I’ve been reading again, this time following the suggestion of one of my blog readers. She mentioned a book entitled Escaping the Endless Adolescence by Joseph Allen and Claudia Worrell Allen, and I couldn’t ignore the similarities of the title to my blog name. Obviously, I had to read it. I checked out a copy from my digital library account, and I’m about halfway through it now. I reached the transition point in the book, so I decided it’s a good time to stop and write a blog post about it.
You see, the first half of the book lays out the problem, the idea of the “Endless Adolescence,” and the second half will present the potential solutions. Written by clinical psychologists who specialize in working with adolescents, this book’s target audience are the adults who work with teens (parents, teachers, etc.), but it emphatically takes the side of the teenager. Teens are not merely large, helpless children enslaved by raging hormones. Rather, they are powerful forces at the peak of their physical and mental capacity, chock full of potential and an innate need to experience the adult world. The authors are bluntly no-nonsense and honestly understanding at the same time. They recognize the cultural perception of teenagers and systematically debunk the common myths of adolescence through targeted looks at research (both scientific and historical) and powerful anecdotal evidence.
Very early in the book the authors briefly address the new field of study known as Emerging Adulthood. When they first heard about it, they didn’t like it. Here’s why (all page references are from the digital edition):
“Adolescence was supposed to be the period during which the traits of adulthood gradually emerged. Now the emergence of these same traits was being studied, but a decade later in the life span! And if the twenties are when adulthood is supposed to be just emerging, what does that mean our teens are supposed to be doing? Have we turned the teen years into a supersized childhood? And if so, what does this do to these teens efforts to grow up?” -p. 22
I agree. In fact, that’s pretty much what I said when I first heard about Emerging Adulthood. However, this book is about adolescence and teenagers who live it, so let’s get on with that.
The authors begin laying out the problem by pointing out the intangibility of adulthood for modern-day adolescents. The idea of being an adult is so far off that for teens, there is no real end in sight. Cognitively, they know that someday they’ll be adults. Someday they’ll have to take care of themselves and make decisions and pay their own bills, but it’s so far removed from their current lives that they have no concept of what that will really look like. They can’t prepare for the practical realities because they can’t see them. Instead, teens are expected to prepare for adulthood through a series of abstract motivations. They’re expected to study and learn, not for the sake of the knowledge or skills themselves, but for the letter “A” on a piece of paper. A collection of those “A’s” is supposed to help them get into a good college, which is supposed to get them a piece of paper that says “degree,” and then, supposedly, they’ll be ready to be adults. Does that make sense? Are abstract, intangible results enough to keep teens motivated to really prepare for adult life?
The second chapter of the book is my favorite so far. It’s called, “In Search of the Teenage Brain,” and it challenges the common concepts of the teenage mindset, their immature brains, and their raging hormones. The authors looked at the research of a man named Tim Salthouse, who studies how people think and how their thinking changes with age. He discovered that cognitive ability begins to decline after the teen years end. While this is rather depressing news to those of us already passed the teen years, it actually speaks volumes to the power and potential of the teen mind. The book’s authors noticed this, too.
“The positive implications of Tim’s research are that, in comparison to their elders, late adolescents have some remarkable and ephemeral cognitive talents.” -p. 31
That means, while they may not yet have the wisdom that comes with age, teens are actually at their cognitive peak! Historical research supports the idea, too. Teens have historically been called on to take on difficult, responsibility-filled roles in their societies. It’s only in the last 100 years in America that they’ve been removed from the workforce and placed in long-term education. Education is good, but when that transition happened, teens lost much of their autonomy. Teens should be preparing to become adults, but today they are often sheltered beyond the need to take care of themselves or anyone else. How can they learn from experience if they can’t go out and live experiences? Why should they put their amazing cognitive abilities to work if no one else needs them to? (you know, except to get that abstract piece of paper with an A on it). Teen minds are driven to strive for autonomy, and if they can’t flex their need for independence within the accepted scaffolding of society, then maybe they’ll express that need through rebellion instead.
“Yes, these strivings for autonomy… can look counterproductive if given no good outlets. But these strivings can also help adolescents move forward to achieve remarkable independence and self-sufficiency…” p. 44
The authors do acknowledge some differences between adult brains and teen brains, but they are quick to point out that different doesn’t have to mean less capable. For instance, teen brains are wired to encourage them to take risks. For some reason, our culture seems to automatically think “unnecessary risks,” but aren’t there necessary risks involved in growing up? Striking out on their own? Taking on new responsibilities? Don’t we want our teens to take risks, so shouldn’t we think it’s a good thing their brains are wired that way? But then, that means it’s up to us, as adults, to offer our teens the right challenges and risks, to guide them without over-sheltering them. Their brains are developing. They shouldn’t be stagnating.
There’s more in the chapters I’ve read so far. So much more. Commentary on the teenage “bubble” that has deprived teens of true, consistent socialization with adults. The silent guilt many teens feel for siphoning their parents’ resources without contributing, or the contrasting teens that come to expect everything to be provided for them because everything has been provided for them. Teens who fear independence and resist getting their driver’s license, and parents who still coddle their “children” by calling their college professors for them. The carbon-copy nature of our education system that prevents real strengths and talents from emerging during the teen years. I could ramble on about each of these ideas for a while, but I won’t. If any of them piqued your interest, pick up a copy of the book. It’s good.
I do, however, want to point out a few powerful quotes that have stuck with me long after I put down each chapter. Read and enjoy.
“What used to occur during the teenage years is now happening far later. Twenty-five is becoming the new fifteen. And it’s not just delaying our kids’ maturity, it’s changing who they become.” -p. 25
(The explanation of that quote scared me. Teens don’t know the thrill of filling a need, the joy of knowing they’re contributing to family or society, and that they’re good at it. As such, they are missing out on vital, exciting life experiences. They aren’t finding who they’re supposed to become. That breaks my heart.)
“Our ultimate goal with our teens shouldn’t be to get them into a good college, but rather to have them learn to be successful on their own in their future lives.” -p. 92
(Why does a good college matter if they boomerang back home right after they graduate, still unsure of what they want to do with their lives? Let’s prepare them to live, and worry about the name on the diploma later.)
“One of the thought traps that have made the Endless Adolescence possible [is] that time and age alone will bring maturity, rather than experience confronting the consequences of one’s actions.” -p. 92
(Teens need to be allowed to fail while it’s still safe to fail. The adult world isn’t nearly as forgiving. Just being older doesn’t teach that lesson. Experience does.)
That’s all I’ve got for now. I’m excited to keep reading and see how the authors propose to help teens escape the Endless Adolescence. If you can’t wait for my next post, pick up the book yourself. 🙂 In the meantime, what do you think about these ideas?