Tag Archives: the case against adolescence

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”

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?