Who Invented Adolescence?

My husband and I are the parents of three sons, Chris, Tim and Ben, who are 24, 23 and 17, respectively. Perhaps some of you, whose children are in their teens (or older), have had the same experience we have: ever since our oldest son entered his “teens,” people with younger children have asked us with a particular tone of anticipatory dread in their voices, “What’s it like to have an adolescent?” or “How are you surviving adolescence?” (Meaning, of course, “How are you surviving being the parents of one or more teenagers?”)

Behind these questions —and tone of voice —is a whole set of assumptions about the teenage years. That they are particularly trying years, full of storm and stress for young people, which usually expresses itself in alienation, conflict, and sometimes outright rebellion against parents and the adult world in general. [1]

I remember posing the same questions to an older couple whose children were entering their teens, while ours were still under eleven. I will never forget the mother’s reply. She said, “Oh, I don’t believe in adolescence! Our children have always been our friends, they are still our friends, and I have no reason to believe that they are about to stop being our friends because they are entering their teens.” At the time, this reply surprised me enough that I’ve never forgotten it!

Since that time, having studied some social history, as well as having experienced teenage children first-hand, I have come to realize that what our culture calls and associates with “adolescence” is not a universal phenomenon. In fact, it is a very recent historical phenomenon. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines adolescence as “The state or process of growing up from childhood to manhood, youth, or the period of life between puberty and maturity.” The word comes from the Latin to grow up.

Biological maturation is clearly universal. It happens in every culture (although young people in the West reach sexual maturity earlier now than they used to). But biological maturation does not mean the same thing in every society. In 1904, the psychologist G. Stanley Hall first popularized a concept of adolescence that saw sexual maturation as the most significant thing going on in a young person. From that time on, in Joseph Kett’s words: “A biological process of maturation became the basis of the social definition of an entire age group,” [1] and the justification for segregating young people in their own institutions, away from “casual contact” with adults and the adult world. From the middle of this century on, this definition of adolescence has been reinforced by a huge, electronic entertainment industry that is committed to sustaining and expanding the self-conscious “youth culture” it has helped to create. It is obviously in the best interest of this multi-billion dollar industry to keep as many people in a state of “adolescence” for as long as possible.

A Biblical Theology of Growing Up
My husband, Dick, has developed some material on the human life cycle from a biblical perspective which I’d like to use here. God made humankind, male and female, in His image, and blessed us with the responsibility of exercising stewardship and dominion over His creation, while trusting or depending in Him. The two dynamics of trust (dependency) and dominion (creativity, mastery, competency, initiative) are intrinsic to what it means to be human beings —image bearers of God. They are both human needs and responsibilities.

The Fall (human sin) has distorted both these dynamics so that trust too easily becomes overdependence, and dominion becomes domination.

The whole human life cycle can be understood in terms of the shifting dynamics of dependency and dominion. Each of us enters life in a state of total dependency. Human growth involves growth in dominion —acquiring mastery, competency, and independence. And it begins right away.

That is what is going on as an infant explores and interacts with his or her world, with fingers, mouth, and vocal chords. In young children, there is no distinction between work and play —both are activities that involve growth in mastery or dominion over their environment. If a child is always told “no” or punished for exploring, the child learns that curiosity and initiative are dangerous, and/or wrong. This can seriously hamper a child’s creativity and willingness to take risks, which are essential for growth in dominion, as image bearers of God. Remember the parable of the talents, those who trusted the master enough to risk investing their talents were rewarded, as opposed to the one whose mistrust of the master led him to “play it safe” and bury his talents. That was a retreat both from trusting God and from dominion over the world.

Clearly, it’s the parents responsibility to provide safe areas for young children to explore, and as children grow older, to give increasing freedom and responsibility, encouraging initiative, creativity and risk-taking in an environment of God’s love and grace. When children fail (as we all do sometimes), they can learn that “failure is not the end of the world!” As Proverbs 24:16 says: “for though the righteous [humble] fall seven times, they will rise again, but the wicked [proud] are overthrown by a calamity.” There is probably no more important lesson to learn in life, and blessed are those who learn it early, in the safety of a loving home.

