert Epstein. The interviewer’s questions are in plain italics. Areas I’ve emphasized are in bold italics. I thought these quotes were interesting:

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 increasing—30 is the new 20—and 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.

Imagine what it would feel like—or think back to what it felt like—when 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 was wrong.

He makes school sound like an asylum with only teenagers in it. This is just not reality. In school they are supervised by adults almost the entire time they are there. They have expectations placed on them to perform (unless of course the school cares greatly about their “self-esteem”). It sounds like what Epstein is saying, though I don’t quote him directly in this regard (read the full article), is that kids should have less school and enter the workforce earlier

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 permission—permission 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.

You believe in the inherent competence of teens. What’s your evidence?

Dumas and I worked out what makes an adult an adult. We came up with 14 areas of competency—such as interpersonal skills, handling responsibility, leadership—and 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 memory—what you remember by accident, and not due to mnemonics—is remarkably good in early to mid teens and practically nonexistent by the ’50s and ’60s.

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 stupid.

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.

When Epstein says “teens should be learning from the people they are about to become” he doesn’t mean adult teachers in a school. He means the teens should be working with them. When seen this way, that’s fine with me. As a teen I would’ve enjoyed working with adults to a certain extent. I’ve always tended to want to hang around people who are older than I am, even as an adult, because they tend to have more wisdom than I do.

Do you believe that young people are capable of maintaining long-term relationships and capable of moral reasoning?

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 today—Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, George and Barbara Bush—married 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 fail—but adults do every day, too.

I dunno. I find this dubious. Yes, some young couples have managed to stay together, but like he says, overall the divorce rate for teens is higher than when marrying in their 20s. One of the things Joel Becker said in the CWA panel at BHS sounded accurate to me, that if you marry before the age of 25 the divorce rate is 80%. I’ve heard something like this from other sources as well, and I think there’s a reason for it. Teens and young adults into their early 20s haven’t gotten a sense of who they really are yet. Most of them have not had to meet tough life challenges and see their way through them, situations they would never learn under their parents’ care or in school.

I suppose what he’s arguing is that teens should be “let loose” earlier in life so that they can gain these life experiences earlier, but to what purpose? So they can act out their natural urges?

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.

I dunno about this either. The reason teens have short-term relationships is because adults tell them it’s not real? I doubt that. I’ve heard about adults having short-term relationships as well. They’re called “one night stands”. Does he think it’s because other adults are telling them their relationships are not real? Hey, no one’s holding a gun to their heads, so it can’t be that. I think the reason is most teens are experiencing their sexual feelings for the first time, and are playing with relationships.

In fact, I’ve heard anthropologists say just the opposite of what Epstein is saying, that in aboriginal cultures “teens are still kids”, unlike in our culture, where we act like they’re adults in terms of personal relationships and what they should want out of life. I’ve heard these anthropologists say that teens still play and have fun, not unlike younger children do, an activity that’s looked down upon in our culture as “immature”. They play different games, but they’re still discovering the world and human relationships through child-like play. I think in much the same way teens tend to play with romantic relationships because they’re curious about what it’s like. They’re not serious about it yet.

I’m sure there are cases where teens find each other and feel a deep love for one another, and have those feelings of wanting to start a life together, with the parents objecting and trying to keep them apart. One could make the argument that they should be allowed to do that, because they’re ready, but I don’t think he should be making a blanket statement that all teens are like this.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Epstein and perhaps some other people in his profession went through this and that’s why they make this such a big issue.

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 offspring—and it’s unnecessary.

What can be done?

I believe that young people should have more options—the option to work, marry, own property, sign contracts, start businesses, make decisions about health care and abortions, live on their own—every 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 people—including the right to be treated like an adult—many will set aside the trivia of teen culture and work hard to join the adult world.

Let’s compare this position with something Joel Becker said, who is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at UCLA. The theme of his whole presentation was that teens should feel comfortable with the idea of having sex and doing drugs “when they’re ready for it”. When asked about the connection between sex and feelings, Becker said:

Okay, let’s see where to start.  The one you asked about sex and feelings, I think that the only thing I could expand on that is that I think it’s a very individual answer, so I don’t know that I could tell you exactly what 14 year olds are emotionally capable, and then 15, and then 16, because you are all individuals, and there would have to be some sort of self-assessment.  It would be great if that was part of a curriculum and health education where you would be able to look at, am I really emotionally prepared to do x, y, and z.

