Ideas to Beat the Problem of Adolescence

I believe in kids — but I see a problem. I believe kids today are growing up too fast and too slow at the same time. They’re exposed to loads of data that accelerates their growth; at the same time they’re postponing adulthood. This poses a problem for the adults who lead them.

Abandonment or Abundance
During their childhood and adolescent years, kids often experience something traumatic. They encounter one extreme or the other: Either abandonment or abundance. Many experience both.

Young people who experience abandonment are thrust into responsible roles too soon. Perhaps because of an alcoholic father or an absent mother, or a self-absorbed caretaker, these children never fully form. They are exposed to emotionally traumatic situations and typically don’t respond well. (Today, 62% of kids are being raised without their biological father.)

The other extreme is abundance. It’s a delightful word — we all love abundance. But when abundance is furnished and young people never learn to manage resources (money, possessions, relationships, or time), their growth can be stunted. They become ill-prepared for the life that awaits them.

Certainly, every parent wishes to provide for their children abundantly, but an endless supply of anything reduces the human ability to interpret, manage, save, give, and spend wisely. Frankly, we become spoiled. Kyle is a case in point. His parents are fearful of losing him. They’re afraid he won’t like or accept them. So Kyle is now in power. He’s completely self-absorbed, and he’s come to expect his parents to do everything. Kyle has feigned a suicide attempt, and he is rude to guests. His parents are ashamed.

Kyle was not abandoned. Quite the opposite. He wasn’t expected to fend for himself at seventeen or eighteen, when he probably should have been. More important, there was no plan for giving him responsibility in increasing amounts as he grew up.

These two scenarios remind me of the ancient Hebrew proverb written 3,000 years ago. The prayer says, “God, don’t give me too little, or I might be tempted to steal. But, don’t give me too much, or I might think I can get by without you. Give me just enough.”

Sadly, iY as a generation suffers from both too little and too much. As a result, they’re in danger of being “not enough” for the demands of their future life.

Let’s Walk Down Memory Lane
To understand how we have spiraled in this direction, let’s look at our dilemma from a historical standpoint. Let’s compare how children mature today with how they matured, say, a hundred years ago. No doubt, technology and travel have changed our lifestyles in contrast to a century ago. But I’d like to examine what this has done to the minds and hearts of our young people, and what we can do to remedy the problems that have surfaced. Teens today spend one third of their waking hours without an adult. Oh, parents may be in the home, teachers may be in the classroom, but they aren’t really influencing the teens. They’re lost in their own world, interacting mostly with peers, not adults.

Compare this reality to life a century ago. Most young people were launched readily into adulthood because they grew up doing physical work — usually along with adults in the context of a stable family. School was either at home or in the one-room schoolhouse where they were surrounded by students of all ages. Many acquired life skills through apprenticeships that enabled them to connect with adults in their early to middle teens, and many more “apprenticed” by working side-by-side with their parents. All their lives they were connected to adults, and the jump from childhood to adulthood wasn’t a challenge. Consequently, they looked forward to adulthood and married young, having the basic skills needed by their late teens. There was no such household term as “adolescent.” A person moved from being a child to being a young adult. Initiative, responsibility and adult interaction were the norm.

Today, however, our culture has encouraged young people as a group to be more isolated from society than integrated into it. Economic changes have reduced the number of young people in the workforce. We have kept kids in school and given them cell phones. The result? We have created an environment where they can postpone maturation. Kids master a virtual world and believe they’ve mastered life in general.

We’ve also created a compartmentalized society with distinct youth subcultures. Schools, media, advertising, even churches segment their programs according to age groups. This makes sense in terms of efficiency — and who of us doesn’t like content and products designed just for us? Unfortunately, I believe this increased specialization has helped hinder this next generation’s growth. Because they lose influential time with adults, they come to define themselves by their peers. As a result, they’re often ill-prepared for adult life. We don’t expect them to “grow up” until well into their twenties or even early thirties. This self-confident, self-absorbed generation ends up stuck at the tollbooth of adolescence. For them, twenty-six is the new eighteen.

No doubt, you know students who do not fit this description. I do too. But statistically speaking, these kids are the exception to the rule. Dr. Mel Levine writes, “Years of schooling and parenting have entirely missed the elusive target: Work-life readiness. Our graduates may well lack the practical skills, the habits, the behaviors, the real-world insights, and the frames of mind pivotal for career startup. Their parents and teachers have unwittingly let them down. Adulthood has ambushed them.”

The Invention of Adolescence
How does all this compare to life 100 years ago? First of all, the term adolescence had just been invented and published by psychologist G. Stanley Hall in 1904. It is taken from the Latin adolescere meaning “to grow up.” Psychologist, Erik Erikson, characterized adolescence as a period of exploration and experimentation, a time when kids try on different roles, a period of coming to terms with one’s personal identity. Obviously, there’s a place for doing this — but there’s a difference between doing it at sixteen and doing it at twenty-eight. And, there is a difference between experimenting and floundering.

I’m not suggesting it was wrong to develop this term. It helps us understand what young adults experience as they mature. However, it’s now seen as an entire season of life rather than a doorway. As the term became popular, it has given permission to young people to stay in that season for extended periods of time.

Former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, writing in Business Week, actually suggests it’s time to put an end to adolescence, that as a social institution, it’s been a failure, and that it’s time to return to an “earlier, more successful model” of children moving more directly into adult responsibility. He argues,

Prior to the 19th century . . . there was virtually universal acceptance that puberty marked the transition from childhood to young adulthood. Whether with the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah ceremony of the Jewish faith or confirmation in the Catholic Church or any hundreds of rites of passage in societies around the planet, it was understood you were either a child or a young adult.

This was clearly true in the U.S. during the early days of U.S. history, Gingrich reminds us. At age thirteen, Benjamin Franklin was out of school and apprenticed to his brother as a printer and publisher. John Quincy Adams was sixteen when he served as a secretary to the U.S. delegation during negotiations to end the Revolutionary War. At fifteen, Daniel Boone had launched a year-long journey through the wilderness. (Today he’d be a freshman in high school.) No doubt, life expectancies were shorter back then, but society proved that youth could rise to a challenge if empowered to do so. Gingrich concludes:

“Adolescence… has degenerated into a process of enforced boredom and age segregation that has produced one of the most destructive social arrangements in human history… It’s time to change this — to shift to serious work, learning and responsibility at age 13 instead of age 30. In other words, replace adolescence with young adulthood.”

I believe Gingrich is on to something. I don’t know if I’m ready to outlaw adolescence entirely, but I do believe we must be more intentional about leading our boys into manhood and the girls into womanhood.

Do you see what I am seeing? Are you concerned or am I unnecessarily alarmed? Next month, I plan to toss out some ideas on what to do.


Ideas to Beat the Problem of Adolescence