The Myth of the Teen Brain: A Q&A with Dr. Epstein
- 2007 24 Aug
The Home School Legal Defense Association publication, The Court Report, asked Dr. Robert Epstein to share more about his views on the teen brain, and about his new book, The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen (Quill Driver Books, 2007). In his book, Dr. Epstein argues that teens are being shortchanged by the academic institutions and legal systems of American society today, and he explains why and how teens should be given adult rights and responsibilities based on their individual abilities.
Home School Legal Defense Association does not endorse all of the views Dr. Epstein expresses—in his book and in the following interview. Some of the conclusions he has reached based on his research you may find shocking, and some might challenge your thinking. But his basic argument supports our belief that our children are better off not being immersed in the teen culture, that they are better off being socialized by adults, and that our children are able to do more at a younger age and be more responsible than our modern American culture permits.
Court Report: How did you become interested in the topic of the teen brain?
Dr. Robert Epstein: I initially became interested because one of my older sons, at age 14 or 15, was very mature. And I was curious why he was forced to go to high school, why he was not allowed to work, why he was not allowed to own property, to sign contracts, and so on. He had a good business sense, for example. He would have loved to have started a business, but he wasn’t allowed to do much of anything by society.
That got me interested in teen capabilities in general. And the more I looked into it, the more I found that teens have enormous capabilities that we seem to have forgotten about as a culture. In many ways, they’re far superior to adults—in their memory abilities, in intelligence, and in their perceptual abilities, for example.
Then I couldn’t help but notice these headlines—one after another after another—about the so-called “teen brain.” I said, “Wait, this doesn’t seem right—that teens have a brain that necessarily causes them to be irresponsible and incompetent. That can’t be right.” Teen turmoil is often entirely absent in other cultures, so a universal “teen brain” can’t possibly exist. When I looked carefully at the research said to support the idea of a teen brain, I found nothing there. Claims of a teen brain constitute scientific fraud, in my view.
You argue that instead of the teen brain causing teen turmoil, the cause is actually society, and in part, the peer influence found in public schools. As a psychologist, what is your definition of socialization?
Socialization is just a process by which we learn to be part of a community. So the question is, what community do we want our young people to learn to be part of? Some parents have said to me, “Aren’t school and high school, in particular, very important for socialization?” And my emphatic answer is no, because we do not want young people socializing with each other. We want them to learn to join the community that they’ll be part of their whole lives. We want them to learn to become adults. Right now, they learn everything they know from each other—that’s absurd, especially since teens in our society are controlled almost entirely by the frivolous media and fashion industries.
If you look through most of human history or you look at many cultures today, you find that teens spend most of their time learning to become adults. Here, they spend most of their time trying to break away from adults.
What advantages do you think homeschooling could offer teens over the current school model?
Well, individualized learning is extremely important, and so is having some distance from teen culture. Homeschooling can certainly create some distance from teen culture. It can create more meaningful contact with adults. It can individualize instruction. It can be a platform for accelerating maturation. All those things are possible with homeschooling, and they’re all impossible in most school systems.
I’m interested in homeschooling as an alternative to conventional school, an alternative that can provide a good education and that can allow young people to progress at the pace they need to progress.
I’ve actually been discussing homeschooling with my two younger children lately, because their mother and I are talking about homeschooling now. My 8-year-old said, “Dad, will I have any trouble getting into college?” And I said, “Well, actually, given how smart you are, my guess is that if you want to go to college, you can go there years earlier if you are homeschooled.”
I’m shocked by how regular school can hold young people back. Recently our 6-year-old wanted, on her own, to learn cursive. And so she started learning it—her mom was helping her—and she was doing a beautiful job. The next thing we knew, we got a note from the school saying that we were forbidden to teach her cursive writing—that she had to wait until the 3rd grade! We ignored the note, of course.
At this point, I have many reasons for wanting to homeschool. And one reason has to do with my new book [The Case Against Adolescence], because in researching the book I looked at the history, I looked at the model of schooling in our country, I looked at some of the individuals who helped shape compulsory schooling laws. Know what? They didn’t always have the interests of young people in mind—they sometimes had other agendas, some of which were quite dark.
Some people are saying, “Isn’t homeschooling the answer to everything?” And my answer is no. I don’t think it’s the answer to all the issues I’m raising in my book, because schooling of any sort is not appropriate for all young people at all times. The modern compulsory school idea was a product of the Industrial Revolution, which modeled mass education on the new “assembly lines” that were being used in the factories. Homeschooling is still part of a larger system of compulsory education. It’s still governed by education laws in each state, and even the curriculum is still determined, to a large extent, by the larger system. But young people need the option to take a break from education and move out into the working world in meaningful ways. I don’t mean as cashiers, either—they should be able to compete with adults for any job, if they can show that they're competent. Based on their individual abilities, they need to be able to acquire a variety of adult rights and responsibilities and to learn and work side by side with adults, just as young people often do in the Bible.
