Does society infantilize teens?

June 4, 2007 | 12 comments

My husband sent me an interesting excerpt from an article in the Wall Street Journal this morning. It says:

By placing more and more restrictions on teens, society is harmfully infantilizing a large number of people perfectly capable of behaving like adults, says psychologist Robert Epstein.

In an interview with Psychology Today, Dr. Epstein says the questionnaires he gave to teens and adults — meant to measure 14 areas of competence, such as interpersonal skills, handling responsibility and leadership — showed teens were as competent or nearly as competent as adults. Adults consistently underestimated teens’ scores. He says longstanding data show raw intelligence peaks around the age of 15.

So where does the stereotype of the moody, sullen, sexually irresponsible and financially incompetent adolescent come from? Dr. Epstein says most adults would behave that way, too, if they had no responsibilities, no rights, and money to spend. Today’s schooling and child-labor laws worked well in the late 19th century, when factories brutally exploited young workers, and a lifetime of education had to be packed into the start of life. A century later, the laws serve only to divorce teens from the adult world.

“They are free to spend, to be disrespectful, to stay out all night, to have sex and take drugs, ” says Dr. Epstein. “But they’re not free to join the adult world, and that’s what needs to change.”

Parents who want to give their children “responsibility tied to significant rights” have few ways to do it. States have been increasing restrictions on teens since the 1960s.

Dr. Epstein recommends giving teens more options, privileges and responsibilities. He believes we should see schooling as a lifetime project, rather than something only for the young. He would allow some teens to work and set up businesses while still in school. He recommends establishing tests that teens could take to prove they’re competent to assume responsibilities like owning property or running a business, the way they can now if they want a driver’s license.

I think there’s something to this. I’m not sure if I agree with all of Dr. Epstein’s specific suggestions in the last paragraph, but I think his overall point is a good one. (Although my only experience with teenagers is that I was one about a decade ago, so take that opinion with a huge grain of salt). I particularly liked this quote: “So where does the stereotype of the moody, sullen, sexually irresponsible and financially incompetent adolescent come from?…Most adults would behave that way, too, if they had no responsibilities, no rights, and money to spend.”

My well-intentioned parents thought that I should be free to be a kid as long as possible, so I had very few responsibilities when I was a teenager. In retrospect, I don’t think that was good for me. There was a definite feeling of aimless boredom that was pervasive in my life and left me frustrated. I think I would have been more content, hard-working and well-adjusted if I didn’t have so much free time and so little responsibility. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I think I was yearning for a challenge.

Anyway, again, my opinion isn’t worth that much since I have yet to actually try to parent a teenager. What do you guys think?


  1. Catholic Mom

    In just about two months, my fourth child will be a teenager. May I add that my hair is not too gray. I wrote about parenting styles for teens here. My “short” comment is all children need discipline. If you have not disciplined your pre-teen, don’t think you will be able to clamp down on your teenager. When the kids have no responsibilities, no respect for adults, and lots of disposable income, they become spoiled brats–ie moody,sullen,and financially incompetent. Every one of my boys has been in Boy Scouts. It is important to find the right troop, but we are blessed with a very good troop at our parish. The Scouting program has reinforced the lessons of character, morals, service, and leadership that my husband and I have taught at home. No one gets his driver’s license until the Eagle project is done. In addition the teens have been active in the youth group and in numerous service projects, including week-long work camps to rebuild and repair homes of poor.They have always had family chores and a responsibility to consider the big picture of the family needs. Most importantly, we have prayed together as a family, for our own family needs as well as the needs of the community and world around us. The point is they have been taught that they are not the center of the universe. They have an obligation to serve others.

  2. Renee

    I wrote about the book on another blog, Dr. Robert Epstien has a lot of interesting quizes to take regarding maturity.

    I wrote about his issues of maturity in a marriage blog I also write in… I wrote this last april. My fellow bloggers, older then me, seemed more concerned.

    “Today in the local papers there was a small article on ‘adult children’ and refered that back in the day people in their 20s were already married with children, now 20 somethings are still looking for boundaries! The article went further talking about the needs of ‘adult children’ and their parents…”

    “Teens are really adults, who have no knowledge of what an adult really is. Are we really helping them by always keeping them safe from failure? Why not give them the tools to suceed in marriage with sexual education within the context of adult responsibility when they go through puberty, so they won’t be reckless with their hormones?”

    “As children become adults we have become utterly bored (I was never so bored, as I was in high school/ college), not knowing how to make ourselves busy living life so we extend adolescence several times over through experimentation and constant reincarnation in attempt to find ourselves, usually through buying things we like or through travel. Both can be seen as forms of escapism. The reality is there is no need to search as a person you’ve been here along, you just didn’t know you were suppose to do anything about it.”

    Sorry for copying and pasting paragraphs, but it seemed as a teenager there was plenty to achive, but their was no goal. The goal missing in teenagers lives is adulthood, and we give teens no incentive in becoming one.

