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Effective and Humane Youth Policy Starts by Treating Youth with Respect
Rodney Skager

Posted 2007-12-17

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Rodney Skager is Professor Emeritus, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, Co-Director of the California Student Survey sponsored by the Office of the California Attorney General, and consultant to the Drug Policy Alliance. This paper was originally published in October 2007 as “More Effective and Humane Youth Policy Starts by Treating Youth with Respect,” in D.L. White, B.C. Glenn, and A. Wimes (eds.), Proceedings of Persistently Safe Schools: The 2007 National Conference on Safe Schools, pp. 243-250, Washington, DC: Hamilton Fish Institute, The George Washington University.

Adults often perceive teen-age behavior as oppositional. In this they are right. The question is: oppositional to what and why?

The “what” part is obvious. Opposition takes the form of doing things that adults forbid or discourage. This includes joining gangs, using drugs or getting drunk, having sex, truancy and damaging school property, physical risk-taking, bizarre dress, tattoos and piercing, adult-toxic taste in entertainment, disrespectful behavior to adult authority, and so on. These choices and associated behaviors are expressions of something larger than individual resentment. They are the product of a teen-age subculture that was visible by the mid-20th century and has developed spectacularly since that time.

Admittedly, there is great variation among teens—for many, a continuum of negative behaviors spans from blatant to merely annoying—while others do well in school and stay out of serious trouble (sometimes because they are careful not to be caught). Not insignificant numbers of young people belong to tightly knit religious communities and conform to the expectations of those communities. There are also cultural differences in our highly diverse youth population. For example, poverty and social disorganization lead some inner-city minority youth into gangs and related criminality.

Why Are Young People Oppositional?

An answer to the “why” question is complex and probably controversial. In a nutshell, most oppositional, sometimes openly defiant, behavior among young people is primarily a response to the ways in which we have reduced their status during the last hundred years or so. This process became explicit when influential thinkers began to view adolescence as a stage of development qualitatively different from adulthood. This was a serious error, and contemporary youth as well as the larger society are paying a price for it. Adolescence is neither physically nor psychologically a distinct state of development except insofar as we arbitrarily define it as such and proceed to treat young people accordingly. One clue to this mistake is in the way we establish adulthood through mere social and legal criteria—old enough to drive, serve in the military, vote, etc. In other words, if adolescence is real developmentally, it ought to be possible to say when it ends in the same way that childhood ends with the onset of puberty.

Freud, Erickson and Bettelheim warned of the dangers of “infantalizing” young people many years ago. Bettelheim even put his finger on why young people were showing signs of opposition by the mid-20th century. He wrote, “What makes for adolescent revolt is the fact that society makes the next generation too long dependent—too long in terms of sexual maturity and a striving for independence” (Bettelheim, 1969).

Research and theory supporting Bettelheim’s assertion have been compiled in significant quantity and quality. It is massively summarized in Epstein’s recent book, The Case against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen (Epstein, 2007). In The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, Hine (1999) provides a fascinating history of the status of youth from classical Greece to modern America. In this book, Hine reminds us that, from colonial times and into the later 19th Century, teenagers worked with adults, married, had children, and thus merged seamlessly into mature life roles. The latter notes that the word “teen-ager” did not appear in print until 1941! Moshman (1999), in Adolescent Psychological Development, argued that young people differed from adults in lack of life experience rather than in any significant developmental capacities.

Space does not permit listing all of the intellectual and social forces leading to adolescent oppositional behavior. G. Stanley Hall, the founder of developmental psychology in America, is usually credited (or blamed) for introducing the idea that young people (defined here as post-pubescent but without specifying any arbitrary upper age limit) were developmentally different from adults, especially emotionally. However, even Hall advised “that it’s a mistake to treat teens like children” (cited in Epstein, 2007, p. 23). Hall’s theory was based on a now long discredited biological theory—that ontogeny replicates phylogeny, e.g., that developing humans recapitulate stages of evolution. Odd as it may seem today, Hall proposed that adolescents are moody or over-reactive because they were growing through a pre-homo sapiens stage of development. He ignored the more likely explanation–that the uptick in emotional and behavioral problems among youth was a response to an unnatural extension of childhood. By his day, access to adult social roles was already beginning to shut down for many young people. That process began in the late 19th century, accelerated in the 20th and continues today.