In his book Sketches of Jewish Social Life, [2] Alfred Edersheim lists a number of different Hebrew expressions, all amazingly pictorial, which designate various developmental stages in child-life. Notice how they communicate growth in “dominion” from total dependency, through stages of semi-dependency, to independence: “newly born” (m. jeled or f. jaldah), “suckling” (jonek), “the one who still sucks but also asks for bread” (olel, Lam 4:4), “weaned one” (gamul, usually at the end of two years), the child who still clings to the mother, but also ventures forth, “ranging itself by her” (taph), becoming firm and strong (m. elem or f. almah, Isa. 7:14), youth, “one who shakes off” or shakes him or herself free (naar). Please notice that “shaking free” is part of God’s developmental plan for our children. Parents must be “with the program,” in favor of their children’s growth in independence. If we are holding on too tight for our children to “shake free,” at this developmental stage, they may need to “break free,” obviously much more painful for everyone, and not necessary. Finally, “ripened one,” or “a young warrior” (bachur).

While no absolute age is specifically equated with any of these stages, it does seem that in ancient Israel age twenty marked some kind of passage into adult responsibility. Not until they were twenty were young men counted in the census and expected to serve in the army. Putting together Numbers 14:29 and Deuteronomy 1:39, we also learn that only those who were over twenty were held morally accountable for their sin of grumbling and unbelief during the Exodus. The under twenty year olds were called “the little ones, your children who do not yet know good from bad.” Only Joshua, Caleb, and the under-twenties were allowed to enter the promised land.

Clearly, one of the most important responsibilities of parents and Christian adults in general is to nurture children in the process of moral discernment (by our teaching and example). Only God knows when each one can be justly held accountable for “knowing good from bad,” a crucial part of their growth in dominion.

Periods of Increased Stress in Life
Particularly stressful times in life tend to be times when the balance between dependency and dominion shift. The so-called “terrible twos,” when a child feels torn between a new sense of power and competency to affect his or her world, and a desire to retreat back into mommy and daddy’s arms, to be a helpless baby. It’s intriguing that the ancient Israelites marked weaning (about 2 years) with a feast, a kind of “rite of passage” celebrating a new stage of growth in independence. What wisdom! A toddler could look forward to a party, to help them cope with the cost of growth, the loss of the mother’s breast! A party to affirm the process of growing up.

Old age has special stresses, as does any time in life when illness, or physical or mental disability shifts the balance from independence and autonomy to greater dependency on others. But the Bible also says a great deal about the wisdom and fruitfulness of age that comes from years of following and trusting the Lord, wisdom that younger people need to respect and hear.

And of course, so-called “adolescence,” defined as a period of transition from childhood dependency to adult responsibility, including personal accountability before God, competency to work, to take leadership in the church, to enter into adult relationships, and for most people, readiness to commit oneself to marriage, and to the awesome task of nurturing the next generation. Many traditional cultures mark this stage of life with some kind of “rite of passage” (in the Church with confirmation or first communion, in the culture, with driving, drinking, and voting).

Seeing Adolescence Biblically
Sexual maturation is only one part of the larger Trust/Dominion dynamic involved in growing up, admittedly an intense and significant one. Understanding the stresses of adolescence in this framework —of the shifting balance of dependency and independence — is much more biblical and therefore true and helpful, than accepting our culture’s biological reductionism that virtually defines adolescence in terms of sexual maturation and the social life that flows from it.

But sexual maturation is clearly an area where the dynamics of trust and dominion are focused intensely. It involves the dominion of “self-control” over one’s imagination and body in a new arena of temptation, and trust in God for his help. For many, it involves dominion over a partner’s body. Procreation is one of the most God-like exercises of dominion that exists! The Hebrew for sexual intercourse is the same word as to know and implies the honest, intimate revealing of a man and woman to each other, the ability to be naked before each other without shame, in a relationship of life-long commitment, trust and mutual dependability. Because of God’s high purpose for sexual intimacy, when trust or dominion goes wrong, it should not be surprising that so much alienation, pain, self-hatred, and hatred of others can result.