  3. Jeron

    My brother & I were co-owners & operators of “Smith Bros. Lawn Service,” complete with business cards, at the ages of 12 & 14. We made enough one summer to pay off our $5,000 yazoo mower. I continued with the business till I was 17. I’m very thankful my Dad taught us the value of hard work. I resented it then, but understand now.

  4. lyrl

    While there is a stereotype that teenagers are especially sexually irresponsible, that does not seem to be true. Adults are just as sexually irresponsible as teenagers are (BBC article – discusses abortion).

    I also find it interesting that the abortion rate in women in their early twenties is significantly higher than that of teens (the 20-24 age group has 33% of the abortions in the U.S., teenagers 19% – AGI factsheet). I think the trend in the United States has been for fewer teen pregnancies, but more teen births – meaning today’s teens are being more responsible both in avoiding pregnancy and in dealing with it when it occurs.

    Maybe ideas like those discussed in this post have already (say, within the past decade or so) begun to be applied?

  5. melanieb


    This is a subject near and dear to my heart. My husband and I talk about it all the time. I think society definitely infantilizes teens. And it doesn’t necessarily stop when they hit their twenties either.

    The article you cite makes a point I’m always harping on, teens become mature when they are given real responsibilities, when they are treated as adults.

    The most mature kid who ever walked through my college classroom was a single mom. She wrote a great essay about having to grow up and leave her childhood behind when she had her son. All her friends were still partying and going out and she learned what it meant to have responsibilities.

    Not that I’m advocating teens getting pregnant out of wedlock, or claiming that all teen mothers take their responsibilities seriously.

  6. Radical Catholic Mom

    This is why I LOVE teaching high school students. They are sharp and love a good challenge. I respect that.

  7. Michelle

    It is my goal that when I turn my kids loose at the age of 18, they will be self-sufficient adults. Yes, perhaps they will need some help with money if they are attending college, but I won’t pay their bills. They’ll need to stick to a budget, feed themsleves on that budget (sorry, take out is too expensive, you’ll have to shop and cook), do their own laundry (and buy their own clothes), and make other adult decisions. We also have no intention of paying for college (perhaps we will pay off loans AFTER they graduate): they will have to consider scholarships, ROTC, full or part-time employment or other methods to finance their education. If I coddle them until they are 18, they will be unable to handle this responsibility.

  8. Sarahndipity

    I completely agree that teenagers are capable of far more than adults tend to believe. This modern phenomena of extending “adolescence” into the 20’s drives me nuts. I also think I was very sheltered as a teen and should have been given more responsibilities (in addition to more freedoms).

    My husband and I married and bought a house in 2003 at age 23 and had a child a year later. It was extremely difficult, but it used to be the norm. Our society has changed in ways that make it difficult. It used to not be so hard b/c everyone did it. Now if a couple wants to marry in their early 20’s they get condescending comments about how they’re “too young.” It’s almost impossible for a couple in their early 20s to have children and live on one income. The 21 drinking age drives me nuts, also. They should lower it to 18.

    I have to disagree that parents should not pay for college, though. I think it depends on the situation. It’s one thing to not be able to pay for college because you thought other things – such as having a stay-at-home parent or a large family – were more important. I don’t think parents should have to sell a kidney to send a kid to an Ivy League school. A state school is just fine. But it’s another thing to be able to pay and to refuse to do so. Yes, teens should be given chores and other responsibilities, but from a practical standpoint, refusing to pay for college when one is able is just going to make things unreasonably hard for your child. It’s hard enough these days. If a college grad has a huge loan to pay off, that can significantly affect their ability to start a family or have a stay-at-home parent.


    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. It includes a foreword by renowned psychotherapist Albert Ellis, who calls it “one of the most revolutionary books I have ever read.” Dr. Joyce Brothers calls it “profoundly important.” If you’re interested in teens, I hope you’ll check it out. For further information, see:

  10. Christina Martin

    I can’t help thinking a big part of the problem is the public school system: not necessarily for what it teaches or how, but for the fact of its existence and its interference in the upbringing of young people.

    Parents have largely abdicated their roles as primary formators of their offspring, and it’s no surprise. They’ve been told to “just do what you’re told and mind your own business” for so long that many aspects of parenting no longer feel like the parents’ domain or responsibility. They feel like they’re butting in if they dare to contradict.

    As a result, many young people are receiving the academic education for which our schools exist, but their parents are increasingly afraid to pick up where the schools leave off, and teach the finer points of how to ease into adulthood responsibly. Adulthood has become a pair of certificates supplied by the state: graduation and the age of majority.

  11. Renee

    christina, I agree as long as you got good grades and didn’t get in trouble, parents thought there were raising children fine.

  12. Kevin

    I think people (adults, children, and adolescents) live up to what people expect of them.

    Expect great things from your kid, and that’s what you’ll get. Expect nothing, and that is what you’ll get.

    By treating people who should be entering adulthood as if they’re children, you get people who act like children.


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