The extent to which modern cultures infantilize youth is evident in comparative studies of preindustrial societies. Schlegel and Barry (cited in Moshman, 1999) in an examination of 186 such societies reported: (1) there was no word for adolescence in most and, in the rest, terms referred only to the period between puberty and marriage without implying misbehavior or sturm und drang; (2) most youth spend the majority of time with same-sex adults rather than age peers; (3) antisocial behavior was usually absent and by our standards moderate when it did occur; and (4) there was little aggression or violence by teens.

In contrast, our society segregates youth in schools, bans them from “real” adult work and restricts their civil rights. Most adults may be unaware that not so long ago teens worked in many jobs now reserved for adults. This is true even for jobs that were mainly done by teen-agers. For example, they can no longer run paper routes (as this author did) and be responsible for collecting subscription money from subscribers. There are no newsboys in big cities, either. Yes, teens can work part-time in fast-food restaurants for wages that a single adult could not survive on. Teen-agers once worked in factories. On farms they did every job that adults did, including operating machinery (and farm youth too young for a driver’s license still do). Now they must attend secondary school, even when they refuse to learn. If they drop out of school, as so many do, they find that “real” jobs are reserved for adults. Whether we are better off having significant numbers of teen-agers in school who do not want to be there is highly debatable. Uncooperative, oppositional students are not good for schools, their teachers or peers who want to learn. Forced attendance in regular schools may be one of several root causes of their misbehavior. The society should be engaging in a discussion about positive alternatives to the street and associated crime and welfare dependence among this unfortunate and neglected population of young people.

Promoting and Nourishing Teen Culture

The teen culture that confronts us today is the product of youth segregation (in schools and elsewhere) and being barred from adult work and other social roles. Teen culture symbolizes opposition. It is enhanced and served by a mega-industry that creates products strictly for youth–clothing, games, music, etc.–which contributes to the youths’ sense of being different from adults. The media reinforce these impressions with images of teenage foolishness and emotional immaturity. Epstein (2007, p. 71) provides a long list of popular films and TV programs that do exactly that. The goofy antics of youth and pompous inanity of the adult authorities they pillory displayed in films like Animal House confirm adult assumptions that teens are merely large children. To teens these same images provide models for how they should behave and what adults in authority are really like!

Many Contemporary Youth Do Have Problems

Epstein (2007) identifies three problem areas common among contemporary youth: conflict with parents, mood disturbances and high-risk behaviors. Teenagers also cause problems for themselves and others. The list includes violence and crime, alcohol and drug use (including diverted prescription medications), sexual experiences and associated law violations,1 eating disorders, anger, risk-taking, etc. American teens, according to Epstein (2007, p. 141), are the world’s most troubled, and this is supported by data that suggest that the degree of infantilization experienced by U.S. teenagers is associated with psychopathology. Epstein acknowledges these findings are correlational rather than definitely causal but suggestive nevertheless.

Given the research on preindustrial societies just cited, many if not most problems experienced or caused by adolescents could result from delaying the opportunity to adopt adult attitudes and associated behavior. However, the assumption that teens are inherently vulnerable remains the basis for the continuing process of infantilization. This assumption is also bread and butter for professionals in the business of “helping” young people. Rather than recognizing the source of our problems, some now propose that adolescence really extends into the late 20s (Arnette, 1999)!

A Paradoxical Result

The belief that young people are flawed because of age-related deficits has other serious consequences. It justifies draconian policies that ostensibly protect young people from themselves. In the principle of zero tolerance, infantilization has embraced Godzilla.2 The society seems convinced that zero tolerance for those who break the rules will deter others from the same behaviors. In schools, this justifies policies of deterrent punishment—severe consequences for an offender in order to deter his or her peers. In-school suspension, transfers to another school, barring students from positive extracurricular activities, virtually automatic suspension and expulsion are the result.