Our culture’s reduction of adolescence to issues surrounding sexual maturation and social life has done a terrible disservice to our young people. And insofar as young people, their parents, educators, and churches have bought into this reduced definition, we have made the task of growing into maturity much more difficult than it needs to be. A friend of ours (a recent college graduate) taught a class in “teen issues” at a summer camp for affluent high school students last summer. At the end of the class, she asked for their evaluation. One courageous boy complained: “This was meant to be a class in ‘teen issues,’ but all we talked about was sex! I am struggling with a lot of other issues—intellectual, political, economic, religious, vocational —that I’m going to have to make decisions about in the next few years. Aren’t they teen issues? I was hoping to get some help with those!” He was right! The teenage years are unique in that kids are old enough to be thinking seriously about many adult issues, but without the weight of adult responsibility that will come soon enough. Yet so often this special time is squandered, which prolongs and exacerbates the process of growing up.

Two Biblical Case Studies
Before leaving the theology of growing up, I want to look at two biblical case studies: David and Goliath, and the Prodigal son. Think of these two stories in terms of growth in dominion or independence.

The David and Goliath story (1 Samuel 17) is what Dick calls the adolescent’s dream. David was the youngest of eight sons. His three oldest brothers were in Saul’s army, but David was too young to fight. He went back and forth from home (where he looked after sheep), and the front lines, bringing his brothers supplies and bringing back news to his father. While on the battlefield, David overheard Goliath’s taunts and threats, and asked some of the soldiers about him. His brothers were outraged and accused him of just wanting to gawk at the battle. They told him (in so many words), “Go home and mow the lawn, where you belong!” David said “What have I done now? I only asked a question!” He was obviously used to not being taken seriously by his older brothers. And Saul said, “You’re only a kid,” when he offered to fight Goliath.

But David was genuinely moved to righteous anger that this godless Philistine had dared “to defy the Lord of Hosts.” And David trusted the Lord to enable him to kill the giant, using the skills he had developed protecting his sheep from wild animals. He sincerely wanted “all the earth to know that there is a God in Israel…who does not save by sword or spear but by His own power.” You know the story. David killed the giant with his sling-shot, saving the nation from slavery and becoming an international hero. By his clear vision of faith, he saw through the adult rationalizations and doubts that had maintained the status quo for so long and had brought dishonor to God’s name.

David fulfilled the ultimate adolescent dream. He achieved a level of adult heroism that was acknowledged by the entire nation, including those who’d been so condescending to him earlier. In fact, that’s a pretty universal human dream! Adults and older siblings may not take young people seriously, but Scripture makes clear that God takes them very seriously. Jesus even held up children —their faith, imagination, and praise —as models for adults to emulate. And Paul wrote to Timothy “Let no one despise your youth.”

History gives us other examples of young people who have accomplished important things in God’s Kingdom. In the early 1800s a huge spiritual awakening and missionary movement grew out of the prayer meetings of college students from Williams, Middlebury, Bowdoin and Amherst.

The Prodigal Son (Luke 15) is the adolescent nightmare! He too was the younger brother. He swaggered into the adult world, feeling very flush with his share of the family inheritance in his pocket. It is interesting that the father agreed to let him have it. At a certain point (perhaps when the young are ready to “shake free”), parents need to let their children make significant choices, and live with the consequences. The inclination to try to protect them from bad choices is not only impossible, but can also be counter-productive to growth.

Apparently, the young man was not ready to “come to himself,” repent and return home, until his pockets were empty, having “squandered his property in dissolute living.” At that point, not only was he starving, but he had to face the fact of his own failure and incompetency to handle adult freedom and independence —the adolescent’s nightmare!

On his way home, no doubt feeling shame and self-disgust, he rehearsed his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me like one of your hired hands.” Seeing him coming, the father was filled with compassion, and ran down the road to hug and kiss him. Notice the difference in the father’s response to his son’s two requests. To his son’s request for forgiveness, he gave a wholehearted “yes” —he forgave him absolutely, with no recriminations, “I told you so,” or “Yes, but you’ll have to pay back the money you blew.” The son’s second request —to be a hired servant —expressed a desire to retreat from the responsibilities of being an adult son to his father. To that request, the father gave a resounding “NO!” He wouldn’t hear of it. He received him back as his precious son, with all the dominion, freedom, and responsibility (including the risk of future failure) that was involved in adult sonship. The father dressed him with honor, killed the fatted calf, and threw a huge party to celebrate, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” [3]

The Bible teaches that while different stages in the human life cycle may have their own particular stresses and strains, the same basic principles apply throughout our lives, whether we are men or women, young, old, or in between. “Adolescents” are not in some completely different category. No wonder they often complain and quite rightly resent it when they are treated like “aliens.”

