A review of The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen, by Robert Epstein, Quill Driver Books, 2007, 376 pp, plus appendices, bibliography and index.
At age 14, Andrew Jackson fought in the American War for Independence, was captured by the British. He was also orphaned. David Crockett, hero at the Alamo, struck out on his own at age 12 and returned home four years later a full-grown man. Audie Murphy, who left grade school to support his 11 brothers and sisters, won 33 combat and other service decorations during World War II before he was 20. And David Farragut, chief of the federal navy during the War of Northern Aggression, commanded his first ship at age 12.
Jackson, Crockett and Murphy appear in my own book, Real Men: Ten Courageous Americans to Know and Admire, and Robert Epstein, a psychology professor and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, briefly writes about Farragut in his interesting if flawed book, The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. Epstein’s thesis is hardly controversial if you know anything about history: Parents who want to know why teenagers are such a mess should look in the mirror. For about the last 150 years, American parents have infantilized teenagers by refusing to let them make decisions. As is usual when society turns in the wrong direction, it wasn’t average Americans who created the problem. Rather, the experts created it—and the problem, Epstein avers, is the imaginary psychological construct called adolescence. While we consider it a given of human maturation, and read back into history the notion of teenage rebellion, the very concept was only defined and given a name in 1904, when psychologist G. Stanley Hall, a biological determinist, coined the word.
Adolescence, the teenage years of rebellion, depression, angst, stupidity and generally incomprehensible behavior, is an accepted fact among the elites and experts, meaning the headshrinkers, eggheads and legislators who want to tell the rest of us what to do and when to do it. The belief in this imaginary developmental stage, which most parents share, explains why young people are such a mess. Or at least they seem to be. For Epstein contends that most teenagers aren’t a mess by nature. They act nutty, stupid and incompetent because we expect them to, and we expect them to because we believe they are nutty, stupid and incompetent—i.e., incapable of making intelligent decisions, incapable of working and incapable of just about anything else that requires a modicum of common sense. We believe that teenagers can’t think, that their brains are screwy. We believe in adolescence.
The result? At best, we delay these young people’s maturation until they are well past the teenage years — and at worst, we drive them into rebellious behavior up to and including drug use, pregnancy and serious crime, not least of which are the major school shootings in the United States over the past few years. Epstein diagnoses the problem, and his prescription is a simple one: Stop treating teens like small children. He’s right about that. And wrong about other things. Not least of those is giving teenagers unfettered rights as opposed to expectations and responsibilities.
Adolescence Is Not Real
Epstein explains that one needn’t read the book word for word to get its gist. The small abstracts opening each chapter will do. Yet understanding the scope of the problem requires reading his historical exposition of adolescence and how this flatly preposterous notion evolved. If you understand the history, you understand why the modern American conception of the teenage years is so outrageously amiss.
Throughout most of human history, he writes, young people were thoroughly integrated into adult society. From an early age, they worked alongside their parents, typically on farms, and were not dragooned into school with dozens or hundreds of peers. They married shortly after puberty began, sometimes as early as 14 or 15. Adolescence did not exist, so a boy or girl went from childhood to adulthood.
In short, our ancestors raised children differently than we do. Few laws restricted what children and teenagers could do. That’s where some of his laconic historical vignettes come in, from a young Alexander the Great to Jimmy Carter explaining that he carried a .22-caliber rifle as a small boy and drove a truck when he was 12.
Beginning in the early 19th century with the Industrial Revolution, the authorities began creating laws to restrict a child’s activities, most of them targeting work. These laws blossomed in the early 20th-century, concomitantly with compulsory school laws, the idea being to push children into school and prepare them for work in an industrial society.
The biggest push to infantilize children came, surprisingly, from feminists—the most prominent and successful being Jane Addams, a typical late 19th-century reformer (i.e. busybody). She created Hull House, which began as a measure to help immigrants and children and evolved into a nexus of radical social change.
Epstein quotes a congressional report about this nerve center of crackpot feminism: “Practically all the radicalism among women in the United States centered about Hull House, Chicago, and the Children’s Bureau, Washington, with a dynasty of Hull House graduates in charge of it since its creation.” And according to the Jane Addams Reader, “nearly every major reform in the years 1895-1903 came with Jane Addams’ name attached in one way or another, including labor and housing regulations, employment regulations for women and children, the eight-hour workday, old-age and unemployment insurance….”
