Friday, March 21, 2008

The Case Against Adolescence

A good thinker integrates the books he or she reads. Often you discover that information in one book corresponds with information in another. And sometimes the connections are rather unusual. For instance, I found an interesting connection between Unger’s biography Lafayette with Robert Epstein’s book The Case Against Adolescence.

At the age of 14 Lafayette was engaged to be married. His bride to be was then 12-years-old. The would-be mother-in-law wanted her daughter to wait until she was older. So marriage was delayed until the girl turned 14 and Lafayette was 16. For his wedding gift he was made a captain and “command of a company in the Noailles Dragoons when he turned eighteen.” At about the same time Louis XVI, then just twenty, and his wife took the throne of France.

Upon turning 18 Lafayette assumed his captaincy and shortly after became a father. At that time he persuaded some friends to join him on a journey. He was going to America to fight for the liberal revolution against the English monarch. At 19 he accepts the commission as a Major General in the Revolutionary Army. He becomes a hero of the American Revolution.

And this brings me to Epstein’s fascinating and persuasive book The Case Against Adolescence. Dr. Epstein is the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine and someone thoroughly familiar with the literature on the topic.

His basic case is that adolescence is a recent, Western invention. The Lafayette case above indicates what that means. During much of Western history teenagers were not treated as if they were some class of more advanced children. The reality is that they were given adult responsibilities and adult rights. And, for the most part, they proved themselves capable of handling such rights and responsibilities. Even today this process of socialization continues to exist in numerous cultures around the world.

Recent Western society, however, compartmentalized teens. It stripped them of a large portion of the rights that teens historically held and started treating them more and more like children. This compartmentalization had several results.

One is that teens, who used to spend a considerable amount of their teenaged years working and socializing with adults, were relegated to peer groups. Where they used to have regular contact with adults, which helped them learn how to act like adults, their role models suddenly became unsocialized teenagers like themselves.

In addition, there is the ever-present teenage complaint: “I am not a child.” Of course teens are not children. But socially and legally they are often treated that way -- except when the law finds it convenient to hold them responsible like adults but without the rights of adults. Epstein says this sort of treatment is infuriating and frustrating to young adults. They feel grown up but they are treated like children. This encourages them to act more like children than like adults.

Epstein outlines numerous cases where children or teens were put into adult situations due to circumstances and performed as well as adults. He shows from the literature that the ability of teens to act in mature ways is not significantly different from that of legal adults.

Teens who are frustrated by their treatment as children, however, find various ways which force society to treat them as adults. One such method is to act violently or criminally. Another is to become a parent or to act in ways associated with being “grown up”. What is often seen as “acting out” is the cry of an adult wanting to be treated like an adult, but being treated like a child.

There are aspects of Epstein’s book which libertarians might take issue with. But, on the whole, it is a call for the extension of human rights, responsibilities and liberties to a segment of the population who are too easily treated like second class citizens. General Lafayette is an example of what can happen in a different time with different social values, a time when young adults were treated as rights-bearing individuals, not as big children. Lafayette lived up to those expectations and so do most teens when given the opportunity. For this reason the subtitle of Epstein’s books is “Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen.”

This is an important contribution to the case for giving teens their full set of rights. It is persuasively written, covers the major areas of contention, and brings forth reams of scientific evidence to refute the notion that teens are merely surly, large children. It is highly recommended. Hardback, 489 pages, list price $24.95, Laissez Faire price, $22.95. To order call 1 800 326 0996.

JOHN TAYLOR GATTO: “Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a policy maker, or a recovering victim of enforced childishness, you need to read this book.”

1 comment: said...

Wow! Thanks so very much for this very generous review! My online test of adultness can be taken free of charge at I hope at some point that you'll consider sharing your views about the book at, where some reviewers - lacking libertarian common sense - have been rather harsh. Cordially, /Robert Epstein