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Where Did Adolescence Come From?

By Elaine Cassel

Psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) was first to coin the term "adolescence" and study it as a distinct developmental period. But the concept of adolescence as we know it today evolved from social, cultural, and political factors.

In The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager (Avon, 1999), social and cultural historian Thomas Hine traces the American "invention" of adolescence as we know it today, defined as the hiatus between childhood and adulthood for 13- to 19-year olds, to the New Deal politics of Franklin Roosevelt. With the enactment of child labor and compulsory education laws in the 1930s, teens were removed from the work force, creating much-needed jobs for adults displaced from the workplace by the Depression. Social reformers and politicians depicted young people between the ages of 13 and 19 years as needing a prolonged, protected environment where they could grow as adults. High schools were invented, and special laws enacted ostensibly to promote their best interests.

But teenagers today are not generally protected. Juvenile courts, developed a scant 100 years ago and designed to protect teens from the harshness of adult criminal courts, are receding in significance as states lower the ages at which children can be tried as adults. Rehabilitation, once the primary function of the juvenile justice system, has taken a back seat to retribution and punishment. Politicians blame teens—not the family, community, and society at large—for crime and social problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, and teen pregnancy. And hardly anyone is criticized for criticizing teenagers—not only is it not politically incorrect to vilify them; it is part of the standard campaign rhetoric.

Hine calls for a redesign of the American high school, which he sees as out-of-date and out-of-touch with the needs of today's students. Because educators can’t agree what it is supposed to do, it is too often a warehouse for those who don’t fit into any of the standard cliques.

Hine suggests that the concept of adolescence in America has outlived its original purpose. He calls on parents and politicians to stop blaming teenagers for the ills of society and start giving them what they need to be productive, well-adjusted adults. Educational, health, and social policies that meet their needs would be a good beginning.

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