What is more, “Addams’ reach was extraordinary. She either founded, helped to found, or was a major player in the American Civil Liberties Union … the Campfire Girls, the National Child Labor Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Consumer’s League, the National Peace Congress, the Women’s Peace Party” and more. No mending or ironing for this world-shaker. She helped concoct the deleterious juvenile justice system, and Hull House “spawned the first Boy Scout troop in Chicago,” as well as the city’s first public swimming pool, playground, kitchen, free art exhibits and college extension courses.
So three major movements initiated the move toward defining and recognizing adolescence: the Industrial revolution, which spawned the first child labor laws; compulsory education, which came next; and the women’s rights movement. As for compulsory education, it “was viewed by leading industrialists as a means of controlling the poor and working classes, and, specifically, for preparing them for work in new Industrial America.”
“The working class,” Epstein quotes a book about the subject, “had imposed upon them a sterile and authoritarian educational system which mirrored the ethos of the corporate workplace,” even as the “agendas of people like Jane Addams overlapped with the agendas of the industrialists.” These agendas of the “child savers” funneled children “off the streets” into a one-size fits all classroom. Epstein explains why compulsory cafeteria schooling is a failed experiment. A child spends almost his whole day separated from adults. What is worse, he writes, quoting John Taylor Gatto, public schools alienate children from their families.
The child-savers’ agenda also overlapped agenda of the labor unions, which wanted to stop children and teenagers from working because they competed with union members—but in any event the anti-work laws kept coming until they evolved into what we have today. A kid can’t work full-time until he is 16, and he certainly can’t work during school hours. Anyone under 16 needs a permit to work.
So Addams and her “child-savers” viewed teenagers as “fragile and incompetent” beings who “need adult protection.” The child savers “defined youth as a troublesome period of life based on their own class-based moralistic biases and created an infrastructure that mass produced young people in the image they themselves had invented: dependent, angry and incompetent. They robbed the young of their independence.”
As this social movement began, American business contributed youth-oriented industries, beginning with manufactured toys and games and metastasizing into the “youth-oriented corporate empires” that plague us today: Hasbro, Milton Bradley, Tonka, Kenner, Toys R Us. Beyond toys, big business now offers teenagers an entire menu of films and music dictating how teenagers think and controlling what they wear. Films typically depict aimless and “infantile teens … defiant and uncontrollable teens … drugged and inebriated and oversexed teens … depressed and suicidal teens.” Teen music is much the same.
American teens, Epstein writes, are the most troubled in the world — despite their wealth and prosperity. Why? Because they are infantilized, and they are infantilized mostly because they can’t work. In California, the age-old newspaper delivery boy is no more; you must be 18 to deliver the daily newspaper. And if teens are too immature to work, they assuredly are too immature to do anything else: sign a contract, buy a home, or get married.
Thus does Epstein catalogue the list of laws on everything from drinking to driving, none of which existed before the early 18th-century, the Industrial Revolution, compulsory schooling, the child-savers movement or the concept of adolescence.
Before the 20th-century and even in the early part of it, teenagers didn’t suffer the myriad pathologies they have today, and in many areas of the world, particularly pre-industrial cultures, they still don’t. But as American culture inoculates the world with the plague bacilli of consumption, materialism and adolescence, more young people across the globe misbehave.
Love and Marriage
Apart from the long list of don’ts imposed upon teenagers, society infantilizes teens by prohibiting them from pursuing love and sex. Citing the plethora of incoherent laws that forbid carnal activity to teens, Epstein adds the prohibition on marriage to the prohibition on work as one of the key methods adults use to infantilize teens. The strict laws regulating sexual behavior became necessary because the experts concluded that young men and women were too “immature” for that ultimate of “adult” relationships, marriage.
As with work, until the 20th century younger teenagers were permitted and encouraged to pursue romance. Epstein explains that modern sensibilities forced an erroneous depiction of Romeo and Juliet as 40-year-olds instead of what they were: not just teenagers but young teenagers. Epstein begins this section of the book with the story of a woman who, at 13, married a 21-year-old man and stayed married for more than 80 years. Today, her husband would be jailed.
