The Myth of the Teen Brain: A Q&A with Dr. Epstein
- Friday, August 24, 2007
If a teen can demonstrate competence in a certain area, does that necessarily mean that he or she should be entrusted with a certain responsibility?
That is the flip side of rights and privileges: responsibility. You can’t get a right or privilege without getting the responsibility that goes with it. I am not talking about giving young people more freedom—they have too much freedom. This is about rights and responsibilities. It’s a distinction that is subtle but very important.
If you give young people incentives and opportunities to join the adult world in various ways, thousands will go for it. If you deny all young people the opportunity to join the adult world, many will become depressed, angry, or oppositional. And that’s why we currently have 5.5 million teens in counseling and 2 million attempted suicides by teens every year.
What evidence can you point to that demonstrates that teens, when treated like adults, will rise to the challenge?
In my book, I talk about teens in other cultures. I talk about, for example, the Lost Boys of Sudan. I look at teens who ended up becoming the head of their family because of the death or illness of parents. I look at teens in programs like the original Boys Town. In the 1930s, Boys Town was run completely by young men, and the chief of police was 15 years old. (Now an elderly man, he is interviewed in my book.) This was a place where young men who were in trouble with the law came and basically ran their own town. Many of them became responsible young citizens overnight, because they were entirely in control of their lives. Unfortunately, the modern Boys Town has abandoned the old responsibility model that Father Flanagan established in 1921. It’s now mainly a “treatment” program.
The point is, there’s extensive evidence, both from other cultures and even from our own culture, that when you give young people meaningful adult responsibility, they become adults almost immediately. Their “inner adult” emerges, I guess you could say.
Competency-based laws would give teens a lot of control. How would you balance that with a parent’s desire to train his or her children and raise them a certain way?
I have certain values, and of course I want my offspring to share those values. If anything, your offspring are going to be more likely to adopt and share your values if you foster their maturity. Teens tend to “rebel” and to reject the values of their parents when they are overly influenced by their peers and when authority figures treat them like children.
In your book, you argue that on average, teens are capable of sound judgment and decision making, but how do you address the issue of parents feeling like they need to protect their children from making wrong decisions?
I struggle with that as a parent of four offspring. That strong tendency we have to want to protect—there’s a reason for that, absolutely. But the best thing we can do for young people is to give them the tools they need to be independent and to make those decisions. There’s only so much you can learn by advice from others. Most of what we learn in our lives comes from experience. You give your sons and daughters the best advice you can, and then you give them the tools they need to become independent.
If you give them incentives and opportunities to join the adult world, that’s not the same as setting them free. You’re not pushing them off a cliff. What you’re doing is saying, “I’m going to welcome you into the adult world. If you show me you can do this, then you’re going to join us.” You’re not pushing them toward oblivion—you’re pulling them with you into the world of responsible adulthood. Given the choice between being infantilized in the frivolous world of teen culture and joining the adult world, I believe most teens will pick the latter.
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