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Stages of Childhood


First recognized at the beginning of the twentieth century, adolescence is defined as the stage of the life-course between childhood and adulthood. Adolescence is a time of pubertal change, identity formation, social development, and the acquisition of experiences and credentials promoting entry to adult roles. Adolescence and early adulthood are also critical periods for the development of psychological attributes, such as political attitudes and work orientations, that tend to persist through adulthood.

Although it is a recognized stage in most parts of the world, adolescence involves different experiences for youth depending upon where they live. In Western countries such as the United States and parts of Europe, the adolescent is thought to be relatively free of adult responsibilities; lacking in longterm commitments; oriented to fun, sports, popular music, and peers; receptive to change; and ready to experiment with alternative identities. Adolescence in other parts of the world can be far less carefree, and decisions made during this time are fraught with more definitive long-term consequences. Families make crucial decisions that affect youth, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, where adolescents are placed in the homes of relatives, friends, or others so that they may provide services; sometimes they receive apprentice training or education. These youth become separated from their immediate family, parents, and siblings, potentially weakening familial ties. Yet, in India, adolescents spend much more time with their families than with friends; the family has priority over time spent with peers (see Verma and Saraswathi in Brown, Larson, and Saraswathi 2002). Whether a youth leads a carefree adolescence depends upon social norms and the needs of their families.

Attitudes formed during adolescence have marked consequences for subsequent attainments. Research on adolescence in the United States demonstrates that early orientations about efficacy and competence influence later adaptations and goal attainment. John A. Clausen (1993) finds that adolescent planful competence, denoting self-confidence, intellectual investment, and dependability, positively influences men's adult occupational status. Adults question whether the adolescents from single-child families in China and Japan, labeled as the "me" generation for their emphasis on their own satisfaction, will possess the self-discipline required to maintain adult employment. Indian adolescents learn that male supremacy reigns, making gender important to their identity and future social status.

Multiple transitions designating adult status mark the end of adolescence—the completion of formal education, obtaining economic self-sufficiency, independent residence, marriage, parenthood, or entry into full-time work. The ages at which young people typically acquire adult roles, the character of marking events, and the availability of opportunities to assume adult statuses vary by country, within countries, by socioeconomic origin, and by other background characteristics. For example, initiation into adulthood for the Nso boys of Cameroon begins with moving from associating with women and children to the company of men, but full adult status is not achieved until marriage and parenthood (Nsamenang 1992). Although for many youth worldwide, marriage is the marker of adulthood, movement out of the parental household does not usually follow marriage. At least partial economic dependence on the family characterizes more advantaged young people in developing societies as they extend their educations into their twenties or even early thirties. For poor areas in the United States, as well as in other countries, economic conditions prevent substantial proportions of youth from acquiring adult-like economic roles.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodStages of Childhood - Adolescence, Infancy, Middle Childhood, Toddlerhood - PRESCHOOL