Parents: Relax

5 minute read
John Cloud

Probably since the second generation of humanity, it has been a widely accepted bit of folk wisdom that kids are worse off than their forebears. Our ancestors surely thought the kids just didn’t rip the hides from big game with the same skill as Grandpa. Now we think teens are wastrels who get high on OxyContin and rouse themselves only to shoot up a school or update their MySpace profiles. But there’s strong evidence that U.S. adolescents are actually getting smarter–or at least making better decisions. Could the teen brain be evolving?

Consider: teens are less violent and more sober than they have been in years. Despite those rare school shootings reporters cover with such lip-licking zeal, the rate of school violence fell from 48 crimes per 1,000 students in 1992 to 22 per 1,000 in 2004, according to the Department of Education. In raw terms, the number of student crimes (including theft) shrank from 3.4 million to 1.4 million in that period, even as the U.S. teen population grew by 5.4 million kids. Post-Columbine security explains some of the decline, but the school crime rate started to drop in the mid-’90s. And the rate at which 12-to-17-year-olds committed murder (at school or elsewhere) plummeted an astonishing 68% from 1993 to 2003.

Fewer teens take drugs now than a decade ago. In 1995, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 19% of surveyed schoolkids said they had used an illegal drug in the past month; in 2005, 16% did. That’s a small dip, but kids’ smoking tumbled 40% during the same period. And teens’ use of alcohol is also down, despite stories you may have seen about parents’ letting their high schoolers drink. Nearly 40% of teens reported drinking in the past month in 1995; less than a third did in 2005. Plus, the teen pregnancy rate is the lowest since 1976, and the teen suicide rate is lower today than in 1980.

All this good news about teens raises an old question: Should we now be prepared to reward them with more rights? A new book by a prominent psychologist says we should. In fact, Robert Epstein, Harvard Ph.D., former editor in chief of Psychology Today and host of Sirius’ Psyched! program, argues that we should abolish the very concept of adolescence. He’s not alone: in 2004, Oxford University Press published The End of Adolescence, by psychiatrist Philip Graham, who argued that British teens deserved more respect and less condescension from adults. But Epstein’s book, The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen, goes even further: it says that once they can prove themselves competent, kids should have all the rights of adults. “Just about everything we do tells [teens] they’re incompetent,” Epstein writes. “We protect them from danger (driving, cigarettes, alcohol); we don’t trust them to work or own property … We don’t allow them to make basic decisions about their health, education or religion.” Epstein’s proposal? Allow any kid–of any age–who can “pass one or more relevant competency tests” not only to do constructive things like sign contracts and vote but also to do essentially anything he or she wants: have sex with people of any age, drink, smoke, drive, get a tattoo. “If they can pass an appropriate test of maturity,” Epstein writes in a passage that left me a bit queasy, “young people of any age should have access to pornographic materials commensurate with adult access.”

In principle, I don’t object to replacing arbitrary age minimums with competency tests that judge people as individuals. But in practice, who will administer these tests? A judge? A bureaucrat? Epstein never spells this out, although he says psychologists could easily design the tests. Still, I can’t imagine why society would waste time letting an 11-year-old apply to be able to drink martinis or have sex or serve in the military. Perhaps a tiny number of children are mature enough for such adult pursuits, but why set up a system to find them? Epstein says the teen culture of MTV and American Pie is stultifying–but at least it’s not life threatening.

Epstein’s central psychobiological contention–that teens have the brain potential to make adult-level judgments–also doesn’t hold up. True, teens have better reaction times and memories than adults, and most have adult-like moral-reasoning skills by adolescence. But a 2000 paper in Behavioral Sciences and the Law confirms common sense: adolescents score significantly worse than adults on assessments of their psychosocial maturity. Teens may know how to make good decisions, but they don’t actually make good decisions as often as adults. Epstein points out that some teens do score higher than some adults, and he says most teens score worse because we infantilize them. That may be true, and it’s a good idea to consider, say, civics tests that precocious teens could take in order to vote. Kids who start businesses should also be able to own them outright. But kids have been making better decisions in the past 20 years–drinking and drugging less and, as studies have shown, studying more. It would be perverse to reward them by saying that we now don’t care if they get drunk and watch porn instead.

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