A group of adolescent boys at a California pool hall in 1940.
Wikimedia Commons/Rondal Partridge
origin story / culture

Teen ‘Boys Will Be Boys’: A Brief History

The concept of adolescence is a recent invention — and it has been applied unevenly to children from different backgrounds.
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s actions as a teenager are at the center of a public firestorm.

“I’ve been really troubled by the excuse offered by too many that this was a high school incident, and ‘boys will be boys,’ said Sen. Chris Coons during testimony by Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 27.

But Trump surrogates such as Kellyanne Conway have dismissed his actions are merely those of a "teenager.” The adult Kavanaugh cannot be held accountable, such logic goes, for these alleged youthful indiscretions.

What exactly do we mean by teenage behavior? And who gets to be this kind of teenager?

In the United States, the teen years are frequently assumed to be a time of experimentation, risk-taking and rebellion. But this notion of adolescence as a phase of irresponsible behavior is a relatively new invention.

The idea of adolescence: A history

It was only in the first decade of the 20th century that U.S. psychologists came up with the idea of a separate life phase called adolescence and began treating these years as an extension of childhood.

The term “adolescence” – emerging from the Latin word for youth, adulescence – had circulated in English since the Middle Ages, but modern psychologists carved it out as a chronologically specific phase during which a person prepared for adulthood while legally remaining a child. And, as my research shows, U.S. psychologists’ idea of adolescence took time to take root and traveled slowly to other parts of the world, even encountering resistance in places such as India.

In the U.S., compulsory schooling and age-based classrooms inaugurated in the 1870s laid the groundwork for imagining teen years as a sheltered phase. By the 1910s, educators came to a consensus that compulsory high school should extend until age 18. Before then, most men and women under that age could be, and were, expected to work, get married and even have children.

The most forceful explanation of adolescence as a distinct phase appeared in the work of G. Stanley Hall, founder of the American Journal of Psychology and the first president of the American Psychological Association. His 1904 “Adolescence” described a phase that spread out between the ages of 12 and 18, encompassing the breaking of voice and facial hair for boys and the first menstrual period and breast development for girls – and the emotional maturation following these physical developments.
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