Your teenage “kids” are probably a lot more competent than they seem, according to psychologist Robert Epstein. But a raft of laws and regulations (compulsory education, labor restrictions, a separate juvenile justice system) and an ever-growing consumer sector have needlessly delayed their entry into the adult world. Historically, he points out  in an interview about his recent book The Case Against Adolescence , this is not the norm:

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.

Rejecting the stereotype of the teenager as immature and incompetent, Epstein argues that adolescents are fully capable of cognitive and moral reasoning, maintaining long-term relationships, and being responsible for themselves. While teens “have too much freedom” in certain senses, they’re nevertheless “not free to join the adult world, and that’s what needs to change”:
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 that an adult has . . . .

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.


Naturally I disagree with him about abortion, and I’m not convinced that we should roll back child labor laws or institute the competency tests that he favors. Broadly, however, I think he’s right that the myth of the shallow, irresponsible teenager is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Parents may not be able to give their teenage sons and daughters all the rights and responsibilities of adulthood, but they can at least encourage teens to find a job and give them enough freedom to learn from their mistakes, just like adults do. Don’t assume they’re incapable of making good decisions unless they’ve proven by their behavior that they’re incapable. Stop treating them like kids, and they may stop acting like them.

h/t Joe Carter

Articles by Anna Sutherland

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