The Case for Adolescence

November 1, 2007
Volume 24, Issue 13

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?

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.

Anecdotes askew

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?

The test

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.

There are many practical problems in administering a nationwide competency test. What if the teen feels ill on the day of the test? How often should the test be administered? While the format of the test excerpt in the book is simple, what if the teen has a learning disability that makes standardized testing difficult? Should there be an age cutoff for the test? If adults cannot pass the test, should their rights be curtailed? Who would be responsible for administering the test, and would this make for tighter government control of families?

No doubt, competent teens should be encouraged to use their skills and to learn from life's challenges. However, if the excerpt in the book is representative, Epstein's competency test will fail to unambiguously separate teens who can "skip ahead" to adult life from those who need further maturation. The test looks at the capacity to function at the most superficial level and, thus, cannot provide the certainty that teens have accomplished appropriate developmental tasks for their age.

The flip side

Alternative viewpoints on adolescence abound. Marsha Levy-Warren, associate director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent, and Family Studies and author of The Adolescent Journey (Jason Aronson, 2000), has been treating adolescent patients for the past 30 years. In her opinion, teens who are ready for adult decision making may be those who have been thrust into a position of taking on the responsibilities of adult life. These children may have had early parental loss or chronically ill parents. Levy-Warren's work with these children has led her to conclude that these youngsters accept their fate but feel fearful and cheated out of adult care. She believes that teens who are allowed sufficient time to integrate their experience in the world, who consider situations from various vantage points, who have access to abstract thinking, and who have psychological differentiation will prove to be more capable adults.

Epstein pronounces the restrictions placed on teenagers' rights and privileges as a direct cause of delinquent behavior. Levy-Warren proposes instead that teens who act out and are delinquent are immature and that their behavior may be a way of expressing anger from assuming adult roles too soon. In Levy-Warren's view, gangs usually include teens who are looking for a leader-essentially a parent surrogate-to make decisions for them.

In Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood (Belknap Press, 2004), Steven Mintz, a leading authority on the history of families and children, cited studies by the Guttmacher Institute that relate the rise in older-teen pregnancies-a marker of acting-out behavior-to poverty, lack of economic opportunity, low self-esteem, and the longing for a long-term relationship with the child. Contrary to Epstein's assertion, the studies found no evidence that restrictive laws concerning sex and marriage contribute to teen pregnancy.

On abortion

Epstein spotlights the work of Jennifer Soper, a former University of Alabama law student, who wrote a paper in 1999 on abortion statutes across the nation. In addressing the difficulty faced by pregnant teens who live in states where they cannot legally decide about their own medical care, including abortion, Soper brings up a complex set of issues that are closely related to Epstein's concerns.

She points out that if pregnant teens are forced to gain parental or court consent to have an abortion, their own input into this life-changing decision might not be taken into account. Judges, she reports, have different ways to assess a teen's ability to decide about her own abortion: one girl was asked about her knowledge of electricity, while another was asked to describe hemorrhage and its consequences.

Soper looks at the various definitions of "age of legal majority," physical maturity and its relationship to intellectual maturity, competency versus emotional maturity, and experience as a contributor to wisdom. She differentiates between capacity, which is the ability to understand the nature and effects of one's acts, and competency, which she defines as the ability to understand problems and make decisions.

By Soper's standard, Epstein's test is truly a capacity test, which is less valuable in assessing whether a teen is capable of handling adult responsibilities. Soper and Epstein are on the same path: How does one discover who is capable of making major medical decisions without resorting to an arbitrary age cutoff?

The Case Against Adolescence struggles to change the artificial way in which society lumps teens. Not all teens of the same age are at the same stage of development. Epstein has not found a solution to the challenge of identifying when a teen is ready for the responsibilities of adult life. There are many ways for competent teens to enjoy their lives without full adult rights. How about reading, creative writing, music, sports, or joining groups of teens with similar passions? Supporting our children in developing their skills is my solution to the regression and acting-out behavior that Epstein believes to be a dire problem in our culture.