Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. - E.M. Forster
Part of the process of growing up is becoming an individual, defining oneself as a unique entity separate from one’s parents and other authority figures; it starts at about the age of two, when we begin to set boundaries by the act of refusal. From that point there develops a dynamic interaction in which children continually seek to expand their autonomy while parents work to contain that expansion to a greater or lesser degree (depending upon the temperaments of both parent and child). Wise parents apply only as much constraint as is strictly necessary to keep the child from undertaking risks for which he is unprepared and might seriously harm him, but those less wise and/or more controlling attempt to establish regimes ranging from the somewhat overprotective to the wholly tyrannical. My mother was somewhere near the middle of this spectrum; as I explained in my column of one year ago yesterday she “seemed bound and determined to control my natural free-spiritedness and to delay my sexual maturation for as long as possible,” and so tried to bind me with rules more appropriate to girls several years younger. I of course saw these limits as arbitrary and unfair, and therefore disobeyed them in every way I could; because I was clever and resourceful and my mother was not equipped with the spying resources and cultural support available to modern overprotective parents, I was nearly always able to break the rules without getting caught and suffering the consequences.
Unfortunately for modern teens, overparenting has now become the rule rather than the exception, and even those parents who might be inclined to allow a healthy and stimulating degree of autonomy are hampered by ever-increasing legal restrictions on young people, a large fraction of which inflict criminal penalties on parents for the “crime” of actually allowing their offspring age-appropriate levels of autonomy rather than treating them as helpless children until 18. Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids chronicles these outrages, including cases of a mother threatened with “child neglect” for allowing her daughter to bicycle to school, a 12-year-old boy arrested for “walking alone” and a father charged with “child endangerment” for letting his kids play in the park without hovering over them. Legal restrictions on young people have constantly increased since the mid-19th century, and our society now expects people to remain irresponsible, incompetent “children” until they’re 18 (in some ways, 21) and then to instantly transform into adults upon reaching a certain date on a calendar, without any preparation for that assumption of responsibility whatsoever.
I recently discovered a March, 2007 Psychology Today interview with psychologist Robert Epstein in which he explains how Western culture invented the concept of “adolescence” and why it’s terrible both for young people and for society:
In every mammalian species, immediately upon reaching puberty, animals function as adults, often having offspring. We call our offspring “children” well past puberty. The trend started a hundred years ago and now…the whole culture collaborates in artificially extending childhood, primarily through the school system and restrictions on labor. The two systems evolved together in the late 19th-century; the advocates of compulsory-education laws also pushed for child-labor laws, restricting the ways young people could work, in part to protect them from the abuses of the new factories. The juvenile justice system came into being at the same time. All of these systems isolate teens from adults, often in problematic ways…
Imagine what it would feel like—or think back to what it felt like—when your body and mind are telling you you’re an adult while the adults around you keep insisting you’re a child. This infantilization makes many young people angry or depressed…we have completely isolated young people from adults and created a peer culture. We stick them in school and keep them from working in any meaningful way, and if they do something wrong we put them in a pen with other “children.” In most nonindustrialized societies, young people are integrated into adult society as soon as they are capable, and there is no sign of teen turmoil. Many cultures do not even have a term for adolescence…But [in the West] young people can’t own things, can’t sign contracts, and they can’t do anything meaningful without parental permission—permission that can be withdrawn at any time. They can’t marry, can’t have sex, can’t legally drink. The list goes on. They are restricted and infantilized to an extraordinary extent. 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…Teens in America are in touch with their peers on average 65 hours a week, compared to about four hours a week in preindustrial cultures. In this country, teens learn virtually everything they know from other teens, who are in turn highly influenced by certain aggressive industries. This makes no sense. Teens should be learning from the people they are about to become. When young people exit the education system and are dumped into the real world…they have no idea what’s going on and have to spend considerable time figuring it out…
Though I don’t have kids of my own, I clearly remember how the word “child” was applied like a branding iron every time I had an idea of my own or wanted to do something outside the rigid script. I hated the triviality of the “adolescent” world and longed to escape it, and I’ve often wondered how much less rebellious I might’ve been had the limits placed upon me by “authorities” been more reasonable and acknowledged my right to autonomy, self-determination and independent thought. And due to the exponential growth of laws restricting even adult behavior, that really hasn’t changed except for the merciful removal of one layer of government (my parents) from my back; I still have to deal with busybodies who think they understand what’s good for me better than I do, and who are dedicated to sticking their noses into every aspect of my private life and punishing me with violence, robbery and forcible confinement if I have the nerve to demand full control over my own body, sexuality, property and life. Epstein’s article demonstrates that most of the problems we associate with teens derives from the artificial restrictions we place upon them, and tomorrow I’ll show how these problems reflect in miniature the damage a police state inflicts upon our entire culture.