The Case Against Adolescence

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It’s a shame that I never blog anymore, now that I have things to say. I feel like I’ve grown more in the last three years than any other period in my life.

My cousin Aaron and I have recently started exchanging some unfettered thoughts, which I’ve very much enjoyed. I’m thrilled that I lucked out with regard to the family I have, both immediate and extended. Without them, I would have had no chance… no values, no foundation, nobody to look up to, etc… My parents and grandparents set one hell of an example, and I pity most of my generation for not having been so lucky.

Anyway, something Aaron said in his last message prompted me to do a little searching, and I rediscovered two great links on Mises’s website. One of the two links is Doug French’s review of the book, The Case Against Adolescence, which I’ve blatantly lifted below:

In his book, Democracy: The God that Failed, Hans Hoppe argues that democracy and government have made people less farsighted and not as concerned with providing for ever-more-distant goals. Thus, society is tending toward decivilization. As Hoppe describes, adults are being turned into children. Children have very high time preferences, living “day to day and from one immediate gratification to the next,” Hoppe explains. American society has essentially lengthened childhood by creating adolescence.

In a very provocative new book, The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen, psychologist Robert Epstein contends that when mammals reach puberty, they function as adults — except in America that is. Starting a hundred years ago, Americans gradually increased the age of adulthood to what many Americans now believe to be 26. You’ve heard, “30 is the new 20,” and “50 is the new 30.” Soon we will all be kids again.

Epstein argues effectively that American culture collaborates in artificially extending childhood through public schooling and labor laws. In most of human history, young people worked side by side with adults from their early teens with young women becoming wives and mothers. Early on, he fingers the labor unions as the culprits behind child labor laws. In 1881, the forerunner to the AFL-CIO made child labor a high priority: “We are in favor of the passage of laws in the several states forbidding the employment of children under fourteen in any capacity, under penalty of fine and imprisonment.”

Of course, unions didn’t want the competition from young workers who are likely smarter and more productive than older workers. Work by David Wechsler and J.C. Raven indicates that our highest mental age is in our midteens. According to Raven, “Apparently by the age of fourteen, a child’s trainability has reached its maximum, while after the age of thirty, a person’s ability to understand a new method of thinking, adopt new methods of working, and even to adapt a new environment, steadily decreases.”

Of course today’s teens don’t act like they have the most brainpower in society. How could they? They are isolated in government schools away from adults and given no responsibilities — they are infantilized. Infantilized by the many laws restricting young people: curfew laws, tougher driving laws, teen-wage laws, laws curtailing sexual activities, free-speech restrictions at school, censorship of educational activities, dress codes, smoking and drinking laws, ad infinitum.

But government and unions are not the only teen enemies. The author makes the case (sometimes effectively, sometimes not) that everyone works against teens being adults. The media portray teens as self-absorbed; business makes big bucks promoting teen culture; and even parents underestimate their teens’ abilities.

Epstein’s book is chock-full of examples of young people in history who have made tremendous contributions. Louis Braille, if he were a blind kid today, would be cooped up in special-needs classes. Fortunately, he lived in the early 1800s and had perfected the Braille system by the time he was 15 years old. Samuel Colt invented the multiround, revolving-head pistol when he was 16. Edgar Allen Poe had his first book published at 18, including poems he had written at age 12 and 13.

The fact is, creativity is at its peak in early childhood and the teen years. But as we enter adulthood, we learn to conform, which takes a toll on creativity. Public schooling was created to mold young people into compliant citizens, sapping their creativity. Teen ingenuity remains high, but given the need to rebel, lack of adult companionship, and laws prohibiting the signing of contracts, their creativity is rarely channeled into positive pursuits.

In a test for “adultness” cocreated by the author, the difference between how adults and how teens scored was statistically insignificant: “Age is simply not a reliable measure of adultness,” Epstein writes, “at least not once people are past puberty.”

So what should we do about all of this? Obviously abolishing the myriad of laws restricting teens would be a good first start. But, unfortunately, Epstein believes young (and old) people should be given rights only if they can pass competency tests. And one gets the feeling that government would be doing the administering of these tests — as if government bureaucrats should be trusted with the job.

As well done and interesting as Epstein’s book is, he doesn’t go far enough. As Murray Rothbard wrote in The Ethics of Liberty, a child has rights “when he leaves or ‘runs away’ from home.” Forget the tests; just set kids free.

See also: Education: Free and Compulsory, by Murray Rothbard

One comment to “The Case Against Adolescence”

  1. Comment by Mark:


    You might not have any kids, but you seem to understand the essence of it. Look at the fact that most kids in America are born into single parnent households today, that they are capeable of so much by the time they are 14, and that they still have 4 more years of compulsary education ahead of them…. it’s no wonder that they fall into the endless marketing maze of shit in the ‘media’….

    ‘media’ is only the ‘growth media’ (petri dish) they are fed on while turning into a ‘culture’ (identical bacteria)… which only end up needing to be fed by the governments and institutions that worked so hard to create this insanity.

    If it took me 30 years to begin to break free of the mental slavery I’ve lived under, how old will my children be when they are able to do the same? 40? 50? 60?

    Children need and deserve to be nurtured in many ways… Physically, spiritually, morally, intellectually. They also need protection from harm and parenting is becoming a more and more difficult job. No parent is compeletely prepared for it, but knowing yourself and being true to reality is a start….

    I was 19 when my daughter was born, and now she is 16 and I am 35. It’s been a struggle, and I don’t know what the outcome will be… I now live with my wife and stepdaughter, and I’ve tried to be the father to my stepdaughter I could not be to my own daughter…. but I find great promise in her even though we’re transplants!

    Indeed, your family, my family should be thanked for who they are and what they mean to us. Even if the lines get crossed up sometimes. God knows what could have happened to us without good parents to bring us up…

    I’m thankful that my parents raised me under the influence of the church rather than the state, because. these days, it seems to be one or the other!!! That’s not to say that independent thinking is not important. It’s more important than ever, but we still are human and can really benefit and grow with the help of others!

    Thanks for the poignant and thoughtful post, Chris. You are a very good writer and a very good listener, too. Thanks for your friendship and take good care out there!

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