confronting adolescence: thoughts from a meeting with robert epstein (part 1)

yesterday, one of my youth ministry coaching program cohorts had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with dr. robert epstein for 90 minutes. epstein graciously welcomed us into his home, served us iced tea and cookies, and engaged with us is a pot-stirring exploration of ideas. for an academic with such polarizing (and, some would say, extreme) ideas, we were pleasantly surprised by his warmth, humor and listening ability. we knew we’d enjoy his thought processes, which we did.

for those who don’t recognize the name: epstein has been a fly in the ointment of adolescent sound-bite propogandists for the last few years. particularly in light of the “new brain research” on adolescents, revealing a host of implications, epstein has consistently been the lone voice crying out as the antagonist: no, you’re drawing wrong conclusions from the adolescent brain scans. you’re assuming causality when there is no indication of causality.

epstein put his exhaustive study (and strong opinions) into a book released as the case against adolescence, then re-released a few years later (just recently) as teen 2.0. i’ve blogged about it a couple times here already, but most recently here (mini book review here).

when our group got back to our meeting place after our time with epstein (and a lunch stop that had a side-by-side in-n-out burger and chick-fil-a; possibly the 7th level of heaven when it comes to fast food — yes, a few of us ate at both), we debriefed our time, and created a list of the things that stuck out to each of us the most, or the things that would have implications for our thinking and practice of both youth ministry and parenting. here’s that list, in short-hand. in the days and weeks to come, i’m planning on writing posts about some of these, expanding and reflecting…

— our culture is awash in negative messages about youth. when we hear them enough, we believe them; but they’re not true, and are often driven by pr from drug companies who benefit from these views of adolescents. be hyper-aware of those messages; look for them. and be highly skeptical of what you hear. understand that they are a prejudice (comparisons to 1800s thinking about women and blacks, based on wrong assumptions about their brains).

— parenting needs to shift from a position of “control” to one of “facilitation”. facilitation = look for and encourage competencies. this has enormous implications for youth ministry.

— there are very few age restrictions in the OT, none in the NT. we need churches to return to a biblical concept of adolescence.

— what can we do? create “local culture” (micro-culture) in your home or youth ministry. repeat often that what teens experience ‘out there’ is not right, it’s broken. help teens understand that they do not have to live like the system says they have to live. (this fits in so nicely with the ideas i wrote about in youth ministry 3.0)

— “repetition is the mother of wisdom”

14 thoughts on “confronting adolescence: thoughts from a meeting with robert epstein (part 1)”

  1. Really looking forward to further thoughts from you on this. Will the Nashville cohort be reading this too?

  2. My favorites:

    “– parenting needs to shift from a position of “control” to one of “facilitation”. facilitation = look for and encourage competencies. this has enormous implications for youth ministry.

    – there are very few age restrictions in the OT, none in the NT. we need churches to return to a biblical concept of adolescence.”

    Here would be a huge win: if we (as youth workers) and parents had a solid biblical understanding of parenting and adolescence. We can’t get it all right, but sometimes I wonder if we don’t even have the right goals in mind, let alone the right path on how to get there.

  3. I think we need to be careful mixing terms in youth ministry. “Teenager” is not the same as “Adolescent”. Teenager is an age bracket – 13-19 year olds. Adolescent is a developmental term that starts in “biology” and ends in “culture” answering three critical questions around (Identity, Autonomy and Belonging). Marko speaks of these in his book YM 3.0. Chap Clark/Fuller Institute speaks of them in developmental terms. Thus, adolescence did not exist in Biblical times for any Bible character (including Jesus), but certainly every Bible character was a 13,14,15…year old. I suggest we not put “Biblical” and “Adolescent” in the same area. More on this in my new book coming out in December with Zondervan – “Together: Adults and Teenagers Transforming the Church” Food for Thought. My 2-cents. Interesting stuff Marko! Thanks for posting.

