the myth of adolescence

adam mclane stirred some interesting discussion with his blog post on the ys blog the other day, called “is adolescence a myth?” he highlights the perspective of robert epstein, who has been, for a few years, making the case that adolescence is not real (or, at least it wasn’t, until we created it).

a bit from adam’s post:

Youth ministry is built upon the assumption that there is such a thing as adolescence.

But one Psychologist, former Psychology Today editor Robert Epstein, is questioning this basic assumption that the teenage years are a time of turmoil where a person figures out who they are as an individual. His theory is that adolescents aren’t that different from adults after all, we just don’t expect them to exhibit adult competencies.

then he links to this u.s. news & world report interview with epstein.

i also notice that epstein has a new book out (called teen 2.0). at 500 pages, it’s even longer than epstein’s first book on this subject, the case against adolescence (450 pages), which is part of why that book has sat on my shelf for more than two years without being read.

all that said, i’ve come to believe that the long-winded dr. epstein has a point. i don’t think we should pendulum swing. but i think he raises some extremely good points that have slowly infiltrated their way into my thinking in the last couple years.

here’s my 2 cents (my comment on adam’s post):

i’ve been stewing on epstein’s contentions for a couple years now, since i first saw his articles and quotes (first in response to jay geidd’s discoveries about adolescent brain development, most clearly reported in barbara strauch’s book, the primal teen). at first, i was angry. after all, i’ve spent my adult life pouring into this age group. and, as an adolescent development buff, have always viewed adolescence as a distinct life phase.

but, over time, epstein’s thrust has found some resonance in my thinking. i’m not ready to chuck adolescence as a unique life stage; but i have started viewing it (and talking about it) as a cultural construct, rather than merely a physio/psychological phase. it’s a chicken-and-egg question, really. i DO think we (our culture) “created” adolescence, in a sense (though there are god-design aspects built in also). but even if it is a social or cultural construct, it’s still the reality that our real life teenagers are living in! epstein’s stuff has implications, to be sure; and i really need to get around to reading his massive book that has been sitting on my shelf for almost 2 years (The Case Against Adolescence). but i also want to live out my youth ministry calling by doing ministry WITHIN the culture i and teens live in.

an important quote from Epstein’s book, fwiw:
“…Until about a century ago… adolescence as we know it barely existed. Through most of human history, young people were integrated into adult society early on, but beginning in the late 1800s, new laws and cultural practices began to isolate teens from adults, imposing on them an increasingly large set of restrictions and artificially extending childhood well past puberty. New research suggests that teens today are subjected to more than ten times as many restrictions as are most adults, and adulthood is delayed until well into the twenties or thirties. It’s likely that the turmoil we see among teens is an unintended result of the artificial extension of childhood.”

this is important stuff for youth workers and parents. what are your thoughts?

22 thoughts on “the myth of adolescence”

  1. This tidbit has captured my interest. Just added both books to my wishlist. I’ve always struggled as a youth pastor with the expectations that culture has freely given to this stage of life. The question has always lingered….Is this a true developmental stage or one of our creation? Can’t wait to wrestle with this issue. Thanks for pointing it out to us!

  2. This is actually something I’ve thought for quite some time. I’ve always tried to treat middle and high schoolers more like adults than children. Most of the time this has worked out well, though as the culture lengths adolescence into the twenties, it has become more frustrating. I have college students in my church who are still, in many ways, children. I have a hard time buying a biological reason for this. I think it boils down to an expectations thing.

    Either way, you’ve certainly put Epstein’s book on my summer reading list.

  3. Like you Chris I’ve wondered what I can do as a youth pastor to push back on some of the cultural issues I’ve seen. The ministry-useful part of college for me was the part I gleaned from the Sociology department. [I better watch it, I’ll start sounding like Tony Campolo if I’m not careful. :)] How we slow adulthood has intrigued me since I’ve been in ministry, and I’ve tried to push back on it as much as possible. Somehow I wish I could help parents understand that keeping up with the Jones’ is not where we want to go in general, but especially in how they parent. How can we help parents with this? Because parenting is [obviously] the biggest factor that I’ve seen.

  4. Marko, here are my comments over there on Adam’s Blog, but figured I’de post em here as well.

    @Marko—I fully agree with you and Epstein on the fact that culture has created adolescence. Our culture has also created words such as “boring” and “dull” which 100 years ago weren’t in the English vocabulary.

    The split between teens and adults is so great now that most adults negelect to feel the need to connect themselves with teenagers (or are afraid to?), which only serves to perpetuate what Epstein said “new laws and cultural practices began to isolate teens from adults, imposing on them an increasingly large set of restrictions and artificially extending childhood…”

    Because our culture has created this new “age dichotomy” I would be hard pressed to say its a myth, but rather an ever present reality that didn’t need to be created but has been created so we must work within that reality.

