Monday, June 04, 2007

Trashing Teens

A recent issue of Psychology Today has a fascinating interview with psychologist Robert Epstein about "the problem with teens." It's not what you think, and it has far-reaching implications for gifted education.

Over the past 100 years, modern societies have succeeded in extending adolescence for years (one survey found Americans don't consider people to be "grown up" until age 26!). As a result, teens are not allowed the responsiblities and freedoms of the adult world until years after they are physically mature enough to be adults. Many of these restrictions are codified into law. Teens have few property rights, for instance, and can't participate in the responsibilities of citizenship. They can't usually set up businesses or borrow money without an adult's supervision. They also can't determine what they'll spend their time doing -- most are warehoused with their age peers into schools for 7 hours a day where they learn what someone else has deemed important (and that someone is often wrong). As a result, a whole teen culture has sprung up which celebrates angst and stupidity, and encourages teens to spend time and money on trivial things. This is true even though in a study Epstein did, which measured 14 areas of adult competence (such as interpersonal skills, and handling responsibility), teens did as well as adults.

I think Epstein is onto something (though I'm not sure he's correct about teens being able to make good marriage choices -- perhaps if all the other restrictions are changed first! Then again, many adults don't make good choices in this area either.) He's speaking about average teens; the situation is much more pronounced for gifted teenagers.

Part of being gifted is the fact that your brain is older than your body. You develop the ability to think abstractly, to analyze and draw new conclusions before your peers. Many gifted children prefer the company of older kids and adults because they speak the same language. When your thoughts are grown up, but you have no responsibilities, no rights, and no say over your life, no wonder it's easy for intelligent teens to become depressed or to act out.

One solution -- for gifted teens, at least -- is to compress basic education into fewer years, so they can start higher education earlier. I've also recommended encouraging kids (all kids, not just gifted ones) to start their own businesses. Figuring out market niches, advertising, profits and all that encourages synthesis across many areas, and gives kids a stake in the adult world. So do opportunities to interact with adults through church or community groups, particularly if these groups undertake real projects like concerts or volunteer work. None of these make adolescence easy, but if Epstein is right, they could certainly make it easier.

3 comments: said...

I just wanted to thank you for your supportive blog and to point out that I explore these issues in great detail in a new book called The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. See:

Anonymous said...

Two thoughts come to mind immediately. First - does Mr. Epstein have teenagers? Second - one significant aspects of teen personality, and one that I think lead to increasingly restrictive lives of teenagers, is impulse control. Teens really are more impulsive, more likely to feel invinsible, and therefore are more likely to take risks which can harm them or, worse, others. I don't think these are a product of infantilization, I think they are natural to any "adolescent" animal (to see this all you have to do is observe your 1 year old pet dog or cat).

Anonymous said...

as a former gifted child, I longed to be able to move through school faster. School was too slow.

I started my first business at 16. and was bringing in serious money by senior year. I went on to college and earned advanced degrees.

One day I asked my dad, why I never had restrictions on my time or activities like my brothers had. He simply told me, "I didn't have to worry about you flunking out of school"