The fact that zero tolerance has not worked in eliminating negative behaviors among school-age youth is ignored. Nor is the possibility considered that deterrent punishment of some probably increases resentment of many and thus furthers active opposition.

Criminalization: The Other Face of Infantilization

Zero tolerance has also resulted in greatly increased criminalization for many youth (and even children) through constant addition of new laws and punishments and the intrusive surveillance tactics that accompany them. It is ironic that infantilization has been accompanied by a parallel increase in punitive response by law enforcement and schools. Epstein (2007) provides a list of new youth crimes by year. This is a continuing process as more and more activities become explicitly illegal. Epstein (2007, p. 63) further notes that the juvenile justice system (now also in decline, with adult punishments allowed for some serious crimes) denies 5th and 6th Amendment rights (due process and trial by a jury of peers) to juveniles. Imagining that this open door would not be abused by police and prosecutors is tragically naive. Worse, incarceration creates lifelong criminals of many youth through association with experienced criminals (Dishion, McCord and Poulin, 1999), and an arrest and prison record bars entry to employment at all but the most meager levels.

Epstein (2007, Appendix 5) documents how this process is paralleled in school suspensions and expulsions for offenses such as “...throwing spitballs, making gun gestures with one’s hand, or having a dull kitchen knife in one’s car.” Even the mental health system has joined the party. “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” is enshrined in the psychiatric and psychological DSM manual as “a pattern of negativistic, hostile, and defiant behavior” toward adults lasting at least six months (Epstein, 2007, p. 362). Included among the eight criteria–meeting only four is sufficient–are: “often argues with adults, “deliberately annoys people” and “is often touchy.” This diagnosis is used to justify treatment (and prescription of psychoactive drugs to get the young person under control) for behaviors not uncommon among infantilized teenagers.

Alternatives to Current Thinking and Practice

Suggesting that it is time to abandon current trends including zero-tolerance disciplinary policies for young people may seem like shouting into the wind, but there are indeed alternatives. The basic principle in achieving positive relationships between adults and young people is treating them with respect. Using the terms “teen” or “teen-ager” is indicative of the problem, since in our society they reflect the assumption of deficit when “adolescence” is primarily a cultural invention rather than a stage of development that is significantly distinct from adulthood.3

Young people that have good relationships with adults and their school are much less likely to engage in oppositional behaviors and more likely to avoid risks to their health (Resnick et al., 1997). Tobler and Stratton (1997) reported that interactive approaches to drug education were more effective than top-down lecturing and information dispensing. Not surprisingly, overall student “connectedness” to school is lower in schools which impose severe punishments for minor infractions (McNeely, Nonnemaker and Blum, 2002). Cook-Sather (2002) has suggested that listening to young people (thus signaling respect) is badly needed in education. “There is something fundamentally amiss about...[not] consulting ...those it is ostensibly designed to serve...Authorizing student perspectives can directly improve educational practice...[when adults] begin to see the world from those students’ perspectives.” Two-way conversations in which young people participate as equals illustrate a way out of a continuing crisis of mutual disrespect.

The much larger issues of youth infantilization, teen culture and adult response gradually emerged during the author’s examination of current alcohol and drug education approaches (Skager, 2006a; Skager, 2006b; and Skager, 2007). The author eventually realized that what he had discovered applied to other areas of youth attitudes and behavior and likewise gave clues about the reasons why youth are often oppositional as well as ideas about how to respond to what we adults have wrought.

Respectful Drug Education and Student Assistance

The first step was finding an approach to alcohol and drug education (AoD) that promoted mutually respectful interaction between young people and the adults who deliver it. The author was fortunate to find this kind of education in the UpFront program at Oakland, California, High School.4 Sitting in on group sessions provided me with a convincing illustration of how positively and productively young people respond when led by adults who know group process, who are knowledgeable about AoD and sensitive to how and when to share their knowledge.