Titus exhorted the young men to show self-control, something all believers are commanded to exercise. Lady Wisdom in Proverbs specifically warned young men to avoid sexual sin, no doubt in recognition of the new temptations associated with puberty, but this advice applies to all people, and is part of her much wider invitation to young and old to seek wisdom and avoid folly. And the Apostle John, after addressing children and fathers says: “I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” Far from any condescension here, John recognizes that the young have been consciously engaged in the spiritual battle that all believers are engaged in, and have experienced real victory.

Social History and Youth: the Story of a Revolution
Before considering what we as Christians and churches can do to be more helpful to young people today, I’d like to take a brief excursion into the past to consider some of the changes in social history that led to what many historians have called “the invention of adolescence,” and the phenomenon of the modern “youth culture.” I doubt that there is any culture that has been entirely free of some conflict or turmoil associated with growing up. Nevertheless, social historians are virtually unanimous in their appraisal that for most people, the transition from youth to adulthood used to be a lot smoother than it is today.

In the introduction to Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present, Joseph Kett writes, “Those who measure the success of revolutions by their completeness will judge the revolution which has overtaken American young people in recent decades to be one of the most successful. Compared to their predecessors in 1800 or 1900, young people in the 1970s spend much more time in school, much less at work. They are essentially consumers rather than producers. Their contacts with adults are likely to occur in highly controlled environments such as the classroom, and the adults encountered are usually conveyors of specialized services such as education and guidance.” In other words, the adults they know are mostly in professional contexts, or, as he writes later, young people are “segregated from casual contact with adults” (p. 6.). “For the most part, young people [today] spend their time in the company of other young people. This pattern of age segregation frequently prevails even when the young people hold jobs. Only in television commercials are the employees of short-order food chains likely to be over 21. In the real world, they are usually teenagers. To observe that youth today are primarily consumers rather than producers is not to deny their economic importance. Indirectly, young people sustain a wide range of service occupations: teachers, guidance counselors, adolescent psychologists, market research analysts, printers, clothiers, disc jockeys, even policemen and judges. But the economic and social relationship between youth and adults has clearly changed. Further, the change has been abrupt as well as profound. Its roots can be traced back to the late 19th century, when industrialization began to displace young workers, but only since 1945 have vast numbers of American youth experienced the mixture of leisure, affluence, and education that now distinguishes their social position.” [4]

The changed relationship of young people to work
In the past, before industrialization removed work from the home, the family was the central unit of economic production and “human services.” Men, women and children all worked and served together from home. Much has been written about how this reality applied to men and women —there was simply not the split many people assume by the so-called traditional adages “man is the breadwinner” and “woman’s place is in the home.”

What many of us may not realize is that children also shared in the necessary economic work of the family. Starting at about age five or six, children began helping with household chores like spinning, candle making, food production, caring for animals and younger siblings, gardening, etc. They worked alongside a broad age-range of household members, which often included extended family, servants, apprentices and orphans, gradually taking on greater work responsibility as they grew older. Many children were sent out to work for other families, sometimes relatives, where they would do domestic or farm work or learn a craft.

In the past, children were absolutely essential to the economic survival of the family —to be childless, or to lose too many children in infancy was, among other things, an economic disaster. While some children were no doubt overworked, all children grew up knowing that their work was real and needed. Given all these factors, John Demos points out that “the transition from childhood to adulthood was relatively smooth, as [the child’s] introduction to adult roles began early, and children knew that their work experience, apprenticeship and training as young people would clearly be relevant to their adult lives. Therefore, as children and teenagers, they did not feel alienated from the adult world of work. They were part of it as productive, contributing members of the household.” [5]

The industrial revolution changed all this for most people (except, perhaps, for a shrinking minority in farming communities). [6] There was a transition time of great upheaval and suffering. Poor children worked in factories under appalling conditions, many of them supplying as much as 30-40% of their families income (especially in immigrant families). Child labor battles raged from 1870 until the late 1930’s. By 1937, the combination of legislation prohibiting child labor and compulsory education laws, and the victory of a new “sentimental” definition of childhood sealed the coffin on the older pre-industrial “useful” child, the child who worked.

