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February 16, 2011Culture, Research

The Myth of Teenage Rebellion

When I spoke at the D6 Conference, I made an off-handed statement that has generated a lot of questions. In that talk, I said something to the effect that teen rebellion is not found in all cultures. Thus, it is not a universal cultural experience. In other words, it is a myth that teens consistently rebel in every culture and context.

I probably mentioned teen rebellion is more common in Western industrialized societies with formalized educational systems. Since that time, people keep asking me, "where can I find more about that?" (Which teaches me not to make an off-handed comment in front of thousands of people.)

People often ask for a source to cite, but I did not remember a recent source where it is spelled out in detail. It is just something known and discussed in anthropology studies. In pre-industrial societies, "adolescents" spend most of their time with parents, often apprenticing with adults, etc. Thus, in my Ph.D. work, I remember reading it and discussing it, particularly in anthropology studies. I would think that most textbooks dealing with anthropology and "adolescence" would address the issues.

But, recently in a conversation with Clay Reed, I ran across an article that might help those looking for a recent and easily locatable source. It is in Scientific American. In that magazine, Robert Epstein weighs in on the debate that teen rebellion is caused by brain chemistry issues among teens (a widely held view). He explains,

It's not only in newspaper headlines—it's even on magazine covers. TIME, U.S. News & World Report and even Scientific American Mind have all run cover stories proclaiming that an incompletely developed brain accounts for the emotional problems and irresponsible behavior of teenagers ….

As you will see, a careful look at relevant data shows that the teen brain we read about in the headlines—the immature brain that supposedly causes teen problems—is nothing less than a myth …

But, he then cites some of the literature that address the questions at hand:

But are such problems truly inevitable? If the turmoil-generating "teen brain" were a universal developmental phenomenon, we would presumably find turmoil of this kind around the world. Do we? In 1991 anthropologist Alice Schlegel of the University of Arizona and psychologist Herbert Barry III of the University of Pittsburgh reviewed research on teens in 186 preindustrial societies. Among the important conclusions they drew about these societies: about 60 percent had no word for "adolescence," teens spent almost all their time with adults, teens showed almost no signs of psychopathology, and antisocial behavior in young males was completely absent in more than half these cultures and extremely mild in cultures in which it did occur.

Even more significant, a series of long-term studies set in motion in the 1980s by anthropologists Beatrice Whiting and John Whiting of Harvard University suggests that teen trouble begins to appear in other cultures soon after the introduction of certain Western influences, especially Western-style schooling, television programs and movies. Delinquency was not an issue among the Inuit people of Victoria Island, Canada, for example, until TV arrived in 1980. By 1988 the Inuit had created their first permanent police station to try to cope with the new problem.

Consistent with these modern observations, many historians note that through most of recorded human history the teen years were a relatively peaceful time of transition to adulthood. Teens were not trying to break away from adults; rather they were learning to become adults. Some historians, such as Hugh Cunningham of the University of Kent in England and Marc Kleijwegt of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of Ancient Youth: The Ambiguity of Youth and the Absence of Adolescence in Greco-Roman Society (J. C. Gieben, 1991), suggest that the tumultuous period we call adolescence is a very recent phenomenon—not much more than a century old.

You can read the article in its entirety at Dr. Epstein's site, so I will not excerpt more than that lest I run afoul of copyright issues. You can also order it at the Scientific American site.

Home school advocates have quoted this article for a while and, I think, it can appropriately be used in home school advocacy. You can read more from that perspective in this interview with Epstein.

We don't home school, but I can say that thinking it is normal for children to "raise themselves" in partnership with their peers and then become well-adjusted in their teen years. However, my intent is not to jump in to a home school debate. This is not a home-school issue per se, but rather a cultural one and worth consideration. So, my point is not about Dr. Epstein or home schooling, but I wanted to answer the common question about my comment that not all cultures see teen rebellion … and Epstein probably has the most popular article citing some more research on the subject.

So, enjoy a bit of anthropology today, by way of some psychology, in a Scientific American Magazine.

For those who weren't at the D6 Conference, here is a good summary of my talk of the data. It was a LifeWay Research project sponsored by Clay Reed for a forthcoming book. The D6 video is not available online, but I present the data in this video found on The Exchange video archive page:

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The Myth of Teenage Rebellion