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What if Adolescence Doesn’t Exist?

When you hear the word “adolescent” what leaps to mind?

For most adults some pimple-faced mash-up of a sullen, surly almost adult wrapped up in selfish pre-occupation, angst, drama and permanent ear buds pops up. A whole menu of anti-social behaviors, ranging from substance abuse to gangs is quickly tacked on before the whole issue is shunted to the “not now” part of our consciousness.

But what if the whole concept of adolescence is a fraud; a cultural fake? What if it doesn’t really exist?

For a long time I have known adults underestimate the abilities of teens. In fact I spend a lot of time challenging parents to accept the fact that their teens are more capable – and thus should be more responsible for their actions – than they believe. But, to be real honest, I hadn’t thought adolescence might not exist. I’ve seen lots of moody teens in my day – heck, I was one a long time ago – and, besides there are all those movies and crime statistics and cases of eating disorders and binge drinking, to say nothing of my graduate classes in human growth and development.

Among a growing number of clients I’ve seen a stretching out of adolescence well into the twenties. I’m seeing an increasing number of – mostly – males, in their late twenties and even thirties who have never graduated high school nor held a full-time job. Many are shockingly devoid of any discernable life goals. But, man, they are regular Jedi Knight video game masters.

Indeed, some educators and even therapists now proclaim adolescence to last until mid-20’s and before all the recent economic unpleasantness there has been serious talk among some educators of adding an additional year to high school. (A seriously bad idea, BTW.)

There must be something deeply flawed about adolescents, right?

There’s a flaw alright, but it may well be in our assuming there is such a thing as adolescence.

A client recently loaned me a book that calls our whole “Rebel Without a Pause” cultural concept of adolescence into question. “The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen” by Robert Epstein Ph.D. raises a provocative question: If teens are so selfish, impulsive and unable to do what needs doing how did humankind manage to survive? After all, our ancient ancestors went through puberty and became sexually fertile at about the same age then as they do now; on average between 13 and 14. If teenagers are so inherently irresponsible how the heck did those early homo sapien teeny-boppers ever manage to keep themselves, much less offspring, alive in a dangerous world long enough to propel our DNA from generation to generation?

Most parents today wouldn’t trust a 14 year-old to empty a cat pan while they were gone for the weekend, much less raise a child in the wild.

What is fascinating, Epstein observes, is that adolescence is largely absent from pre-industrial societies. In fact, he notes, in an anthropological survey of 186 pre-industrial cultures 60% of them didn’t even have a word for adolescence. Further, in these groups the adolescent antisocial behavior we have come to expect since the days of movies like “The Blackboard Jungle” was “extremely mild” – if it existed at all, while violence and aggression and the kind of serious teen pathology that keeps parents awake nights was almost completely absent.

Similar studies have shown as simpler cultures become westernized they not only take on the fashions, food, fads and fat of the west, they also display a corresponding rise in adolescent crisis and acting out.

One characteristic appears key to this interesting picture: the low hassle teens in these pre-industrial cultures spend most of their time with same gender adults; most of the time working side-by-side with their elders, learning a trade or cultivating crops. These young people are actively engaged in contributing to the wellbeing of both family and community. In other words: they have a meaningful role. The result is turning the task from what American teens are so busy doing – breaking away from adults – on its head to; instead, becoming an adult as soon as possible. Or, we might say, capable; capable of meeting the challenges and opportunities of adulthood.

From managing a four-horse team to carpentry, I see this among many of my Amish neighbors where I witness a level of competence among the young Amish men I have come to know that is staggering compared to what I see among the majority of teens in my professional work. Some of those competent young Amish men are 12 and 13 years old.

Meanwhile in my office, the number one complaint from parents is their 15 or 17 year-old “can’t get out of bed on his own in the morning”. Please!

In our current industrialized model, passage from an ever lengthening childhood to adulthood is not based upon competence. Instead, entry to adulthood is solely dependent, ready or not, upon reaching a certain age: 16, for example, to drive; or 18 to vote; or 21 to sign contracts. As many adults in America colorfully demonstrate daily, reaching a certain age is no guarantee of maturity, wisdom or, even, basic logic. A lot of those folks actually reach pinnacles of adult success, status and power while displaying a kind of childlike destructive selfishness that is truly frightening.

Before those supposedly magical birthdays of automatic transformation American teens spend pretty much all their time with the last group of people who can prepare them for adulthood – other adolescents. Given most teens live almost devoid of meaningful, constructive daily contact with adults how can they begin to develop adult capabilities? The growing evidence is they can’t. Instead of mirroring the behavior and skills of daily adult mentors teens are left to mimic each other. In the absence of meaningful adult modeling the bric-a-brac of teen-themed popular music, online entertainment, fashion, gaming and media stars of adolescent consumerism becomes the de facto set point of reference for many teens. It’s not a promising formula for building adult competency.

But the experience of other cultures, and even our own history, tells us the years from 12 to 20 can, and should, be a time of increasing capability, skill and maturity.

If you would like to take a survey on your parenting skills at raising a competent young adult log on to Dr. Epstein’s survey: http://myparentingskills.com


Mark L. Taylor MA LPC SAC is a Wisconsin licensed counselor who works extensively with adolescents and their families. He also founded the RoundRiver Institute LLC, a learning center near Genoa, WI. Permission is granted for personal use of this material. If you pass it on to other individuals please include a link back to this page. If you wish to use it in a newsletter or publication please contact Mark at: http://www.round-river2000.com

© Mark L. Taylor and RoundRiver Institute LLC