Today, far from being economic assets, young people are, by and large, expensive consumers. Viviana Zelizer has analyzed this shift in a fascinating book called Pricing the Priceless Child. Increasingly, the “economically useless child” (Zelizer’s term) is considered to be an “expensive luxury” and more and more people are deciding that children are a luxury they can quite happily forego. Don’t think for a moment that these attitudes don’t contribute to a sense of uselessness and self-hatred on the part of young people today. Zelizer writes: “The total cost of raising a child…was estimated in 1980 to average between $100,000 and $140,000. In return for such expenses, a child is expected to provide love, smiles, and emotional satisfaction, but no money or labor.” [7]

There is also the sentimentalization — or what Zelizer calls the sacralization (p. 11) — of children. Between 1870 and 1930, in the midst of the child labor controversy, children were sentimentalized, and in the process Zelizer states: “The economic and sentimental value of children were…declared to be radically incompatible” (p. 11). “A child’s contribution to the family economy was redefined as the mercenary exploitation of parents” (p. 71), even though, in the case of many working class families, children’s earnings were absolutely essential to the families’ needs. [8]

This new attitude toward children necessitated a new way of justifying the household chores which many children were still expected to help with. It was fine for children to help with light housework, as long as everyone realized that they were doing chores for their own good (educational and character building), not as a needed contribution to the household division of labor — that would be exploitation! Zelizer states that “house chores were therefore not intended to be ‘real’ work, but lessons in helpfulness, order and unselfishness. Parents were warned to ‘take great care not to overburden the child with responsibility.’ Above all, warned Parents Magazine (in 1934) one should ‘never give…children cause to suspect us of making use of them to save ourselves work.’” (Zelizer p. 99)

Some fascinating studies have shown similar attitudes today. “Asked by researchers, ‘Why do you ask your children to work?’, three quarters of the parents in a study of 790 families from Nebraska explained children’s domestic chores as character building. Only 22 parents responded ‘I need the help.’” (Zelizer pp. 3-4) Is it any wonder that many young people resent such chores, invented for their benefit, and not really necessary contributions to the family division of labor? Put yourself in their shoes. We resent it if an employer creates unnecessary, token work for us. We have better things to do with our time! Pseudo or token work does not lead to growth in character. It alienates us from those who expect us to do it, and trivializes, or mocks our God-given need and responsibility to exercise real dominion in His world.

There are, obviously, exceptions. Many children of single parents and poor people work to help pay for groceries and rent. And there has recently been an enormous rise in the illegal exploitation of child labor (especially among urban immigrants). There are also middle class young people who work to contribute toward their educations. But these are exceptions. Most of the money earned by middle class teenagers today is spent on entertainment and the paraphernalia of the youth culture. [9]

Age segregation (in general)
By and large, children today spend most of their time in age-segregated groups, in child-centered institutions, away from the “real” adult world. As Viviana Zelizer puts it, children live in a “domesticated, non-productive world of lessons, games, and token money.” [10] In this world, most of the relationships they have with adults are professional relationships, i.e., they no longer rub shoulders with a variety of ages in a natural, casual way. The age segregation in schools, churches and other institutions which most people take for granted today is actually a very recent phenomenon. I’ve already mentioned that in the past a wide range of ages worked together. The work day was long, but included interruptions for chatting, resting or playing games. In general, leisure activities were family and community events, including all ages. They were active and participatory, not passive like watching television or movies.

Consider the Bible’s teaching (also acknowledged by the social sciences today) on the importance of the older generation modeling life and values before the young. This happened naturally and unselfconsciously in many casual contexts, in a way that it does not any more.