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  5. @jeff – i agree that ‘teenager’ and ‘adolescence’ are not the same thing, particularly in our new reality where adolescence commonly (though not universally) extends well into the 20s. but i certainly don’t agree with your framing of ‘teenager’ as 13 – 19. i think that’s a 1975 understanding of what a teenager is, based on schooling models from that era (as well as cultural norms, legal rights, and other issues). today, ‘teenager’ is 11 – 19 (or 20). 13 is nonsensical as a starting point for teenager these days.

  6. marko, would have loved to be in on that conversation. i have appreciated your posts as you have been tossing epstein into the mix about your thinking on teenagers. epsteins ideas seem provocative, but as you know we’ve had roughly about 100 years of slow, steady and subtle build up of structural change that has created and now sustains a general cultural view that marginalizes young people (recall tyler durden and his reasoning for the existence of the fight club) … all of which makes epsteins ideas today seem so polarizing or extreme.

    the structural change now takes on the shape of an advanced mediated consumer culture which does something to us, and to teenagers, and in subtle and not so subtle ways shape and inform the general cultural understanding and belief about what being a teenager is and what growing up means (example: youth are seduced into learning to consume rather than produce which is the polar opposite of what the transition to adulthood has been about before this 100 yr period). this marginalized way of thinking (belief) about teenagers is held out as the normal / right way to think about teenagers (yep, even the adults in our pews think this way about the teenagers who are over there in the youth worship – and even that arrangement is kinda curious … or think about the reaction to teenagers who say they have a level of mastery and competence to do something … sailing anyone?).

    your 1st, 3rd, and 4th bullet points reflect and touch on those key ideas … my co-authors and i have just completed “consuming youth: leading teens through consumer culture” (december release, zondervan/ys) where we unpack those points of the story, and more, further … so your post today on the ideas coming out of that conversation with epstein was especially tasty reading, looking forward to the next round of posts.

  7. Hey Marko, I love the healthy dialog here especially among friends. You are a friend! ;-) This is a big topic and can’t be covered in comments, but I am interested in your thoughts about redefining the word “teenager”. Hidden in the word “teenager” (for me) is “teen” and that defines it, where as Adolescent is certainly starting at puberty (10-11year old girls) going to mid/late or early 30’s today (some say) as they individuate into society on their own. I agree that schools, government, culture have defined “teenager”, but I thought it was an age bracket or it wouldn’t be called “teen”. It is less confusing for me to just call those we are reaching and discipling “adolescents” because it goes beyond the “teen bracket.” Fun dialog! Thanks!

  8. @jeff — we’re totally in agreement that there’s a nuance of difference between “adolescence” and “teenage” (though i think the words were almost completely synonymous 15 years ago, prior to the rapid expansion of the upper end of adolescence, in america at least). my only push back was on the notion that teenage (or adolescent) starts at 13. teenage, literally, should mean ‘those years that are the tens’, as 20-something refers to people 20 – 29. in a literal way, teenager would be 10 – 19. certainly there’s some cultural language and understanding surrounding teenage, however. but even there, i would suggest that with the drop in puberty, the cultural shifts of childhood ending earlier (in every pop-culture and psychographic way), and the rise of the middle school approach to schooling (where 6th graders are normally 11), the EXPERIENCE of ‘teenage’ is 11 – 19. to be honest, your comment is the very first time i’ve ever heard the idea that the ‘teen’ from ‘teenager’ is a reference to the 2nd half of the word thirteen (or any of the age words following it).

  9. Hey Marko,

    I’ve been chewing on Epstein’s theories for about a year now and am wondering if you were to write Youth Ministry 3.0 today instead of before would anything be different in light of what you’re discovering now. I do recognize a lot of similar thoughts between you two but just wonder if a new appendix or follow up to 3.0 is warranted.

  10. @chris — great observation and question. there’s much about ym3.0 i would expand or modify if i were writing it today. some of that is natural when you (or in this case, i) speak on the content of the book for a year; there’s much i wish i’d said better or expanded on; there are word choices i would soften or strengthen. and my thinking has been challenged, added to and refined by stuff like epstein’s work (which, for the most part, i highly resonate with), as well as kenda dean’s new book (among others). i doubt an appendix will happen — let’s just consider my blog the appendix!

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