There are five regular sessions for all students and additional discussion groups or individual counseling for students needing to evaluate their own involvement with AoD or that of friends or family members. Groups are led by adults who know the content rather than having to deliver it out of a manual. They establish credibility by sticking to honest information. One of the rules established at the start is, “What’s said here stays here!” Experience shows that, when the great majority of youth are treated with respect, they respond in ways worthy of that respect. The format is discussion rather than lecture.

The extent of experience with AoD among high school students (including most abstainers) rules out scare tactics or misinformation. When the facilitators do not know the answer, they say so and may ask participants to research it. They never judge the person, only the behavior, and the latter assessment is best left up to the peer group. Students also understand and readily accept a “No put-downs!” rule. They are encouraged to share what they know or think on all topics. Adult facilitators are also alert to “teachable” moments—when participants want to know something. Sharing personal experience with AoD by self or others is encouraged.

Table. Current vs. Proposed

Approaches to Drug Education and Student Assistance

The table contrasts the UpFront process with current zero-tolerance approaches to drug education.5 However, locating this process at the beginning of the teen years does not mean that age-appropriate educational strategies characterized by respect, interactivity and linked support services would not be effective earlier as well. Programs for children from AoD families are probably the greatest single need at the elementary level. The format is discussion rather than lecture.

UpFront also identifies and assists (rather than ignores or punishes) youth who have progressed to problematic alcohol or drug use. Staff is available, and, where indicated, actively encourage individual counseling sessions that may lead to joining a “quit group” for those who have begun to see that their relationship to AoD is a problem.

Finding an Alternative to Deterrent Punishment

The last piece of the youth policy puzzle emerged during discussions of the California Statewide Task Force on Drug Education.6 It began with realizing that deterrent punishment for AoD offenses and other misbehaviors is virtually universal in U.S. secondary schools (as might be expected in a zero tolerance society). If youth substance use is often symbolic of opposition to adult rules and behavior, perceived inhumane and unfair treatment of peers merely adds to feelings of resentment to school and the adults in it. A different approach is needed, one that seeks to reform and reintegrate rather than stigmatize and banish. That approach turns out to be the school-based analogue of restorative justice, the result of new thinking in criminology that has led to revolutionary ideas and practice in adult criminal justice. Important contributors to the theory and practice of restorative justice have been the distinguished Australian criminologist Braithwaite (1989) and U.S. practitioner Zehr (2005), among many others.

Restorative justice brings offenders and their victims together in a structured, mediated process that (a) confronts the former with how his or her crime affected others and (b) works toward a mutual agreement on what the offender can do to make amends. Restorative strategies accompany, but usually do not replace, current punishments such as fines or imprisonment. However, this process, when successful, benefits the victim in a way that trial and sentencing procedures cannot. In standard practice, victims may be called to testify, but beyond that are ignored. Many want the offender to demonstrate in a credible way the personal impact of what he or she has done and express sincere regret. Restorative justice addresses the emotional needs of victims and promotes insight and often positive personal development in offenders. Research comparing restorative approaches to conventional criminal justice in the U.S. and other countries, especially Great Britain and Western Europe, has demonstrated that restorative justice (a) reduces recidivism significantly and (b) promotes emotional relief (including relief of post-traumatic stress symptoms) and repair that victims do not find in the usual criminal justice process (Sherman and Strang, 2007).

Restorative practices in schools have devolved from restorative justice for adults. Schools deal mainly with disruptive behaviors rather than crimes. Student offenders can often repair or otherwise compensate for what they have done. Voluntary service, cleaning up, painting over graffiti, making sincere apologies to staff and peers, etc. are concrete ways of “making things right” in restorative practices terminology. Expression of credible regret and public commitment to changed behavior in the future are the result of successful application of this approach to disruptive behavior.

The role of restorative practices in schools is significantly broadened to include changing school culture to promote better collaboration among staff members and create a school-wide climate of caring and respect (Morrison, 2005). As one school principal summed it up, “It’s changed the way we teach kids; it’s changed the way we think about discipline and behavior management. We get along here [now], and that’s because the kids are respected and they know it.”7

Restorative approaches in schools have received considerable attention internationally, especially in Canada, Britain and Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The latter nation has recently incorporated them into all youth criminal justice proceedings. A recent chapter by Morrison (2005) summarizes the goals, scope, strategies and evaluation findings on restorative practices in schools. She concludes, in part, that “...restorative justice empowers the school community to be more responsive and more restorative. It is about re-affirming and re-building the social and emotional fabric of relationships within the school community” (p. 48).

