Adult world is key to cure teen turmoil

21st March 2008 at 00:00
Ending compulsory schooling for some pupils could help them avoid the infantilising influence of their peers

Teenagers must be allowed to escape from the "idiotic and inane" culture of their peers. They should spend more time in the company of adults to prevent them becoming "infantilised" - and that could include an end to compulsory schooling for some.

These were the radical messages delivered to Scottish teachers at a national conference last week by Robert Epstein, an American writer-turned-psychologist, who admitted he found some of his own conclusions "unsettling". He has set out his views in a best-selling book, The Case Against Adolescence.

Dr Epstein was invited to the conference in Edinburgh by the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, which shares his views and is becoming a growing influence among policy-makers.

One root cause of "teen turmoil", he suggested, was "infantilisation" in which young people were treated as overgrown children, no matter their competence. "They are subjected to twice as many restrictions as incarcerated felons," he said.

Apart from restrictions on drinking, smoking, marrying and voting, teenagers had no rights to property, privacy, sign contracts, leave school or make decisions about their own medical or psychiatric treatment.

Dr Epstein also blamed the isolation of adults from teenagers, and vice-versa. His research showed American youngsters spent 70 hours a week in the company of their peers, compared with five hours in more than 100 other cultures where there was no "teen turmoil".

He singled out compulsory schooling as one cause for the broken "child-adult continuum", along with child labour laws and the juvenile justice system. He emphasised he was not advocating an end to compulsory schooling for all. "But why would someone want to go to school before they are willing to learn?" he asked. His solution was a "competency test". If they passed, teenagers should be given the same rights as adults.

Dr Epstein has helped devise the Epstein-Dumas "test of adultness", a series of 140 questions ranging from the sophisticated ("spirituality and religion aren't necessarily the same thing: do you agree?") to the routine ("are you sometimes wrong?").

He found teenagers and adults scored roughly the same. But, if adults were asked to score teenagers, they credited them with only 40 per cent of their competency.

They were forced to live out their "infantilised" lives, despite evidence showing human peak performance occurs after puberty between the ages of 13 and 21. In contrast, by the time people reached 70, their brains had shrunk to the size it was when they were 3.

Carol Craig, chief executive of the Glasgow-based Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, endorsed the view that children must be given more opportunities to model themselves on adults. And author Sue Palmer suggested lack of interaction between young people and adults contributed to "toxic childhood", the title of her well-known book.

The theme was reinforced by Alan McLean, the Glasgow educational psychologist, who underlined the importance of motivation and responsibility. And Sandy Campbell of Working Rite believes his programme, which places young boys in pre-apprenticeships with tradesmen, gives them a positive adult male role model.

Dr Epstein said he was not advocating more freedom for teenagers: "Do you get more freedom when you become an adult? No, this is about giving them more authority and responsibility, which is what you would expect as an adult."

Dr Craig also dismissed any suggestion of a "de-schooling" agenda, but said: "We have to ask if our expectations of young people are too low." She challenged the emphasis on self-esteem at the heart of learning. The result was a tendency to avoid criticising young people and them being obsessed with having to feel good about themselves. It undermined resilience, and was based on the assumption that they were fragile and needed protection.

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