Act Your Age!: A Cultural Construction of Adolescence
reviewed by Shelby Clark & Scott Seider - August 16, 2013
Nancy Leskos Act Your Age! A Cultural Construction of Adolescence is an updated edition of her popular and provocative critical historical analysis of the systems of reasoning that have developed modern conceptions of adolescence (p. 7). This book was a particularly fascinating read for readers such as ourselves who approach adolescence from the lens of developmental psychology a lens that Lesko is highly skeptical of. In fact, Leskos primary goal in Act Your Age! is to trouble common conceptions of adolescence, particularly the conception of adolescence as a transitory developmental stage rather than a social construction (p. 2). While we hesitate to fully endorse this central claim, what we found fascinatingand valuable about Act Your Age! was Leskos analyses of what historical and contemporary conceptions of adolescence reveal about a societys culture, values and beliefs.
One particularly compelling example is Leskos examination of recapitulation theory a now discredited biological theory prevalent in America and Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that an individuals development from infant to adulthood mimicked the development of humankind. According to Lesko, within the context of recapitulation theory, ...adolescence was deemed a crucial divide between rational, autonomous, moral, white, bourgeois men and emotional, conforming, sentimental, or mythical others, namely primitives, animals, women, lower classes, and children (p. 29). She argues convincingly that such a portrait of adolescence as a savage state of development served to justify the supremacy of colonial rule and European whiteness.
Equally fascinating is Leskos contention that the investment of turn-of-the-century American psychologists in portraying adolescence as a period of innocence and prolonged dependence was also fueled by nationalistic conceptions of the United States as a nation in its own adolescence. Specifically, Lesko reports that G. Stanley Hall and other boyologists positioned adolescent boys as representative of the future of America and believed it was best for them to be kept unintellectual, dependent, and asexual (p. 53). Toward this end, youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts were founded as a way to cultivate obedience and unswerving devotion to duty and to stave off precocity and independence (p.61).
Lesko builds upon this theme of Americas investment in adolescent innocence in her chapter on teenage pregnancy and adolescent sexuality. In explaining the hostility and stigma directed at teenage mothers, she explains: When we maintain socially young teenagers, their sexuality is staged as a shock and pregnancy as a terrible inconceivable blow to our views of them (p. 137). She argues that, ironically, societys commitment to keep adolescence at a young social age and not to acknowledge their sexuality has led to insufficient and inadequate sex education and, in so doing, contributed to increases in teenage pregnancies and decreases in adolescents use of contraception.
Finally, Lesko critiques developmental psychology for conceptualizing adolescents as in a state of always becoming, (p.112) rather than as full-fledged individuals in and of themselves. According to Lesko, such a portrait of adolescence means that youth cannot live in the present; they live in the future, that is, they exist only in the discourse of growing up (p.137). Lesko hypothesizes that this construction is more responsible for the adolescent identity crisis than any intrinsic facet of being an adolescent. Moreover, she argues that this construction forces adolescents to contend with the contradiction of, on one hand, working towards actively mastering their environments (as Erikson suggests is necessary for a healthy adult personality), while, on the other hand, they are relegated to an expectant mode of becoming wherein they are denied power over their decisions. It is this conflict, Lesko posits, that may manifest in the adolescent identity crisis.
As we have sought to demonstrate, Act Your Age! was and is an engaging and provocative piece of scholarship. Perhaps our most significant critique of this new edition is that Lesko seems not to have taken up the opportunity to grapple with highly-relevant recent scholarship and on-the-ground efforts related to her claims. For example, as noted above, two of Leskos central claims are that a) the adolescent identity crisis has been constructed by societal conceptions of adolescence and that b) boundaries between adolescence and adulthood are far more blurred than developmental psychology has posited. Yet, over the past decade, emerging adult theorists have argued that, in industrialized countries such as the United States, the adolescent identity crisis has been pushed back into the early and mid-twenties due to the increasing number of young people delaying financial independence, marriage and parenthood (e.g. Arnett, 2007; Schwartz, Cote & Arnett, 2005). Emerging adult scholars are making a distinct but related argument to Leskos, and it would have been valuable to see her take on this relatively new developmental theory.
A second example of Lesko passing up the opportunity to grapple with contemporary scholarship can be found in her assertion that a current threat to healthy adolescent development is the remasculinizing of American schools and that increases in school violence are a response to this logic of dominance (p.171). In making this claim, Lesko relies heavily on the tragic massacre that took place at Columbine High School in 1999 at the hands of Columbine students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Lesko cites the bullying that Harris and Klebold experienced both as a motivation for their tragic rampage and as an example of the extent to which schools have become unpleasant, hostile and humiliating places for many adolescents. Such a perspective represented the common understanding of the Columbine tragedy in 2001 when Act Your Age! was first published; however, more contemporary scholarship and reporting has revealed the extent to which this narrative about the bullying that Harris and Klebold experienced was constructed by journalists and law enforcement officials rather than based in reality (e.g. Cullen, 2009).
Perhaps more importantly, Lesko does not reference in her critique of schools as hostile and humiliating the substantial attention to anti-bullying programming that has taken place in American public schools over the past five years (e.g. Bazelon, 2013). In our home state of Massachusetts, for example, every public elementary, middle and high school in the state is mandated to incorporate anti-bullying programming into the curriculum of every grade level. The effectiveness of such programming certainly remains an open question, but these efforts seem highly relevant to Leskos portrayal of contemporary public schools as hostile and dangerous spaces. Along similar lines, American schools may be as guilty of masculinizing educational practices as they were in 2001 when Act Your Age! was first published, but it would have been valuable to read Leskos response to the increasing superiority of girls over boys in the United States on academic benchmarks ranging from standardized assessments to high school graduation rates to college matriculation.
In closing, Leskos Act Your Age! is an engaging and provocative read, particularly for those whose natural impulse is to conceptualize adolescence through a developmental lens. While we resisted several of Leskos claims, we also found ourselves raising and debating these claims with colleagues and friends a good sign, to be sure. Scholars focused on adolescence might make great use of Act Your Age! as a supplementary text for their adolescent development courses, as it offers an enthralling critique of first principles of adolescent psychology and, in so doing, pushes readers to engage in outside-the-box thinking about adolescents and adolescence.
Arnett, J. (2007). Emerging adulthood: What is it and what is it good for? Child Development Perspectives, 1(2), 68-73.
Bazelon, E. (2013). Sticks and stones: Defeating the culture of bullying and rediscovering the power of character. New York: Random House.
Cullen, D. (2009). Columbine. New York: Twelve Hatchette Book Group.
Lesko, N. (2012). Act your age! A cultural construction of adolescence. New York: Routledge.
Schwartz, S., Cote, J., & Arnett, J. (2005). Identity and agency in emerging adulthood: Two developmental routes in the individualization process. Youth & Society, 37(2), 201-229.