The Case for Adolescence
The Case for Adolescence
Adolescence is a time of great importance during which children make extraordinary developmental strides. According to Erik Erikson, adolescents consolidate a self-concept by struggling with essential questions such as Who am I? and What is my role in life? Furthermore, they deal with self-doubt, picture achievements, establish a set of personal ideals, develop a sexual identity, and learn to control their behavior and act thoughtfully—not on impulse. Erikson suggested a social "moratorium" with reduced responsibility during adolescence so that emotional energy is available for development.
Adolescence is also a time that is associated with massive societal restrictions: no sex, no drinking, no driving, no holding public office, no voting, and no marriage. While some of these activities occur despite laws to the contrary, on the whole, society has maintained adolescence as a time when young people still need adult supervision.
In the book, Epstein is nothing if not exhaustive in his coverage of relevant scholarly literature. He invites lay readers to become familiar with the essentials of child development, as well as with fictional writings about teenagers and anecdotal reports of teenage life. However, he often rushes through the scholarly papers and research findings and places the burden of support for his controversial thesis on the dramatics of anecdotes and literary works. Epstein's narrative is more talk radio than reasoned argument.
The book's pages of printed celebrity endorsements (20 altogether)—from actor to astronaut to self-help guru—made me leery from the start that the book would not be evidence-based but rather anecdote-driven. Does walking on the moon truly qualify one as an expert in adolescent development or public policy? "One of the most revolutionary books I have ever read," Albert Ellis declares on the book jacket, as if Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, or Sigmund Freud had never existed.
Epstein's entire case teeters largely on a framework of misused anecdotes. He tends to cite extraordinary stories that are almost certainly not applicable to the mass of teenagers. On the issue of driving, for example, Epstein points out correctly that some teens possess the skills to drive before the law allows them to. But he detracts from his own argument with a prominent sidebar about former President Jimmy Carter's early and successful driving experiences. While this gives readers a window into the makings of a national leader, does it truly reveal anything about the average teen? Where is the countervailing sidebar about the competent teen who hits another vehicle in a head-on crash?
Featured in the book are the life stories of Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Anne Frank, and Suzanne Somers—wrenching celebrity cases of resiliency in the face of severe childhood trauma, such as family alcoholism, molestation, and terrorism. However, Epstein makes the classic error of confusing association with cause and effect. Does trauma create resiliency? Or do resilient people respond heroically to challenge?
In their book, Out of the Woods (Harvard University Press, 2006), developmental specialists Stuart T. Hauser, Joseph P. Allen, and Eve Golden take a longitudinal look at children who have demonstrated resiliency in the face of devastating circumstances. The authors attempt to determine the elements that lead to resiliency and conclude that we are still unable to pinpoint those components.
Epstein recounts the story of Kerri Strug, US gymnast in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, as a prime example of youthful courage and perseverance. In her second vault in the 1996 games, Strug tore 2 ligaments but went on to perform a final vault, winning the gold medal and catapulting the US team to victory. Courage? Yes. Good judgment? No. Strug was left unable to compete in further individual events, and she did not have any idea at the time of her final vault of the extent or potentially crippling nature of her injuries. Even though the outcome was positive, this story might illustrate a teen who has the inability to separate her own best interests from her coach's.
Epstein's literary references are also askew. In William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies, a group of schoolboys are marooned on an island. Once separated from adult supervision, the boys gradually lose all semblance of civilized behavior, culminating in murder. When rescuers arrive, the boys unleash their pent-up emotions—they cry. Epstein interprets this as regressive behavior induced by the presence of adults. Wait a second—doesn't murder trump tears as a sign that the children have lost control of their behavior?
Epstein includes an excerpt of his competency test in the book. Test questions encompass a wide range of categories—love, sex, leadership, problem solving, physical abilities, verbal and math skills, interpersonal skills, handling responsibility, managing high- risk behavior, managing money and work, education, personal care, self-management, and citizenship. Questions include:
- Does everyone have a soul mate?
- Heavier people can tolerate more alcohol. Is this true?
- Do you think about the consequences of your actions before you act?
Some of the questions that are included surely demand more than straightforward, yes or no answers. For example, Can you make decisions without help from other people? The correct answer, according to Epstein, is yes. I would have answered "Not all the time." Even today, as a full-fledged adult, I have the wisdom to know when to seek consultation on clinical and personal matters. (Perhaps Epstein compensates with his question, When you don't understand something, do you ask for help?) Overall, Epstein's test fails to assess the subtlety of abstract and complex thinking. I can imagine SAT-like review centers popping up to prepare teens for their competency test.