An important issue; an utterly disappointing book
Here is my review of the book "The Case Against Adolescence" by Robert Epstein
I have read Dr. Epstein’s interview and an article on the net, and was very excited to read this book. Sadly, while his main idea is liberating and refreshing, the book itself is utterly disappointing. It is full of weak argumentation, selection and substitution of data, poor understanding of cultural context and betrays a certain agenda. In fact, if you are interested in the concept, IMO you can safely skip the book altogether and instead google Dr. Epstein’s articles, “The Myth of Teen Brain” and “Trashing Teens” – you’ll get the salient point and learn about Dr. Epstein novel research methodology, w\o the accompanying eyebrow-raising junk.
Dr. Epstein makes a bad call to foray into the history of childhood in order to support his argument against adolescence. The result is the opposite: he shoots himself in a foot. He follows Aries’s controversial “sentimentalist” point of view that the childhood itself had not existed until recently. He cites, e.g., Jean Ledloff’s and Margaret Mead’s work, which supposedly shows children fully integrated in the adult society, working alongside grown-ups. In reality, Ledloff has observed that yakuana children grouped themselves by age and spend a lot of time with their peers; even the vocabulary of different age groups differed considerably. They certainly weren’t expected to perform to adult’s standards, i.e., weren’t considered fully competent. Mead’s and other researcher’s extensive studies also showed that the maturity gap – the time period between hitting puberty and assuming fill adult responsibilities – has existed in virtually all cultures. It was decidedly much smaller than it is presently in the west, but denying its existence is inaccurate.
Dr. Epstein cheerfully describes traditional cultures, free of adolescent turmoil; apparently he isn’t aware that his accounts of child suffering, labor and war participation look decidedly bleak. One cannot help thinking that if Aries is right and childhood, as well as adolescence, hadn’t existed, than thank God almighty it has been invented. Consider the following passage: “… as many as eleven million young people live on the streets in India [..] young people constitute between 10 and 33 percent of the workforce in various industries [..] Many develop “resiliency” and “self-preservation skills,” but sometimes it means resorting to activities such as pimping, prostitution, theft, drug peddling and begging [..] adolescence is still largely absent in [..] this vast country,” – JEEZ, where do I sign up? %\
Dr. Epstein’s understanding of forces at play in other cultures is very poor. His account of Russia is off base, as is his take on a supposedly trouble-free adolescence in Japan (apparently, he has never heard of hikikomori and NEET). More importantly, Epstein seems to confuse the young adult’s psychological health and well-adjusted behavior with lack of individuation (not to be confused with individualism). The lack of individuation results from authoritative parenting and growing up in the culture where the person has little intrinsic value apart from being a part of the community – a cog in the wheel. When this is beaten into the person’s head from the earliest age, rebellion is simply not an option. Epstein misses this aspect of the problem entirely. While writing about the trouble-free adolescence in Philippines, he mentions the following: “Daughters are more obligated than sons to work abroad to support the family during tough times”. In plain English, that means that young females are routinely sold into human trafficking (prostitution or domestic service=servitude) and are expected to take it in stride for the good of the family. Could it be that THIS is what the Filipino teens are beginning to rebel against?
The latter example illustrates that the traditional trouble-free adolescent experience has been markedly different for young males and females, and that is also lost on Dr. Epstein. As bad as the tendencies in western adolescence have been, they have done away with the exploitative marriages of young females. Dr. Epstein speaks very positively about early marriages, glossing over the fact that those were often done against the woman’s will, and limited the public and historical roles of women. His apparent fixation on barely pubescent brides has made me somewhat uncomfortable, and his reference to Nabokov’s Lolita as “the sexy young siren” has made my jaw drop. I really, really hope that this is not what I think it is, and that Dr. Epstein simply hasn’t read the book he is referring to.
He makes another blunder in his psychological analysis of “The Lord of the Flies” as it pertains to the problem of child competence and adolescence, which borders on ignorance. Let’s for a moment forget the metaphorical nature of the “Lord of the Flies” plot, and accept that it has a literal meaning relevant to our topic. Dr. Epstein states that “the story is an acknowledgment that young people can be tough and self-sufficient, at least when the adults aren’t here to take care of them”. If you are fuzzy on the book’s content, pick it up and you’ll see that those self-sufficient young people self-organize in a brutal way and kill their peers – I can’t believe that Dr. Epstein considers it a sign of those kids’ competence. Second, he states that “the characters never broke down [..] until the adults showed up [..] they were never child-like – until they were expected to be”. I am utterly flabbergasted that a professional psychologist would make such a statement. The kids broke down precisely because everything that was happening to them has just too much, and now they finally didn’t have to hold themselves together on the brink of collapse. Indeed, people can survive unbelievable hardships, but the stress robs the person of vital energy and may irreversibly stunt psychological growth. This has been described multiple times in the literature – surely Dr. Epstein is aware of that?
As if this all wasn’t bad enough, Dr Epstein advocates corporal punishment for teens, and it is here that all of the above comes together. Under the guise of teen liberation it is the same old obey-your-elders, toughen’em up, spare-the-rode-spoil-the-child nonsense, discredited thousand times over.
This ties directly to Epstein’s view of anti-child labor movement as well-meaning but ultimately misguided and harmful to kids. Make no mistake: if Dr. Epstein’s idea were to take hold, you will see young adults and, by extension, children, back in the sweatshops in no time. The looming economic crisis may provide a real necessity for this, and Dr. Epstein’s concept will serve as an ideological basis for such movement. As usual, that will only apply to poor and underprivileged teens and children. Conveniently, those more privileged, such as Dr. Epstein’s own children, have nothing to worry about. For them there will always be wilderness camps where they could be toughened up for a few thousand buck, while their parents are busy raising their “easy” siblings or doing whatever interests them more (see p. 103 of the book for context).
The above, however, is the worst-case scenario. I do not forsee anyone taking Dr. Epstein’s utopian recommendation of competence-based transition to adulthood. While age is indeed the legal barrier of entry into the adult society, it is a proxy not for general maturity but rather for a minimum set of skills. The demand for the actual competence in our fast-paced society changes daily. Therefore, formal degreed education remains a good benchmark for the person’s skills – and as time goes by, more and more education and related experience, including low level work, is needed to prove your worth. Obtaining one’s M.Ds and PhDs and building the CV takes time and effectively shuts young people out of the adult world.
The limitation of the young people’s entry into the society IMO stems not so much from cultural factors but from the structural ones. The western society is getting increasingly complex, while the basic resources, for the first time in the history of humanity, are available almost to all. In such situation, it is more rational for the society to keep some of its members idle rather than try and include them into the structure, jeopardizing its orchestrated work. A similar situation exists in ant colonies and in the communities of other social insects. In any ant hill, the majority of worker ants are idle. Young ants are taught nothing and instead are routinely chased away by older ants. Food is not a limited factor in the colony. But it is risky to disrupt the working groups, where leaders have proven themselves and everyone understands the hierarchial structure and works together. As a result, the young ants learn what they can on their own and create their own groups, which in the opportune times find ways to be useful for the colony.
In my view, the only way to combat the real problem of dysfunctional adolescence in the western world is being a counter-culturist within your own family. This means maintaining close and trusting relationship with your growing children, fighting the influence of media; encouraging your teens to homeschool themselves, take advantage of volunteer opportunities, facilitating their business initiatives – in short, helping them develop self-reliance, resilience and leadership qualities in a nurturing environment.