Age segregation and the invention of adolescence
Quoting Kett: “If adolescence is defined as the period after puberty during which a young person is institutionally segregated from casual contacts with a broad range of adults, then it can scarcely be said to have existed at all” until the 20th century (p. 36). Around the turn of the century a number of things came together which led to what Kett and others call “the invention of adolescence.” I have already mentioned some of the changes in social structure, namely industrialization and the removal of work from the home, child labor laws which kept youth from full time wage earning work, and compulsory education. Simultaneously, (quoting Kett): “Between 1890 and 1920 a host of psychologists, urban reformers, educators, youth workers, and parent counselors gave shape to the concept of adolescence, leading to the massive reclassification of young people as adolescents.” [11]

Kett writes, “Prior to the middle of the 19th century, contemporaries associated puberty with rising power and energy (necessary to carry an adult work load) rather than with the onset of an awkward and vulnerable stage of life.” [12] But at the turn of the century, the psychologist G. Stanley Hall articulated, and others developed, a new definition of adolescence. Puberty, or sexual maturation, was singled out as the most important, defining thing that happens to young people. And for the first time it was defined as a period of terrible storm and stress, of “inner turmoil” that rendered the young person vulnerable, awkward and even incapacitated. These experts believed that in order for the transition to adulthood to happen successfully, the young (now reclassified as adolescents) needed to be institutionally segregated and protected from the adult world, with all its intellectual, political, religious and work concerns and conflicts. Sexual maturation was believed to be so all-encompassing and draining that young people couldn’t handle dealing with anything else.

To help them maneuver this stressful period, a whole array of adult-sponsored youth organizations and institutions were established, like the scouting movement, the age-graded high school, and organized sports. Significantly, the main purpose of these organizations, even the high school, was socialization. Kett writes that the educational manual, The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education (put out by the National Education Association) was actually hostile to intellectual endeavor. Things like “citizenship” and the “worthy use of leisure” were ranked as more important educational goals than intellectual development (p. 235). Notice that “socialization” was defined as relating only to peers, a highly artificial definition and goal, since real life includes people of all ages and conditions! No wonder so many adults and teenagers feel awkward in each other’s company.

Historians talk of the “invention” rather than the “discovery” of adolescence because the new views were not based on actual observation of youth behavior, but on new psychological theories. In fact, prior to the mid-19th century, young people had been handling a great deal more freedom, independence and responsibility (dominion), without suffering the dire consequences during puberty that the psychologists predicted.

Here’s a summary of the changes, before and after the invention of adolescence.

The process of growing up
Before: It was assumed that the young would quite naturally and unselfconsciously grow into maturity “merely through the observation of adult models in casual situations” (Kett p. 237), i.e., talking, eating and working together, playing together, studying and worshipping together, etc.
After: There was “a tendency to assume that the process of growing up presented a succession of problems for parents to solve before the child could fully develop its personality… the youth became virtually a passive spectator at his or her own socialization.” [13]

Before: School experience (whether in district schools, private academies or colleges) was seasonal and frequently interrupted with a variety of work experiences. For example, boys were expected to be home in the summer to help with the harvest. Classes also included a whole range of ages mixed up together.
After: School became full-time, and classes were age-graded, so for the first time the young were isolated in a world of peers. And this time period has been increasingly extended.

Before: Young people exercised much more freedom and initiative in organizing their leisure time (like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn). Youth clubs had been youth sponsored and youth run. They also included a broad age range of young people.
After: Leisure activities were age-graded, and sponsored, organized and overseen by adults. Now, teenagers are left to the “youth culture.”

In the years since adolescence was first defined and constructed, a great deal has changed. But the primary institution of adolescence, the high school, is still with us. And it has expanded downward in years to include the junior high school and upward in years to include college. From the perspective of the 1990s it seems incomprehensible (at least to me!) that well-meaning adults deliberately defined adolescents by sex and social life, isolated them with peers, and protected them from real responsibility. But if that weren’t enough, since the 1950s adults have provided the young with money and leisure, and exposed them to an entertainment industry that wants to keep them in this state for as long as possible. Is it any wonder that many of them start behaving the way adults have defined for them?

