Are teenagers obsolete? That's the provocative question raised by Robert Epstein, a psychologist in San Diego whose new book, Teen 2.0 (Linden Publishing), challenges the presumption that teenagers are immature and irresponsible. I asked Epstein, a father of six and former editor of Psychology Today, how his research changed how he raises his own children:
How did you come to change your mind about the capabilities of teenagers?
I just got curious about it because my second son was very mature. I recognized when he was 14 or 15 years old that in some ways he was more mature not just than his older brother, but he was more mature than I was. That made me curious. I began to wonder why my son was getting in trouble for stealing my truck, when in fact he could obviously drive. Why couldn't he just drive? Why was he stuck in high school where he was doing well when it was obviously a waste of his time? Why couldn't he start a business at 14 or 15, which he was obviously ready to do? He was trading baseball cards at a pretty high level.
I started looking at the research done on teenagers in this country, which is very, very misleading. The researchers are just trying to confirm the cultural stereotypes [originated] by G. Stanley Hall 100 years ago, who said that the teen years are necessarily a time of storm and stress. That stuck, and that's been the model used by psychologists and social workers ever since. [Back in Hall's time], there was massive immigration, and lots of young people on the streets making trouble. By the 1930s, biologists had discredited the notion that the teenage years were a time of turmoil, but the people in the mental health field never got the message. I started doing research on this with a doctoral student named Diane Dumas, and we started collecting data on the capabilities of teens vs. adults.
What about the recent research showing that teen brains aren't fully developed?
If you look at it carefully you find out very rapidly that there's nothing there. In the early 1900s, there was a big branch of psychology called racial psychology. You can always find some behavioral differences, and you can always find some physical differences, [but] all you're really doing is using the physical differences to justify a stereotype. This is exactly what is happening today with teens. You find some slight differences in brain structure or function, and then you've got these biases, and you say aha, the brain differences explain the differences we see in behavior. That's nonsense. You could do the same thing by comparing 30- and 40-year-olds. The brain is changing all through life.
If you really want to give teens a fair and objective [assessment], you need to look at brain volume. Brain volume peaks at age 14, and then begins to atrophy. By the time we're 70 years old, our brain has shrunk to the size it was at age 2 and 3. We are at the peak of our cognitive ability roughly at the ages of 13 to 15. That's when we can learn very, very rapidly. Then, in almost every respect, we decline cognitively. We have more and more trouble remembering, and our reasoning ability declines continuously for the rest of our lives.
Given this view of things, how can parents help encourage responsible behavior in teenagers?
Parents can do a lot to bring out the adult in their teenager. First, don't call 'em "kids." Parents have to stop calling our offspring "kids," or "boys" and "girls," once they are past puberty. They are young adults. The word "kid" comes from farming. A kid is a prepubescent goat. We really have to be careful with language. It's a matter of respect.
Second, give teenagers real responsibility beyond the duty to take out the garbage. We need to give them responsibility that is meaningful to them as adults. [After all], in other cultures they'd almost be married, and they'd be working side-by-side with adults. My 11-year-old helps me with my work. He did audio editing for my radio show. Anything my sons and daughters can help me with, I make sure they do.
Finally, don't be an adversary. If your daughter tells you she's so in love with [some] guy, the moment you say "Don't go near him, he's bad for you", you drive the life of your teen underground. You create a gap you may never close. Instead be a guide, bringing your teen as fast as you can up into the adult world. I'm not talking about being a buddy. And that doesn't mean you can't penalize or punish them; we're all subject to penalties. I ask my teenagers what they think the penalty [for some infraction] should be, and it's often harsher than what I would have chosen.
Wondering how adult your teenager is—or how adult you are? Take Epstein's adult competence test at HowAdultAreYou.com. I've written about how teenagers can deploy the amazing power of the teen brain, and also interviewed author Michael Gurian, who argues that teenage boys need to unplug the game console and get a job. Want to hear what real teenagers think about this? Read my interview with Alex and Brett Harris, 19-year-olds whose book, Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations, makes a great case for the competence and maturity of teenagers.