What do we know that our ancestors didn’t? Not much. Epstein cites four presidential wives who married as teenagers and stayed married for their entire lives, including Rosalynn Carter and Barbara Bush. In the old days, marriages lasted longer than ours, yet today we reserve marriage for “adults.” However, the divorce rate among adults shows they aren’t much more successful than teenagers might be. Indeed, men who marry young tend to have successful marriages more often than not. This isn’t to say all teenagers are ready for marriage. But obviously many are.
Laws forbidding teenagers to marry, because they are too “immature” to experience romantic love and marriage, cause pre-martial sex and out-of-wedlock births. Forbidding teenagers to marry also helps explain the “high turnover” of girlfriends and boyfriends in high school. So too does the co-ed, compulsory high school itself, where hundreds of teenagers are confined for nine months in an environment offering the obvious cornucopia of carnal delights. Indeed, the two work in tandem: Adults forbid teenagers marriage, the proper outlet for sex, but imprison teenagers in a co-educational environment where they display their wares while consuming raunchy music and movies.
Like forbidding teenagers from working, denying them marriage explicitly tells them they are incapable of adult behavior—even though teenagers can procreate, one of the two purposes of marriage, and human beings reach their intellectual peak in terms of memory and reasoning ability in their teenage years.
As for this last, Epstein provides a list of the accomplishments of kids and teenagers: Louis Braille, blinded by an awl, invented the first version of the Braille reading system at age 12. Mozart was composing at age 7, and composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote A Midsummer’s Night Dream at age 17. George Parker, of Parker Bros. fame, invented his first board game at age 17. A teen-age Walt Disney left home to drive an ambulance in France in the aftermath of World War I. Not to mention Jackson, Crockett, Murphy and Farragut.
Admittedly, Mozart, for instance, was genius and prodigy. And so were many other accomplished young people. But most of them weren’t. Teenagers can work, think, fight and love. The law prohibits all of it.
Where Epstein Goes Wrong
Still, the book is not without a few minor problems and one major flaw: it lacks a moral center.
The minor problems are a few glib, erroneous conclusions. Introducing his argument to show that children can be warriors, he explains that Americans once thought women should not, and could not, fight in wars. He quotes an American soldierette, who claims that a properly trained woman can fight like a man, and concludes that women should be permitted in combat. On this point, Epstein is in over his head. He’s wrong for practical and moral reasons.
Early in the book, Epstein notes that acquisitive capitalists who run globe-straddling businesses created a market for bad music, bad movies and bad clothes that also infantilize teens. At the end, he describes overhearing two gabbling skateboarders, who repeatedly call each other “dude” and wonder whether they might “get air.” “These are the teens we have created:” he writes, “mindless consumers, dressed from head to toe in the garb prescribed by specialized divisions of the music and fashion industries, isolated from their heritages and their elders, producing nothing of value for their families or their society.”
All true, of course, but he also says he doesn’t oppose the acquisitive greed and centralization of business and commerce that created the problem. Why not? If avaricious entertainment tycoons peddle smut and stupidity to kids, he should oppose it. Instead, he avers, teenagers have a right to consume the very poison killing their souls.
This is why the book lacks a moral compass. Indeed, the word isn’t mentioned. Epstein never concedes that certain laws ought rightly to apply to everyone, one example being abortion restrictions, which he opposes. Epstein argues that a child who can demonstrate competence, as determined by tests, should be permitted to drink, smoke, purchase contraceptives, read pornography, have sex and abort a child.
It is true, as Epstein argues, that telling a soldier who earned the Medal of Honor he cannot buy a beer or pack of cigarettes is not only ridiculous but also oppressive in the extreme. But abortion is another matter. Pro-lifers want abortion banned for everyone, not merely teens, because they believe abortion takes an innocent life; i.e., it’s murder. Of course, Epstein opines in a milieu of legal abortion, and because his argument turns on the point that adult women can abort, perhaps it contains a perverse logic. If teenagers can make adult decisions, and abortion is a legal procedure, why can’t a teenager get one without parental consent? But that isn’t, of course, the problem. The problem is abortion, an odious crime whatever the age of the girl or woman.