One thing Epstein says here is something I’d basically agree with, except the part about “significant rights”:

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.

Overall I get the sense that he thinks adults are corrupt, and are either vindictive towards teens or are just too unaware of them as people to care, and that teens are pure and innocent and only want what is right, which is whatever comes naturally to them. He does say that some parents are trapped by our society’s rules, that even if they thought that their teens were more capable and responsible, they weren’t allowed to allow their teens to own property, sign contracts, get married, etc.

The part of human development Epstein ignores is that teens are notoriously impulsive. This isn’t by accident, from what I understand, but because of their neurophysiology. Their body goes through a growth phase that’s rather like the one they had when they were 2-4 years old. Their brain also goes through some changes, with similar effects. When you combine it with the fact that most have little to no real life experience beyond the confines of home and school, they’re accidents waiting to happen. Maybe that’s being too harsh, but it’s close to the truth. Hence they need parental supervision.

Another thing I noticed with Epstein was something I saw with the BHS CWA panel, that they saw current American culture as anti-human, and that more primitive, aboriginal cultures have healthier, pro-human rules and customs. In the BHS panel discussion Sanho Tree talked about how more primitive cultures, with shaman, had healthier attitudes towards drug use. They didn’t quite argue that we should become just like them, but they wished there was a way that some of the human roles that certain people played in aboriginal culture could be brought into ours. Here, Epstein argues that “non-industrial” cultures dealt with teens better by promoting them into adult roles whenever they were deemed ready. There’s none of this “artificial stuff” getting in the way of that. As a substitute for a tribe’s chief or holy man who would confer adulthood on the tribe’s teenagers, Epstein proposes “competency tests”. To be drawn up and administered by whom, he doesn’t say, but I can guess.

I suppose if we wanted to we could go back to a pre-industrial culture where children started working when they were little, starting small, carrying out responsibilities that increase with age. By the time they were teens they would have enough of a work ethic and some sense of the real world that they might very well be capable of carrying out the rights and responsibilities of an adult by the age of 14. But what kind of childhood would they have? How much of an education would they have? This isn’t the world we live in, yet Epstein thinks that somehow this would work.

In our modern, complex society, children need schooling up to a certain level. I think a major part of what Epstein is complaining about is the public school system, though he only describes it as a “warehouse”. He’s barking up the wrong tree. The problem is that kids in middle school and high school are not getting the education they need and deserve. The truth is most American kids have to go to college to get a true high school education now. Yes, you read me right. If you doubt me take a look at what high school students in other countries around the world are learning. It’ll look something like college. Since Epstein is complaining that teens are being cheated in the time they have on this Earth, that’s the main culprit right there.

Andee Gerhardt said in the BHS CWA panel discussion that in the near future most jobs are going to require a college degree. And the vast majority of people can’t get into college without a high school education. So what is Epstein saying? That most people just shouldn’t bother going to college? Isn’t that consigning most people to a life of poverty? I just don’t find his solution realistic. An answer in the right direction would be to revamp the middle and high school systems, and curricula to make them more competitive with the rest of the world. Then maybe we could go back to the way things used to be where most people could get a decent paying job with just a high school diploma. However that’s going to happen, it’s not happening soon.

Edit 6/13/07 – There’s an article in Time Magazine, called “Parents: Relax”, by John Cloud, from March 30, that ponders whether “teens are getting smarter”. He cites statistics showing that illicit drug use, violent crime, teen pregnancy, and suicide rates are all down. He then mixes in Robert Epstein’s recent proclamations that “teens are adults”, and talks about how he advocates for “competency tests” for teens. Cloud makes the same argument I do about these tests. He also pokes a hole in Epstein’s argument, saying that while his clinical surveys may show that teens know how to make good decisions just like adults do, statistics also show they make good decisions less often than adults.

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One Response to Psychologist says “Teens are adults”

  1. Many studies have shown that teen brain are somehow behind their often reckless behavior. But another opinion is that our society keeps our teens brains from developing by treating them like children.

    The latest issue of Scientific American Mind has a great art…

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