The authors of Dancing in the Dark explore what they call the symbiotic relationship between the electronic media and youth. Their thesis is that “the media (now a multi-billion dollar industry) need the youth market, as it is called, for their own economic survival. Youth, in turn, need the media for guidance and nurture…And particularly as homes, churches, schools, and the like have become ineffective nurturing institutions, the media have moved in to fill the gap, in the process widening the gap between youth and traditional nurture.” [14]

As an example, one of the authors, Calvin College Professor Bill Romanowski in a taped lecture on youth culture describes a class of 14 year olds he spoke to one day. He asked the girls, “What would you do if a really cool 16 year old guy with a car invited you out on a date—for dinner, a movie, and…‘you know’…?” The girls giggled. None of them had ever been on a date with a 16 year old. Bill asked, “How would you know what to do? What to wear? What to order on the menu? What to do after the movie when he put his arm around you in the car?” More giggles. “Who would you ask? Your friends? Your parents? A teacher or youth pastor?” Virtually every girl said she would ask her peers, none of whom had ever been on a date with a 16 year old. (Bill’s comment: “the blind leading the blind.”) And how did their peers figure out what to do? From teen movies. Several guys in the class said that they first tried to kiss a girl in imitation of what they’d seen in movies. (A rude awakening when some of the girls reacted differently from the girls in the movies!) The electronic entertainment industry is providing what Romanowski calls the “maps” (or guidance) kids need to learn how to get around and survive in the youth culture.

Youth as consumers
Lots of high school students have jobs when they are not in school. But for most of them work has become almost exclusively an opportunity for immediate gratification, to buy the equipment necessary for membership in the youth culture. [15] For most of these boys and girls, their basic living expenses are carried by parents, so all of their earnings can be used to indulge what one researcher calls “premature affluence.”

“In a Washington study (in 1989), Norward Brooks found teenagers spent their money on, in descending order: clothes, entertainment, car expenses and school supplies. In last place is family support. Just 16 percent gave anything to Mom or Dad.” [16] And less than 11% of high school seniors save all or most of their earnings for college or other long range purposes. “All told, 13 to 19 year olds spent $56 billion on themselves during 1989.” [17]

Tony Campolo argues, rightly, I think, that “Our consumer-oriented young people…don’t buy the things they do simply because they desire the gratification of physical appetites. On the contrary, our teenage consumers buy what they do because of the deep spiritual hunger of their hearts and souls. They buy certain goods because they long for the love that those who possess these things are supposed to enjoy. They want clothes because the media manipulate them into thinking that their sexual identities will be firmly established and that they will be validated as human beings if they wear the right clothes…they have become alienated from what they really need. Instead, they have chosen to become persons who have to buy the things they really don’t need.” [18] In Biblical terminology, Campolo is describing the captivity of idolatry.

Many teachers share the exasperation of a Seattle teacher who complained that a lot of kids “become hooked on the job and the money. They see their education almost as something inconsequential, as something that takes up their time.” [19] Unfortunately, many of the alarmed adult generation are really in no position to challenge these teenagers’ values, because adult American society is working from within the same idol systems of materialism and consumerism. The difference is, they are arguing that if the young would only delay gratification long enough to complete their education, they’d be able to buy BMWs instead of used Datsuns.

In his book The Birth and Death of Meaning, the existentialist philosopher Ernest Becker argues that modern materialism —the loss of belief in God and the unseen world —has brought about “The crisis of middle-and upper-class youth in the social and economic structure of the Western world.” It is a “crisis of belief in the vitality of the hero-systems that are offered by contemporary materialist society. The young no longer feel heroic in doing as their elders did, and that’s that.” [20] The accumulation and manipulation of material gadgets simply does not fulfill the human need for heroism. Becker, a non-Christian, chastises the Christian Church for having been co-opted by materialism, and in the process, throwing away its heritage, which, he admits, wistfully, used to provide young and old with a unique basis for the dignity and heroism of all human endeavor including work and study. For, as he points out, for those who believe in a Creator and the unseen world, anyone who serves God “can achieve even in the smallest daily tasks that sense of cosmic heroism that is the highest ambition of man” (p. 124).