Epstein only observes that a girl might want an abortion, but never examines why a girl might want to abort, which invites rehearsing the assessment of a very wise priest:
“The Nazis and Communists ran death camps, which they concealed, and which employed at most a few hundred thousands of guards. “We” have killed 45 million, with the locations advertised in the Yellow Pages, with approximately 100 million people directly involved in the killing. I think it’s self-evident that our society is much sicker than Germany was in the Spring of 1945. The process by which 100 million people were brought to that point? Anything that infantilizes people; i.e., anything that creates people who have reached that age at which they can procreate, without having the minimum of adult instincts that would cause them to recoil at the notion of killing one of their own children. The influences that have brought about this level of infantilization are obviously many. I would name, primarily: government schooling and all other instances of socialism. The sexual revolution — the normalization of fornication, pornography, and contraception.”
Readers might recall this line from an “abortion rights” advocate, pregnant with triplets, who told readers of The New York Times magazine about her decision to abort two of the babies: “When I found out about the triplets, I felt like: It’s not the back of a pickup at 16, but now I”m going to have to move to Staten Island. I”ll never leave my house because I”ll have to care for these children. I”ll have to start shopping only at Costco and buying big jars of mayonnaise.” These are the words of an adult?
Point is, killing a baby because you don”t want it, or can”t handle it, or whatever, is the act of a selfish child. Accepting and loving the child is the act of an adult.
So perhaps the very infantilization of teenagers Epstein decries leads to abortion. If so, eliminating parental consent laws would not help solve Epstein’s problem, and neither would giving teenagers the “rights” to fornicate, buy contraceptives or consume pornography.
The false assumption behind Epstein’s argument flows from the libertarian ideology of rights: that individuals, not families, are the basic unit of society. This is why Epstein insists that teenagers should operate as rootless adults exercising “rights,” regardless of the effect on family or society. But this is precisely what he complained about, having listened to the skateboarding cretins, and it contradicts his point that teenagers are “isolated from their heritages and their elders, producing nothing of value for their families or their society.” Handing them rights will further isolate them, just as exercising those rights isolated their parents. And that’s because the American fixation on individual rights vitiates those obligations to elders and heritage.
Epstein certainly has a point: We’ve infantilized teenagers by refusing to treat them like adults, by permitting big business to create a global teen culture encouraging rebellion and crime, by compulsory schooling with peers and separation from parents, and by forbidding work, marriage or even drinking a beer. And he echoes pedagogue James B. Stenson, who writes that parents should raise good adults, and says parents and teenagers are adversaries because the latter have not only the sexual but also the intellectual powers needed to function as adults. But repealing laws and turning teenagers loose upon society to exercise their “rights” isn’t the answer to infantilization. A Christian cultural and moral order, after all, must replace those laws.
Epstein should have explained what curtailing the state’s power over teenagers requires. Granted, before the experts created adolescence and government passed the behavioral statutes Epstein opposes, those things did not exist. But no one believed teenagers or children had free-floating “rights.” Rather, they had duties. Loyalty and obedience were expected. They worked because they had to. As well, familial and cultural customs and religious canons firmly governed society. Young people married with the advice, careful consideration and blessing of their families, who sought to protect their own interests. Parents decided when a boy could smoke or drink. They firmly guided their children in choosing their life’s occupation. Were control of these matters returned to parents, communities and religious authorities, adolescence would wither away. Teenagers would grow up.
And they would learn what learned so long ago: They are not individuals who need the license to smoke, drink and fornicate, but members of families, which require adults, teenagers and children to fulfill duties to each other and the kith and kin to whom they are tied by blood, marriage, tradition and religion.
The Case Against Adolescence is full of interesting, and arresting, facts and ideas. Jackson, Crockett and company, with about 1900 years of history before Hall concocted adolescence, make Epstein’s point. Yet his attachment to “rights” and “individuality” undermine his argument and will not help us “rediscover the adult in every teen.”
R. Cort Kirkwood is the author of Real Men: Ten Courageous Americans to Know And Admire (Cumberland House).