Friday, June 25, 2010

Book Review: Escaping the Endless Adolescence, Part I

Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow OldEscaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old by Joseph Allen and Claudia Worrell Allen

I have just finished reading part I of this book, where the authors put forth their arguments that contemporary adolescence in America is fundamentally different from that of the adolescent years in past generations in such a way to cause widespread angst, depression, hooliganism and general discontent in the teenage years (and beyond). (In part II, they put forth their recommendations for parents and teachers, which I'll include in a later post.)

These ideas are not new to Kansas Dad and me. We've read other articles that basically say the same thing. Teenagers today are not given enough responsibility or respect. In book form, these arguments are much better explained and supported with some research. (They don't really describe any specific research, though; I guess it's not really that kind of book.)

By the way, I do realize we don't have any adolescents in the house yet. I've often found with books like these, that the information easily transfers to other ages and relationships. I haven't been disappointed in that regard with this book, either. (One of the best books I ever read was How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, which I read when First Son was about three months old. I put those skills into practice immediately in my office and discovered astounding results.)

In part I, the authors focus on convincing us there is a problem with our adolescents and that we're not just dealing with adolescents they way they have always been, that there's not a biological reason for teenage rebellion and depression. They then look at the changes in our society in the past hundred years or so and pull out what they feel are the pertinent and damaging aspects. (They don't recommend, by the way, returning to the ways of a hundred and fifty years ago, when many teenagers were malnourished and forced to work dangerous jobs in factories.)

The largest change has been an increase in education - a dramatic increase. A few generations ago, only a few students progressed through high school and college. Now, the public schools are attempting to prepare every student for college. For those of high-income families, the expectations are even greater: medical school or graduate school. To be board certified as a physician, you need to finish college (4 years), medical school (4 years) and residency (often 3 years).
But like most of his peers, Perry was on a high-achieving track where the real payoff for his work wouldn't come until after his graduate or professional training was complete. That was so far in the future that he couldn't even accurately estimate the years involved. Perry didn't feel he was so much on a path as on a treadmill. And though he could scarcely allow himself to verbalize it, he wanted desperately to get off.
We know how this can feel first-hand. Kansas Dad finished his graduate degree in 2008. We were married with two children and felt like we still weren't really living our lives because he was still a student. If we were feeling frustrated, imagine how high school students must feel, slaving away day after day on coursework that has no application to their lives.
The end point of adolescence has been creeping upward in many ways and for many years. But gradual changes often catch us by surprise in the end. The most obvious change--that schooling, now routinely extends for many years beyond twelfth grade--has brought many other far-reaching changes with it. Financial dependence on parents lasts longer. Exposure to real employment is delayed. The result is that the teenage years have gradually evolved into something quite different than they used to be.
When, exactly, do children become adults today?

Interestingly, the organization for which I've worked since 2001 supports academies in high schools, providing a contextualized curriculum based on real careers and paid internships. They have tried to find evidence to support the hypothesis that our career academies make a difference in students' lives. The best they've been able to prove so far (in a randomized third-party study) is that the academy students tend to be more consistently employed, the men statistically earn more (than men who were not in the contextualized classes) and the men are more likely to be married (a sign of stability and, usually, a characteristic that leads to greater happiness and contentment).

There's a whole chapter discussing the teenage brain and how it does or does not contribute to an inability to make sound decisions. As I mentioned above, the main point here is to convince us that teenagers were not always "victims of their own raging hormones." It's an interesting chapter as it shows ways in which teenagers are actually in the best position to learn new skills, especially manual and physical skills.

The authors discuss recent evidence that teenagers are unprepared for college and for life after college.
The problem, of course, with putting our teens in a world where they have nothing much to do that matters to anyone else (besides college admissions officers) is that they learn to do...nothing much. As a result, even when not displaying obvious psychological symptoms, we see a generation emerge that is increasingly slow to launch and appears helpless in the face of modest challenges.
There are high school seniors who are unwilling to leave home to go to college or who are struggling with fears about being "on their own" in college. A surprising number of college graduates are returning home to live with parents, unsure of what to do with their lives even though they've attained the degree for which they worked through high school and college.
Ultimately, the problems created by the extension of adolescence aren't just a matter of moving (or not moving) expeditiously into adulthood, or even of the anxiety and assorted other problems that accompany teens along the way. Ultimately, the problem with these structural changes in the nature of adolescence lies in how they affect teens' very character. "Character" isn't a word that psychologies typically throw around easily, yet it seems quite apt here. Interestingly, problems that we call "matters of character" can appear in almost opposite guises at different times. For some adolescents, they show up as a deep-seated sense of incompetence and inadequacy that makes them hesitant to even face the larger world.
The authors describe a teen's world as a "bubble":
It cuts them off from meaningful roles in the adult world, it cuts them off from close day-to-day contact with adults, and it hyperexposes them to peer relationships, which then become their primary socializing influences.
I've discussed this sort of situation before in the context of how homeschooling gives parents the opportunity to provide socialization with adults in a way that is not possible at schools. Though I haven't read the part of the book that talks about what we can do to help our teens, I would guess things like apprenticeships, which are much easier to arrange in a homeschooling environment than a public school, would meet some of the needs.
Across human history, parents have been primed to make all manner of sacrifices to give their teens what they needed to thrive, but of late a subtle but crucial shift has occurred. Parents today no longer just sacrifice to give their teens everything they need, they sacrifice to give them everything (or almost everything) they want. The shift is subtle, but the effects are not.
So teenagers are working like mad at their studies (for a career in they know not what), engaged in as many extracurricular activities as they can squeeze in to bolster their college applications (most of which are rather inane, and the students know it), accept everything from their parents (food, shelter, toys, expensive music camps, etc.) and contribute nothing to their families or communities. They have no purpose.

Parents unknowingly or unwittingly make these challenges worse by stepping in to alleviate what stress and problems they can. Not only do some parents complete academic assignments for their children, they drive them everywhere, schedule all their appointments, ensure they don't miss appointments, and, of course, meet all the financial requirements. Adolescents not only have no ability to contribute to the family, but their parents are taking on responsibility for some of the only activities they do have in school and their studies.

The authors also touched on unreasonable parental fears, like parents who refuse to let their large sixteen or seventeen year old children bike to tennis courts along a busy road because they might get mugged or attacked (during the day in a middle-class neighborhood). That sounds familiar...


  1. Fascinating.

    I have "How To Talk...." on hold at the library, I've heard so much good about it. Just need to pick it up. And read it. :-D

  2. You've totally made me want to read this book... might I borrow it when you are finished?

  3. Monica, I hope you like the book. I should read it again for a refresher now that I have kids that should really be listening. I wonder if I still own it...

    Michelle, you could totally borrow the book...if it was mine! I checked it out from the library (and have to return it by Friday so I'd better finish it soon).

  4. Michelle, I checked and WPL has it.

    Kansas Mom, in regards to sewing (to comment back from your comment on my post) I actually learned after Gemma was born. Before that I had zero interest and would have laughed at anyone who told me I'd be sewing (and cloth diapering for that matter) in a matter of months!! It's fun and easy to learn as you go, especially if you start with easier things like blankets and burp cloths, etc.

  5. Monica, my mom helped me sew curtains for our bedroom which I love and they were remarkably easy. It's so hard to find time now, though, when the kids are occupied safely out of the way and I can focus on something like that. And I don't imagine that changing soon with a newborn.

    And there are so many things to learn! Like canning.

    Of course, I'm not really trying anything new right now. Just taking care of the usual.


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