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Childhood v. Adulthood: Why Robert Epstein Says We Infantilize Our Youth

By Carolyn Brown | M.A., theology, Fuller Theological Seminary; served in youth ministry for 15 years; youth minister, Mountain View United Methodist Church, Woodland Park, Colorado. | July 19 2012

Once upon a time, people knew when a child had reached adulthood. Now, we're not so sure. That's why we turned to Dr. Robert Epstein, founder and director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts and author of 15 books, including Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence and the forthcoming Finding the Inner Adult in Your Teen: A Guide for Parents.

YouthWorker Journal: What was your motivation or inspiration for researching the artificial extension of childhood, and what impact did your research have on the way you interact with teenagers?

Dr. Epstein: About 15 years ago when my second son, Justin, was about 14, I noticed he was very mature—more mature than his older brother and perhaps more mature than I was in some ways.

I became curious about why he was forced to go to school, why he couldn't start a business (which he was ready to do), why he couldn't drive or own property. I began to read about teens in history, in the Bible, and in other cultures, eventually conducting my own research on the topic.

I learned the restrictions surrounding Justin's life were an invention of modern culture—an invention that had gone badly awry, causing millions of young people and their families to suffer needlessly.

YWJ: Can you summarize your concept of the artificial extension of childhood and infantilization?

Epstein: Beginning in the late 1800s in the United States, the age of entry into adulthood was gradually increased from 13 or so to about 26 today. As that age increased, two things happened to young people that have caused great harm.

First, they have been increasingly infantilized—that is, treated as incompetent young children, no matter how competent or responsible they actually are as individuals. Second, they became increasingly isolated from responsible adults, trapped more and more in the world of teens, a world which came to be dominated by specialized divisions of the media and fashion industries.

Treated as children and isolated from adults, teens have become increasingly depressed and defiant, in many ways living down to the low expectations we have for them.

YWJ: In your book Teen 2.0, you have a chapter titled, "Young People Are Capable Thinkers," that essentially refutes the popular media reports on the faulty teenage brain. What do we really need to understand about the teenage brain?

Epstein: There is no evidence to support the recent claim that irresponsible behavior by teens is caused by properties of the developing brain. This is evident for three reasons.

First, anthropological studies show the kind of turmoil we see in teens in many Western countries is entirely absent in more than 100 cultures around the world; if teen turmoil were the inevitable product of the developing brain, we would see such turmoil everywhere.

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