    @Tom I do think the abscence of fathers has perpetuated the cultural construct of teen/adult seperation and was a huge part of the “age dichotomy” that we now see.

    Seeing the need to reconnect as adults to teens I would say that Epsteins findings are very important because without what we do (getting in the midst of the lives of teens) this seperation would be far greater and who knows what age breakdowns we would have. This work we do is extremely important and I am blessed to be a part of it!

  5. This perspective was first brought to my attention as I (a youth minister at the time) was struggling to see how youth ministry could be done in the context of the House Church and/or Emerging church movements.

    The way this question/issue is currently playing out in my thinking centers around empowerment and responsibility for self. Too many kids are graduating high school (and even college) without out the ability to make a responsible decision for themselves. Parents wait until the last second to turn over responsibility for their actions and expect little or nothing from them.

    What if we empowered young people with purpose, expected great things from them, and held them accountable to good decisions. I’m thinking a sliding scale of responsibility starting around 8(?) when they are given some responsibility and are making some of their own decisions through around age 16(?) where they still live at home and are provided for, but they are essentially “on their own” with Mom and Dad as guides.

    By 16, especially if they have a job and a driver’s license, teens are essentially on their own to do whatever they want behind Mom & Dad’s back anyways, so why not plan for it and empower them to pursue a godly vision. By 16 they are certainly capable of changing the world for good, not needing to wait until they “grow up” to accomplish great things. Assuming this plan works, by 18, the freedom of college is not freedom (they already have that) it is another responsibility that they are picking up.

    I haven’t read the books mentioned and I’m not a psychologist, so my thoughts are not “scientifically sound”, but teens are capable of a ton more than what we expect them to be able to accomplish. We need to empower them and unleash them to do great things.

    (As a father of 3 girls, this idea scares me and I greatly love the idea of sheltering and controlling them for as long as possible, but if I believe that God has power and He has a plan for them, why then do I want to hold onto the control of their lives rather than allowing Him to work through them.)

  6. @chris — i like your thoughts. but here’s the challenge: whether adolescent brain development is what it is due to nature or nurture, the current reality (found by jay geidd and others), is this:
    – physical maturity happens by around 16
    – knowledge maturity by around 18
    – but wisdom maturity (based on the development of the prefontal cortext that’s responsible for wisdom and decision making) doesn’t reach maturity until around 25.

    so, yes, i think we should be (and parents should be – they play a much bigger role in this than youth workers do) moving kids toward experimenting with decisions and learning about the results of their decisions, i also think we live in a time where adolescent brains are (again, for whatever reason) developing in a way where we can’t expect wise decisions at 16. that’s not a reason to throw up our hands and say “oh, well.” but it IS the context we’re living in; or, more to the point, it’s the context today’s adolescents are living in.

  7. Yeah, I agree, no matter how it came about, we can’t ignore the context we live in. We can’t pretend that things are any different than they are – we have to minister to the students where they are at.

    But the author brings up some great points about the potential that is ignored in adolescents and the extended period of forced liminality between childhood and “adulthood.” I think it is wise to address those issues, but that’s going to be more of a social and structural battle that involves reforming the public education system in the U.S. and changing common attitudes toward youth – which is no small task. I think we, as youth workers and parents, can do our limited part by recognizing potential in adolescents and challenging them to something more, but it is impossible to think that we alone can change the culture and expectations that are currently associated with youth.

  8. Great points. I agree that culture has developed this mindset of adolescence, but I needed to hear your point about this is where they are and we/I am called to minister to them in this culture.

    In addtion though as I minister, I think they can learn, grow, and most definitely get JESUS now! I have been struggling for some time on how to balance culturally drawing students with fun events vs. knowing they don’t have to be spoon fed or teach in a dumbed down manner. I really like the Do Hard Things books that is out there to raise the expectations of teenagers.

  9. I’m less concerned with the question of whether adolescence is real than I am with the question of whether our regard for other individual people, no matter what their age, respects their identity as actual, full people. A five-year-old is no less a person just because she is five. Likewise, a 13-year-old is no less a person just because she is 13. At these ages, they might not be very good at being adults, but they are still excellent at being people.

    The implication is that every person, no matter what their age, is capable of shouldering some level of responsibility. What level? That depends on the person. But in the end, he or she is still a person, one who needs to have responsibility, and who needs to know that that responsibility matters.

    In my view, if adolescence means anything at all, it means that it’s time to step up to the plate (to use a metaphorical cliche) of full adult responsibilities. The degree to which we let this novice adult take on adult responsibilities, coupled with the degree to which we believe in her ability to shoulder their weight, will set the course of her life. So does the degree to which we prevent it.