In The Case Against Adolescence, you have a list entitled “Reintegrating teens into the adult world.” The rights in your list will be surprising to many parents—could you explain why you created this list?
Yes, first of all, it’s a very long list. I have to say, for the record, I was very uncomfortable creating that list, because I am a parent of four children, and I was raised to believe that young people need to be protected, that they’re inherently incompetent and irresponsible. I want to protect my children, and I want to protect all young people. I really struggled with writing that chapter. The rights I list are shocking in some respects. But the truth is that all young people are not the same, just as all elderly people are not the same. We have to look away from age and look at ability, look at competence.
Again, I learned so much in researching and writing this book over a nine-year period, and my own opinions were deeply challenged.
I know that if we move in the direction of a competency-based system, we’ll start to see teen turmoil disappear, and we’ll have young people working with us, instead of being our enemies. And they will not be so afraid and confused about growing up, because they’ll be growing up where they’re supposed to be growing up—that is, among adults.
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.
Have you tried your ideas of treating young people more like adults on your own children?
I can see this working on a daily basis with my two youngest children. It’s amazing. (I hadn’t worked all this out with my two older boys, but even they are pretty responsible young men.) I used to get my kids up in the morning and serve them breakfast, pack their lunches, and so on. Now, they get me up in the morning; they take turns on alternate days. They make their own breakfast, and now my 6-year-old tells me she wants to start packing their lunches. The message I give to them every single day is, “You can do it. I’ll help you, I’ll show you how. Now show me what you can do.” My 8-year-old now helps me do audio editing for my radio show. He loves it, and he’s faster at it than I am!
The only thing that troubles me is, again, that I’m facing a society which is not going to work with me on this. That’s why, as I say, I’m looking very seriously now at homeschooling. But that will only help somewhat; it’s not the whole solution.
What’s the typical reaction you get from adults who work with teens, regarding your argument for treating teens more like adults?
Well, the behind-the-scenes reaction I’ve gotten has been 100% positive. I have not run across one professional who works with teens who has not agreed with me. I’ve been getting letters from middle school teachers, high school teachers, psychologists, all of whom are highly supportive, but not many seem to be talking publicly about these issues. One exception is Dr. Helen Smith, a prominent forensic psychologist in Tennessee who has worked with thousands of young criminals. She’s come out swinging in defense of my book, because she believes as I do that youth violence is just a creation of our culture. The book also carries almost unprecedented endorsements from prominent thinkers: Joyce Brothers, M. Scott Peck, Deepak Chopra, Alvin Toffler, and many others.
Unfortunately, the livelihoods of many mental health professionals depend on the old and mistaken ideas about teens. Look at the business that would dry up in the mental health professions if they acknowledged the truth of what I’m saying—and what I’m saying is true.
Do you think that the idea of teens being treated more like adults will become a reality?
When you have opposing forces, things tend to move very slowly. You have teens on one side, pushing, but they’re currently powerless, and now you’ve got some adults joining with them and they’re pushing with them, but they're a minority. On the other side, you’ve got my “enemies list.” You've got the massive industries that contribute to the maintenance of teen culture, you’ve got fearful parents who want to protect their offspring (and again, I can relate to that), you’ve got the whole pharmaceutical industry desperately wanting to expand that market, and they’re doing a good job of it. I think that, generally speaking, changes are going to come very slowly. If anything, as a culture we’re moving in the wrong direction right now, continuing to restrict young people and to isolate them from adults.
There’s one area where you will see some substantial changes, probably within 10 to 20 years, and that area is education. Why? Because of technology. You’ve got this technology that’s just surrounding young people and parents, saying, “Hey, you know what? We can do better. We can, for the first time in history, provide superb education to every person individually.”
The fraudulent idea of the “teen brain”—now that’s an area where my perspective will probably have no impact, in part because the drug companies support the idea of the teen brain. More money is now being spent on psychoactive drugs for teens than on all other prescription medications combined, including antibiotics and acne medications. The drug companies want us to believe that teens have defective brains that cause them to act irresponsibly. It simply isn’t true.
But education—that will change. And the homeschooling movement is well positioned—better positioned than any other societal force—to make that change happen.
Robert Epstein is a contributing editor for Scientific American Mind and the former editor in chief of Psychology Today. He received his Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard University and is a longtime researcher and professor. His latest book is called The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen (Quill Driver Books, 2007). More information is at www.thecaseagainstadolescence.com.
Andrea Longbottom grew up in Southeast Texas and was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school.
Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) is a non-profit organization and the preeminent national association advocating the legal right of parents to homeschool their children. For more homeschool news check out http://www.hslda.org
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