Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Few Kind Words About Teenagers

This has turned out to be Say Something Good about Teenagers Week. I was talking the other day with my old friend J., a psychologist who works mainly with kids, and he was telling me about the walls that go up between parents and their teenage kids. J. says that, despite the way we stereotype teens as difficult and dopey, the teenagers he works with tend to be articulate and reasonable. The problem, J. says, is usually that their parents can't bring themselves to trust their kids or listen to them or find ways to communicate with them.

The next day, I happened to be talking to my mother on the phone, and she mentioned attending a high-school graduation party for one of my cousins. She started telling me, in typical Mom style, about what polite friends my cousin had. “They were such nice kids,” she said, sounding a little amazed. “They all said hello when I came in and were very respectful. It kind of gives you hope that maybe all teenagers aren’t out of control.” I hadn’t mentioned my conversation with J. to my mother, but she seemed to be providing evidence both for his point about the way adults habitually trash teens and for his point that at least some of the kids deserve a little more credit.

Then this morning, I came across this interview from Psychology Today with psychologist Robert Epstein, whose book “The Case Against Adolescence” argues that teens are more competent than we think and that most of their problems can be traced to the restrictions placed on them.

Epstein says: "In recent surveys I've found that American teens are subjected to more than 10 times as many restrictions as mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and even twice as many as incarcerated felons. Psychologist Diane Dumas and I also found a correlation between infantilization and psychological dysfunction. The more young people are infantilized, the more psychopathology they show.What's more, since 1960, restrictions on teens have been accelerating. Young people are restricted in ways no adult would be—for example, in some states they are prohibited from entering tanning salons or getting tattoos."

Epstein makes a convincing argument against infantalizing teens, but I’m going to remain agnostic on the competent teen issue. I’d like to be more optimistic, but there’s one teenager in my neighborhood whose habit of driving his ATV in circles for hours on end has me soured on a whole generation. But then Epstein would probably say that the problem there is that we have failed to help the kid find something better to do.

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