  10. Hi Marko, hi everyone.

    This is a bit like the question about consumerism. Is it a bad thing, to be railed against, or is it the very cultural air that we breathe, in which the gospel must be contextualised (I guess the prosperity gospel would fit)?

    In the case of consumerism, I continue to fight on, Canute-like. In the case of adolescence, I am more ambivalent. I suppose I am worried we will become culturally isolated, but equally worried what it means that Michelle Obama puts up Beyonce as a role model. We have no idea what four hours a day of Hannah Montana or Grand Theft Auto (or both, if you have REALLY weird kids…) is going to do to young minds.

    Fifteen years ago Douglas Coupland noted that the mean age everyone wanted to be had dropped from mid-thirties (with spouse, kids, job, house, car) to early twenties over the previous fifty years. Now I suspect we’ve entered the teens. So it’s not just teenagers that want to act like self-centred hedonists; it’s all of us. I would see the church’s tacit acceptance of divorce on grounds other than adultery or spousal abuse as an accommodation to this attitude.

    So I suppose my question is, does it matter whether it’s nature or nurture? Unless you withdraw completely from mainstream culture (home schooling, no TV, radio or internet etc.) then a weirdly sexualised adolscence is going to become the norm for all of us.

    Now that I think about, consumerism – the idea that my happiness can be achieved through getting more ‘stuff’ – is intertwined with those self-same urges for simple self-definition that characterise traditional adolescence. What future adolescence – or adulthood – is going to be like I have no idea.

  11. I LOVE that people are asking these questions and being wiling to think in new ways.

    I follow what the author is saying about adolescence being contributed to by emerging laws in the 1800’s – but I wonder if it’s the law that keeps them there today – or if it’s the business world? In the past, the government was the biggest influence, but today, I think there’s something to be said for business (marketing) keeping adolescence around.

    While I am thinking about it, I also think the breakdown of the family contributes to the inability us as a society from creating young adults – until they are creating their own families.

    Is there another way (other than healthy inter-generational (family) relationships) out of the system that we’ve created?

  12. This is definitely something that we need to do a lot more thinking about as youth workers. Marko, one of the things I did appreciate about YM 3.0 was the attention paid to doing theological and sociological study on adolescence. For me, here’s what it comes down to (and why we–youth workers–need to study human development a lot more than we do as): we need to not only see this rapidly-expanding time period called adolescence as it is, but also as it should be. Just as Jesus can transform an entire culture, he can also transform adolescence. Maybe that’s a bit too dreamy, but I believe it starts with asking God what his vision is for that time period, just as we would ask him what his vision is for a particular community.

  13. The concept is interesting. I haven’t read the book. I’m a bit ADD myself and probably couldn’t make it through that many pages anyway.

    I wanted to add a couple more dynamics that have paralleled the isolating of adolescence as a unique life phase.

    One is that we are living much longer. Every phase of life is either drawn out or redefined. Who discussed geriatrics 500 years ago (at least as it relates to octogenarians)? We have doubled our lifespan in the last 200 years so some redefinition was inevitable.

    Also 1000 years ago marriages were arranged be parents and usually occurred by the time girls hit puberty. I am thinking it may have had more to do with the prevention of premarital pregnancy than anything else. Secondarily, perhaps the fact that half the people were dead by 30.

    I don’t know how relevant anyone else sees this but I didn’t want our generation to take all of the credit for phenomena that has be occurring over a thousand years.

  14. We have taught the myth of adolescence at our Understanding Your Teenager seminars since 1988. I have held for many years that adolescence is an artificial category created primarily by marketers. I first heard Joan Lipsitz (founder of the Center for Early Adolescence and author of Growing Up Forgotten) teach this back in 1977 and I bought in completely. Epstein’s latest book only confirms what we all know is true but sadly which youth ministry has a vested interested in disproving. After all, we need adolescents to justify what we do.

  15. Wayne:

    True. So if we are to faithfully minister to adolescents and their families, how do we minister in the cultural context that currently exists (that is, our culture’s skewed view of what this decade-plus that we call adolescence) and positively affect our culture by showing that adolescence is a myth? In my opinion, what we as a culture traditionally hail as great parts of adolescence are actually hindrances to a teenager following Jesus. I’ve been puzzling over this for quite some time.

  16. I arrived at this blog doing research in relation to a presentation I am doing on adolescence. One of my resources is the book Do Hard Things by Alex & Brett Harris. I thought you would like the book, if you get a chance to read it.

  17. For what it is worth – what does Scripture say? Nothing, a person is a child and then an adult – both biologically and spiritually. One grows to maturity but there is a line where the things of childhood are cast off for adulthood. By creating a middle area where one is treated both as child and adult, this is even more confusing, and the result – growing childhood into the twenties and beyond.

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