By the time you get to your second son’s bar mitzvah, you know this: That kid on the bimah may not be a man today, but he won’t be a boy much longer. Somehow, between the time you take the pictures and the time you actually get the album back, your smooth-faced son will turn from Beaver into Wally.
He will not, however, turn into Mr. Cleaver. The idea that Jewish manhood is achieved at age 13 is so 15th century. As my oldest son said in his bar mitzvah speech, “Today I am a man. Tomorrow I return to the seventh grade.”
The irony of the bar or bat mitzvah is that the less relevant it becomes to the ways we actually achieve adulthood, the bigger deal we make out of it. Prior to the 20th century, a 13-year-old might have been expected to don his tefillin and make a minyan and start earning his keep.
Today the process of becoming an adult is positively glacial. When does it begin — with a driver’s license? Voting age? Drinking age? College? And that’s just for gentiles. You know the old Jewish joke, that a fetus is not considered viable until it graduates from medical school.
Psychologist Robert Epstein, author of “The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen,” thinks there is something wrong and arbitrary in the way we delay adulthood.
His studies tell him that American teens can be every bit as competent as American adults — emotionally, physically and mentally. He worries that the arbitrary limits on what teens can and cannot do — driving, drinking, making informed medical decisions — ends up infantilizing them. In turn, kids internalize low expectations and end up driving recklessly, binge drinking and performing “recreational” appendectomies on one another.
OK, I made the last one up.
Still, there is a temptation to mock Epstein, especially when he writes that his son Justin “was more or less capable of living on his own” at 14 or 15. At 15, I was more or less capable of making my bed — and you could ask my mother how well that went. I was in my 30s before I was reasonably confident I could make a slice of toast without setting the house on fire.
Still, Epstein wants us to reconsider what we mean by “adult.” He even provides a handy 140-question “Test of Adultness” to gauge the proposition. The test is based on Epstein’s idea that an adult must show basic competence in areas such as love, sex, problem-solving, interpersonal skills, managing risky behavior and handling work and money.
I am happy to report that I scored 93 percent. I think I lost points only for the time in college when I made a grilled cheese sandwich with a steam iron.
Epstein’s point is that most teenagers will score higher on the test than we think they will and are more skilled and self-reliant than we give them credit for. Citing studies of other cultures, he dismisses the notion that teenagers’ brains are “immature.” In fact, he writes, teenage turmoil only shows up in these other societies when they begin to adopt Western habits of childrearing.
“A wealth of data shows that when young people are given meaningful responsibility and meaningful contact with adults, they quickly rise to the challenge, and their ‘inner adult’ emerges,” he wrote in a recent issue of Education Week.
His article is titled “Let’s Abolish High School,” and Epstein means it only half in jest. At the very least, he would like us to look at our schools and other institutions and consider the costs of treating smart, competent and in some ways fitter and faster-thinking human beings as overgrown children.
Epstein has a point — up to a point. If we were to begin giving more adult responsibilities to teenagers, it could restore some of the traditional meaning of the bar and bat mitzvah. No, I don’t mean we should marry off our middle-schoolers. But if a kid can make a minyan, why can’t he or she be in on some of the other adult activities at the synagogue? Progressive schools have young people on their boards and planning committees. Does your synagogue?
But adolescence isn’t just a legacy of the Industrial Age — it seems a natural advance over a time when adulthood was literally forced on youngsters. Adolescence can be a time of exploration, with attentive parents providing the safety net. It can be a time of learning for learning’s sake, without the pressures of self-sufficiency. And it can be a time for exploring love without sex — hard to believe, I know. I’m not sure how Epstein can look at the sexualization of teen culture and suggest that our kids are growing up too slowly.
Centuries before anyone “invented” adolescence, the Mishnah offered a gradual path from womb to tomb. Thirteen is the age for commandments, 15 for higher learning, 18 for marriage, 20 for seeking a livelihood and 30 for entering into one’s full strength. Thanks to extended life spans and relative prosperity, we have the luxury of stretching that out. Kids can hold onto their years of discovery, and adults can hold onto their kids.
Now if we could only keep that sweet-faced bar mitzvah from ever getting a driver’s license.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.