In my last book review of Judith Rich Harris’s “The Nurture Assumption” I made the following parenthetical comment: Teenage behavior is a complete mystery, for example, if the nurture assumption is true. I said this because JRH rightly points out that teenagers aren’t trying to become successful adults by copying their parents; they’re trying to become successful teenagers who are liked and respected by their peers. So far so good.
Earlier in the book, JRH describes the way that children have, until recent memory, been brought up: at about age 2, they’re handed off to their older sibling or cousin or whatever child is around in the village, and the child learns behavior from other children. In their teenage years, they would transition to adulthood through rites of passage, marriage, and child-bearing. At that point, children immediately acquire the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. Extended adolescence as it now exists in the world is a very new development.
This made me wonder about how this extended adolescence plays out, and JRH doesn’t spend much time on it. As we know, teenagers are notoriously combative with their parents and many go through a rebellious phase. That conflict makes some sense: teens want to rise to become the most popular teens in their peer group, while parents want them to become the best role-players in their wider family setup. However, that’s true of all family conflict; what, then, makes teenagers particularly rebellious?
If historically teenagers have been considered adults, and present-day teenagers definitely are not, we have a brain that desires to be taken seriously and a society that considers us a child. It’s natural rebel against that setup. More importantly, however, I think it’s simply that in today’s society, teenagers couldn’t possibly compete with adults on a level playing field. Perhaps a 17-year-old can be a successful hunter and warrior with the older men, since his physical characteristics are not that different, but today a 17-year-old can’t compete with a 24-year old in terms of money (or education, or other resources that matter). As a result, teenagers rebel because they want to set themselves off from the adult society: if you’re not part of their game, you’re not losing; you’re just playing a different game (that of being a teenager).
I think this works, as you’ll notice the rebellious spirit disappear as teenagers acquire the rights of adulthood and start playing the adult game in which they’re not competitive. (You will still notice subcultures divided by age, loosely enforced, that enable people to claim victory in their own group.)
Anyway, just a theory on why teenagers can be such a**holes.