The Home School Court Report
No. 5

In This Issue


The Last Word Previous Page Next Page
by J. Michael Smith
- disclaimer -
Teens: Ready for Adulthood?

Two things today are operating against young people being able to grow up and be productive at an early age: the government and parents. I’ll return to this assertion later, but meanwhile I want to share two sources of information that have impressed me regarding dealing with teenagers and society’s low expectations for them.

HSLDA President Mike Smith
HSLDA/Peter Cutts Photography Inc.
J. Michael Smith, President of Home School Legal Defense Association.


First, I strongly recommend the book Do Hard Things. Written by Alex and Brett Harris, twin sons of Gregg and Sono Harris (homeschooling pioneers, speakers, and authors), this provocative book encourages teenagers to rebel against low expectations. In his endorsement, Randy Alcorn (bestselling author of Heaven and The Treasure Principle), says that Do Hard Things “will prove to be one of the most life-changing ... and culture-changing books of this generation.”

In Chuck Norris’s forward, he shares his personal background of having to do hard things very early because of his family’s poverty and his father’s desertion, contrasting that lifestyle to a culture today that promotes comfort rather than challenge for teenagers. He asserts that in the past, young people were expected to make significant contributions to society. Today, our culture expects very little from teenagers—not much more than staying in school and doing a few chores. As a result, Norris says, life-changing lessons that teens should be receiving early go unlearned.

In their book, the Harris twins tell a story about the summer they were 16. Although they had downtime from previous busy summers of doing research for speech and debate tournaments, their parents decided it was time for them to move on. Their dad placed a large stack of books on the kitchen counter and expected them to read through it by the end of the summer. For the next few months, they didn’t do much besides read. As they read, they began to realize that though the books were all written for adults, teens were the ones who needed to wake up to what the books were saying. After all, aren’t teens the ones who will be called on to lead?

When they finished reading these books, the twins were determined that there had to be more to the teen years than the current culture was suggesting.

In Do Hard Things, Alex and Brett make the case for why teens need to rebel against the teenage myth and how they can help change the cultural idea that the teen years are pretty much a waste of time.

The second source that has considerably influenced my thinking on the teen years is the writing and research of Dr. Robert Epstein, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, who received his PhD in psychology from Harvard University. Dr. Epstein wrote “The Myth of the Teen Brain” for the April 2007 issue of Scientific American Mind. He also wrote a book called The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. Dr. Epstein believes that it is a myth that a teen’s brain is incompletely developed, thereby causing emotional problems and irresponsible behavior in teenagers. While it is true that teens in the United States and some other Westernized nations are experiencing many problems, the question is whether those problems are truly caused by psychological immaturity.

Dr. Epstein cites a 1991 study that reviewed research on teens in 186 preindustrial societies. Among the most important conclusions the study drew was that about 60% of the societies had no equivalent for the English word adolescent. In those societies, teens spent almost all their time with adults, and young males showed hardly any signs of psychopathology and anti-social behavior. In more than half of those cultures that did have the concept of adolescence, the phenomenon was extremely mild.

More significantly, a series of long-term studies set in motion in the 1980s by well-known anthropologists suggests that teen trouble begins to appear in a culture soon after the introduction of certain Western influences, especially Western-style schooling, television, and movies. For example, juvenile delinquency was not an issue among the Inuit people of Victoria Island, Canada, until television arrived in 1980. (Perhaps we should, as my friend Richard “Little Bear” Wheeler has often said, “Shoot the television.”)

Based upon his research, Dr. Epstein concludes that the turmoil we see among teens in the U.S. is the result of what he calls the “artificial extension of childhood.” As a culture, we have been treating increasingly older teens as children while also isolating them from adults and passing laws that restrict their interaction with adults.

Our teens, and even younger children, have the potential to be doing much more than we think.

Back to my opening comment about the two things operating against teen maturity. The government, both federal and state, has overreacted to the 19th century’s child labor problems by passing laws that discourage teenagers from having productive jobs; and some of us parents have coddled our young people by making sure they don’t have it as hard as we did. I recently heard that the average age of de facto emancipation for men has grown to 27.

So what can we do to reverse the cycle of teenage unproductivity?

One option is to get our children involved in apprenticeship. Apprenticeships normally mean working without pay. (For more information on apprenticeships, see Home School Legal Defense Association Staff Attorney Mike Donnelly’s article “Forging Ahead: Apprenticeship in the 21st Century” in the September/October 2007 Home School Court Report.

A second option is to start a family enterprise (either for profit or not for profit), in which the parents mentor the teens and the teens have primary responsibility for implementing the business plan.

Many of us live in urban areas, which can make it more difficult to run a home business. To help instill that entrepreneurial spirit in your teen, there are many creative ideas on the internet. You can start with this transcript of a Home School Heartbeat program, “Teaching Entrepreneurship and Financial Responsibility.”

What’s our goal in all of this? We want to combat the idea of adolescence as a vacation from responsibility. We’re providing our teenagers with a launching pad for success and responsibility even before they hit adulthood. As homeschoolers, you have a tremendous advantage over the rest of the population because your teens are spending more time with adults (hopefully, you) than with their peers, which gives them the platform to “do hard things” in their teenage years.