Adolescence as an idea and as an experience grew out of the more general elevation of childhood as an ideal throughout the Western world. By the closing decades of the 19th century, nations defined the quality of their cultures by the treatment of their children.
As Julia Lathrop, the first director of the United States Children’s Bureau, the first and only agency exclusively devoted to the wellbeing of children, observed in its second annual report, children’s welfare ‘tests the public spirit and democracy of a community’.
Progressive societies cared for their children by emphasising play and schooling; parents were expected to shelter and protect their children’s innocence by keeping them from paid work and the wrong kinds of knowledge; while health, protection and education became the governing principles of child life.
These institutional developments were accompanied by a new children’s literature that elevated children’s fantasy and dwelled on its special qualities. The stories of Beatrix Potter, L Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll celebrated the wonderland of childhood through pastoral imagining and lands of oz.
The United States went further. In addition to the conventional scope of childhood from birth through to age 12 – a period when children’s dependency was widely taken for granted – Americans moved the goalposts of childhood as a democratic ideal by extending protections to cover the teen years. The reasons for this embrace of ‘adolescence’ are numerous. As the US economy grew, it relied on a complex immigrant population whose young people were potentially problematic as workers and citizens.
To protect them from degrading work, and society from the problems that they could create by idling on the streets, the sheltering umbrella of adolescence became a means to extend their socialisation as children into later years. The concept of adolescence also stimulated Americans to create institutions that could guide adolescents during this later period of childhood; and, as they did so, adolescence became a potent category.
With the concept of adolescence, American parents, especially those in the middle class, could predict the staging of their children’s maturation. But adolescence soon became a vision of normal development that was applicable to all youth – its bridging character (connecting childhood and adulthood) giving young Americans a structured way to prepare for mating and work. In the 21st century, the bridge is sagging at both ends as the innocence of childhood has become more difficult to protect, and adulthood is long delayed.
While adolescence once helped frame many matters regarding the teen years, it is no longer an adequate way to understand what is happening to the youth population. And it no longer offers a roadmap for how they can be expected to mature.
In 1904, the psychologist G Stanley Hall enshrined the term ‘adolescence’ in two tomes dense with physiological, psychological and behavioural descriptions that were self-consciously ‘scientific’. These became the touchstone of most discussions about adolescence for the next several decades. As a visible eruption toward adulthood, puberty is recognised in all societies as a turning point, since it marks new strength in the individual’s body and the manifestation of sexual energy.
But in the US, it became the basis for elaborate and consequential intellectual reflections, and for the creation of new institutions that came to define adolescence. Though the physical expression of puberty is often associated with a ritual process, there was nothing in puberty that required the particular cultural practices that grew around it in the US as the century progressed. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead argued in the 1920s, American adolescence was a product of the particular drives of American life.
Rather than simply being a turning point leading to sexual maturity and a sign of adulthood, Hall proposed that adolescence was a critical stage of development with a variety of special attributes all of its own. Dorothy Ross, Hall’s biographer, describes him as drawing on earlier romantic notions when he portrayed adolescents as spiritual and dreamy as well as full of unfocused energy. But he also associated them with the new science of evolution that early in the century enveloped a variety of theoretical perspectives in a scientific aura.
Hall believed that adolescence mirrored a critical stage in the history of human development, through which human ancestors moved as they developed their full capacities. In this way, he endowed adolescence with great significance since it connected the individual life course to larger evolutionary purposes: at once a personal transition and an expression of human history, adolescence became an elemental experience. Rather than a short juncture, it was a highway of multiple transformations.
Hall’s book would provide intellectual cover for the two most significant institutions that Americans were creating for adolescents: the juvenile court and the democratic high school.
Since adolescents were not quite adults, they were malleable enough to be reformed in ways that would improve their prospects and maintain the US promise