More on Teen 2.0

Labor has been a particularly contentious topic in the past two weeks in Maine.  While the battle rages on over the mural in our Department of Labor, the state legislature considers an amendment to employment laws for 16 and 17 year-old residents, and several readers of this blog (as well as its writer) make their way through Robert Epstein’s book Teen 2.0 which chronicles the history of adolescence (and work) and invites its readers to think in new ways about how kids spend their young years.  It’s all quite timely, and quite sensitive.

This post has two parts.  First, a preamble of sorts, inspired by these recent events.  Second, a reflection on the social, intellectual, and relational impact of the way we currently conceive of adolescence.

Part One

I read several opinions about the proposed amendment to our law regulating teen employment, and found myself yearning for less argument and deeper inquiry.  The question on the table is should teens be allowed more work hours, or shouldn’t they?  While the issues involved are serious and demand addressing, I think we can go deeper, and alter the way we inquire into this area in the future.

We could ask ourselves questions like  How did we end up in a position in which work and learning/education are in competition for people’s time?  Is that how we want it?  Are learning and work two different things?  Is school safe and work unsafe?  Is work productive and learning unproductive?  Does school prepare you for life and a lucrative career while work doesn’t?  Is it only because of late work hours that kids fall asleep in class?  Can you call it work if you’d rather be doing it than anything else?

Inquiring into these and other questions of what work means in our culture – what it is and what isn’t it, who gets to/should do it, etc. – these questions could potentially move us into much more realistic and productive discussions about how actual young people spend their young years.  Robert Epstein reminds us in Teen 2.0 that the young human brain is capable of much more than what’s offered in traditional school curriculum (and probably what’s offered in most jobs available to young people).  What if by altering the way we relate to the notions of work and learning, we could make it possible for kids to actually get more (safely and healthily) out of their young years?  Epstein’s book pushes us toward this question.  The book makes it clear that we’ve oversimplified the issue of teens and work and teens and school, and shows us some of the costs of that oversimplification…

Part Two

It’s a great frustration to families who don’t send their children to school that critics tend to hold so fiercely to the notion that it’s not possible for a child to socialize properly beyond the confines of school.  Rachel Gathercole’s book The Well-Adjusted Child: The Social Benefits of Homeschooling takes the position that keeping a child out of school can actually mean better social skills, better social experiences, and more social maturity sooner.

The material in Robert Epstein’s Teen 2.0 suggests to me that we’ve actually created the difficulty young people often have in behaving pro-socially as teens, by keeping them in contact only with children of matched age, from the time they are until they’re 17 or 18 (or older, if they opt for college).  Not only with compulsory education* but also with marketing – adults have created the adolescent culture that now takes such a toll on families, communities, and society.  It’s not a fact of human development, Epstein makes clear, but rather a series of misguided (and/or economically-minded) legislative, social, and business choices made in recent history that gave us the dispirited and resistant teen set we have today.

We take for granted that in a modern civilized society the place for children is not with adults.  Proponents of this notion will argue that this separation is for kids’ own good; they need and deserve to be educated; they need to be relieved of the burdens of adulthood and of work.  Epstein argues that our commitment to protecting kids from these burdens limits the meaningful connections they can have with the people they need as role models, and also limits how meaningful their daily lives can be.  Most teens’ activities are restricted to a narrow band of academic study.  (For a few, this kind of study is very rewarding, stimulating, meaningful, but for many others, not.)  We keep kids separate – restricting their learning as well as their access to role models in the context of actual everyday life – and then we hope that they will be ready to join us in the adult world, suddenly after all those years of separateness.

That’s all to say I think Epstein’s book is worth reading, and makes a compelling case for rethinking the way we explain, interpret, and respond to teens’ behavior.  Here’s a passage from a story Epstein tells about a young person in a pre-industrial community who worked alongside his adult family members from a young age (in addition to attending school): “[His] life had meaning.  He knew why he got up in the morning… He worked because he was a member of a family and a community.  He worked because doing so was important.  When you spend your day doing things you believe are important, your life has meaning.  Conversely, when you spend your day doing things that make no sense to you, you feel empty, frustrated, and angry.”

Young people crave meaning and connectedness just like their older counterparts.  We tend to treat kids as though they don’t yet; as though they’re just in it for carefree and fun times.  What’s great is that when you talk to young people like the people they are – individual and creative and interested in meaningful experience – they start acting that way, and seeming that way.  They live toward the esteem we offer. When we finally begin to do this as a culture, on a large scale, we’re going to be astonished – astonished – at what we’ve been overlooking and missing out on from our young.

*It bears mentioning that Epstein also notes that compulsory education was at one point competency-based and not age-based.  Students were required to attend school only if they could not demonstrate certain competencies and then only as long as it took to achieve them.  If we were to return to a competency-based system and thus remove from school all the students who had mastered the material expected of their grade level, we would be horrified to see how much of many students’ time we were about to waste simply because we have grown used to keeping them in school just because that’s how old they are.