Restorative practices in schools take many forms, both informal and formal. Some of the more formal restorative responses to misbehavior include: (1) conferencing, which, like restorative justice interventions with adults, addresses offenders and those they have harmed; (2) circles, a regular classroom group discussion conducted by teachers to enhance cooperation and group cohesion, often by dealing with personal or interpersonal problems among students, if possible before they escalate into disruptive incidents; and (3) restorative questions, a counseling strategy that promotes positive connection with an adult while at the same time examining the intentions underlying the behavior and its effects on others. The key to all of the above is a mantra at the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP): The way to change the nature of relationships between adults and students, children or youth, is to do things with them rather than to or for them.8 Punitive sanctions do something to offenders while alienating them from the school; permissive responses do something for them without holding them accountable; not responding to their behavior at all is neglect.

Pilot studies of implementation by the IIRP of restorative practices in high and middle schools showed significant reductions in disruptive and disciplinary infractions over a two-to-three year period (Mirsky, 2003). In one high school, incidents of disruptive behaviors dropped from 273 to 153 between 1999 and 2002. In the same period out-of-school suspensions declined from 105 to 65, detentions assigned by teachers from 145 to 50, and administrative detentions from 716 to 282. Similar reductions were seen in the other schools studied. Principals and staff at all three schools reported significant positive change in student behavior and school climate and in the way staff related to one another and their students.

A Last Word

This paper outlines an inevitably controversial perspective on youth development. Adults are accustomed to thinking of adolescence as a biologically distinct stage of development. Adolescents lack the capacity to assume adult roles, or so the thinking goes. Instead, adolescence is an artifact of postindustrial social and economic forces. At the macro level, the latter include two 20th century developments: (1) increasing limitations on employment opportunity until all forms of significant work became “adults only” coupled with (2) requiring that virtually all youth complete an academic high school education, whether they like it or not. Concomitantly, society tries to protect young people from themselves with more and more rules and controls. Youth reactions to their experience of mandated immaturity include conflict with parents and outside adult authorities, psychological disturbances, and risky behaviors associated with an increasingly powerful teen-age culture. These symptoms are in turn cited as justification for further controls to “protect” teenagers from themselves by means of a veritable storm of new rules in schools and laws in civic society, many of the latter criminalizing youthful offenders. How a society can, without harming itself further, “protect” and at the same time restrict and criminalize more and more young people is a question left for the reader to ponder.


  1. Epstein (2007, p. 137) offers a thought-provoking observation on teenage sex, “...there’s no question about the meaning of the sex they have: they’re behaving like the adults they really are, exactly as evolution intended.”
  2. An extensively researched draft report sponsored by the American Psychological Association on the negative impact of zero-tolerance policies on youth is available at
  3. Attending recent International Conferences on Drugs and Young People sponsored by the Australian Drug Foundation, the author discovered that these terms were avoided as a rule of policy. “Youth” or “young people” were the terms of preference.
  4. Developed by Charles Reis, information on this program can be accessed at Oakland High School is an inner-city school enrolling mainly students of color and children of recent immigrants to the U.S.
  5. This table is taken from the author’s article in Drug and Alcohol Review (Skager, 2007).
  6. This group was formed under the aegis of California State Senator John Vasconcellos, then chair of the Senate Education Committee, and Assembly member Jackie Goldberg, chair of the California Assembly Education Committee.
  7. Edward Baumgartner, principal of Palisades Middle School, Pennsylvania, (cited in Morrison 2005, p. 4).
  8. I am grateful to Ted Wachtel, president of the IIRP, and his staff for introducing me to restorative practices in schools and encouraging my participation in their training classes. The institute has an extensive online library on restorative practices and information on training materials and conferences (including a regular international conference) at


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