Photo Credit: Dr. Robert Epstein
Dr. Robert Epstein

Most American parents take it as a given that teenagers are difficult creatures, subject to strange moods and bouts of rebellion. Dr. Robert Epstein, a Harvard-trained psychologist, doesn’t buy it. Adolescence, he argues, based on extensive research, is a modern Western invention. Even today, “adolescence,” as a distinct period of life characterized by turmoil and torment, is completely absent in over 100 cultures around the world, he says. Indeed, many of these cultures don’t even have a word for adolescence or teenager, he notes.

Epstein is the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today and currently senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. He is also the founder and director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts and the author of over a dozen books, including Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence.

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The Jewish Press: You claim adolescence is an invention of the West. What exactly do you mean by that?

Epstein: Through most of human history, young people became adults – that is, they began working side by side with adults – not long after puberty. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that this began to change. We started delaying the onset of adulthood and, over time, artificially extended childhood, which now in the United States reaches into the late teens or even the early or mid 20s.

In Teen 2.0, you argue that most child labor laws in the United States should be abolished. Don’t these laws, though, protect children?

The first child labor laws in the United States actually required children to work under the theory that idle hands are the devil’s tools – so it’s kind of odd that the law changed the way it did. This notion that there’s something wrong with work makes no sense. Sigmund Freud argued that work makes life meaningful.

Now, there’s a difference between work and exploitation. We should certainly object to exploitation and harsh working conditions, but to object to work makes no sense whatsoever. These days a young person who’s 13 or 14 could easily start an Internet business without suffering any harm. But we don’t allow them to. We say, “Sorry, you’re not allowed to work. You must go to school.”

Walt Disney lied and forged his parents’ signatures in order to join the American Ambulance Corps in World War I at age 16, and he looked back on it as one of the smartest things he ever did. It’s through meaningful responsibility that we not only grow up but find meaning in our lives. It’s hard to find meaning if you’re forced like cattle to attend an institution you don’t want to attend.

When was the first mandatory education law passed in the United States?

In 1852 in Massachusetts, but that law was competency-based. In other words, the law said you had to send your children to school if they didn’t know certain things. If they knew those things, they didn’t have to go to school.

It wasn’t until 1918 that all states had some sort of compulsory education law. But this was the beginning of a kind of disaster in the United States. Of course we want educated children. But we shouldn’t be forcing them to attend school if they’re not ready to learn.

Many people would argue that teenagers are immature – that they don’t know what’s best for them – and, therefore, parents (or government legislatures) are doing them a favor by forcing them to attend school and get a basic education in science, math, English, etc. How would you respond?

Teenagers are not by nature immature. We’re forcing them to be immature. They are capable of functioning fully as adults shortly after puberty. That’s what the bar mitzvah and the bat mitzvah signify.

I have been doing research on this topic for a long time and developed a test that measures 14 different adult competencies. It’s available online and has been taken by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages. When asked what teenagers will score on the test, American adults predict 48 percent. In fact, though, teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 score about 89 percent while adults 18 and older score about 91 percent. Teenagers actually outscore adults in some areas and, over all, about a third of teenagers ages 13-17 outscore the median adult.

So to dismiss all young people as equally incompetent and immature is simply wrong and, when you do that, you make some young people very angry and depressed and we end up with half our teens diagnosable with at least one psychological disorder. This is not true in countries where the child-adult continuum still exists – where young people are allowed to grow up as nature intended.

So you don’t believe in a distinct period of life characterized by angst, depression, rebellion, etc.?

Adolescence is an invention. We invented it. In more than 100 cultures around the world where young people work side by side with adults, there is no adolescence and no animosity between children and parents. There’s no teen depression and no teen suicide. Adolescence is an invention that is only about 100 years old and is still absent in much of the world.

Parents of moody teenagers often either force them to continue going to school or allow them to lie in their room all day long doing nothing. Are either one of these strategies smart in your opinion?

Actually, you left out the most common thing parents in the United States do, which is put their sons and daughters on psychoactive drugs. This, of course, just does them more harm and also teaches them that the drugs are the solution to all their problems.

If we were to let young people enter the adult world, if we were to give them the rights and responsibilities they’re more than capable of handling, if we were to give them a pathway to adulthood, the vast majority of teens would follow that pathway in a flash. Let’s say we gave them competency tests that could get them basic rights: property rights, a right to privacy, and so on. If we did that, teens by the millions would buckle down to pass those tests in order to enter the adult world and gain some control over their lives. When we take control away from people who are competent, they become angry and depressed.

By the way, this is called infantalization. I’m about to release a new study with 25,000 people that looks at infantalization across the life span. It’s quite interesting. Any group that’s infantilized – whether it’s teenagers or elderly people in a nursing home – suffers as a result. They feel they’ve lost control over their lives, and very often become suicidal, angry, or profoundly depressed.

Since teenagers are adults in your opinion, should parents take a hands-off approach and let them stay in their room and brood endlessly if they so choose?

Of course not. That’s a form of abuse. What I’m talking about is giving young people meaningful responsibility and authority. I’ll give you an example. When I lectured on this topic in Scotland, a man in the audience told us about a program he runs in which young people who are getting into trouble are pulled out of the school system and apprenticed in various trades and businesses.

The program is highly successful. Young people love learning valuable skills and making money. And they’re working side by side with adults, which is what they should be doing – learning from responsible adults how to be a responsible adult. They should not be around their peers. In countries around the world that don’t have this bizarre stage of life, teenagers only spend about five hours a week with their peers. Here in the United States they spend about 65 hours a week with their peers. It makes no sense.

In your book, you seem to support allowing what is currently considered underage marriage and write at one point that “delayed marriage is delayed adulthood.” Explain.

One of the signs of being an adult is getting a job, another sign is getting married, and a third sign is having a child. So when we prevent young people from entering adulthood, we prevent all three, no matter how ready a young person might be for one, or all, of them.

By the way, one of the biggest challenges American parents currently face is that they are presented with a false model of the teen brain that is completely fraudulent; it has absolutely no scientific basis whatsoever. Unfortunately, our drug companies have been very successful in convincing parents there’s something wrong with the brain of their teens so that, as of a few years ago, we started prescribing more psychoactive drugs for teens than all other drugs for teens combined – more than antibiotics or acne medication.

Some people oppose early marriage, arguing that it’s important for a person to first develop or “find” himself before he marries.

Those are meaningless statements. If by those statements we mean these young people have been infantilized and treated like children and as a result are still functioning like children, we need to change the way we’re parenting. We need to recognize that young people past puberty have enormous capabilities and we need to give them pathways to adulthood.

In my book, I have a chapter on religion and have a lot of material from the Torah. Some of the kings of ancient Judea, for example, came to full power when they were quite young, and some of our youngest kings were also some of our greatest kings.

One of our most celebrated stories, the story of David and Goliath, is about a boy who was so small that he couldn’t wear the armor he was offered, but he killed a great soldier and then chopped off his head. He was a warrior and ultimately one of our bravest kings and a very competent soldier as a boy. So you don’t have to look farther than the Torah to be reminded of the capabilities of young people.

To many people, your ideas sound bizarre. How do your colleagues regard them?

Look at the extremely wide range of people who provided testimonials for Teen 2.0, including world-renowned developmental psychologists like Lewis Lipsitt. The preface to the book was written by one of the most prominent clinical psychologists who ever lived, Albert Ellis.

So I would say generally speaking that my colleagues and many parents have been supportive. Obviously there are exceptions – mainly a handful of professionals who are financially invested in the fraudulent teen brain model.

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