Through identifying with the youth culture, young people can say “a pox on the adult world and its stupid values,” but the rebellion is only superficial, since both young and old are ultimately committed to the idols of mammon, or materialism. What’s needed is a much deeper rebellion that can only come from allegiance to a truly alternative “counter culture.” This is exactly what the Christian faith provides—and that’s the reason Becker, a non-Christian, castigates those Christians and Churches which have capitulated to materialism.

Loss of Belief in the Judeo Christian Story
Neil Postman, also a non-Christian and an astute critic of modern culture like Becker, is keenly aware of the price young people are paying because of the loss of belief in the Judeo-Christian world view. In an article called “Learning by Story” he writes, “Human beings require stories to give meaning to the facts of their existence… If our stories are coherent and plausible and have continuity, they will help us to understand why we are here and what we need to pay attention to and what we may ignore… This is why children everywhere ask, as soon as they have the command of language to do so, ‘Where did I come from?’ and shortly after, ‘What will happen when I die?’ They require a story to give meaning to their existence. Without air, our cells die. Without a story, our selves die… Without stories as organizing frameworks we are swamped by the volume of our own experience, adrift in a sea of facts…” A story provides “a kind of theory about how the world works—and how it needs to work if we are to survive.”

Applying these ideas to education and learning in general, Postman writes: “the young need a story to help them sort through the collection of disconnected, fragmented diploma requirements that is called a curriculum at most universities… The [very] purposes we conceive for learning [anything] are tied to our larger conception of the world… Does one learn for the greater glory of God? to bring honor to one’s family or tribe? for the fulfillment of a nation’s destiny? to hasten the triumph of the proletariat? Few today find such purposes meaningful, because few believe anymore in the larger stories from which these purposes derive. Even fewer, I think, believe in the story of technological progress, which tells of a paradise to be gained through bigger and better machines. And the yuppie’s tale, the story that tells us that life’s most meaningful activity is to buy things, is an impoverished one indeed, which leads, in the end, to cynicism and hopelessness. Even the great modern story known as inductive science is not now as gripping as it once seemed. To the question ‘Where did we come from?’ science answers, ‘It was an accident.’ To the question ‘How will it all end?’ science’s handmaiden, technology, answers, ‘Probably by an accident.’ And more and more of our young are finding that the accidental life is scarcely worth living…”

Regarding moral teaching, Postman argues it is not enough to advise young people to “JUST SAY NO” to drugs. “Who will help them find out what they need to say yes to? How can they be helped to read, and write a coherent story for our times…?” [21]

Of course, those of us who believe the Bible have the Story of all Stories! God’s meta-narrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption and future Glory, in terms of which our individual stories make sense and have eternal significance. Because of this Story, we have something glorious to say “YES” to. God’s Story is like a huge cable stretching from before creation to a never-ending future. Our individual stories are like strands in that cable, that either contribute to its strength, or stick out like broken pieces of wire that shred the hands. Our challenge is to live lives of such integrity, plausibility and beauty, that our children will want to say “Yes” to God and to His Story for each of them!

What We Can Do
In moments of exasperation with our teenagers and their friends, and the adolescent youth culture in general, we need to resist the temptation of blaming the kids. It is the adult generation which has put such incredible stumbling blocks in the way of young people’s growth into maturity.

Remove stumbling blocks
One set of stumbling blocks comes from the fact that it was adults who first defined teenagers by sex and social life. And it is adults now who are telling them that it’s inevitable that they’ll behave that way. It’s adults who are handing out condoms to them, so they can be “sexually active,” hopefully without killing themselves and each other. I wonder how many adults realize how much more difficult our generation makes it, for the many young people who want to remain chaste until marriage.

Let me read several short passages from Dancing in the Dark: “adolescence is implicitly defined by adult-run media, churches, and schools. And adults in their perplexity with youth turn to these kinds of institutions for assistance—ironically, the very institutions that place youth in their own subculture where they have little to do but expend energy on looking good and entertaining themselves.” [22] “Instead of creatively involving youth in adult tasks and responsibilities, parents often find it much easier and less time-consuming to turn their children loose in adolescent culture” (p. 5). “Parents often exercise authority, telling their kids what they can and can’t do, without developing friendships with them. Adolescents frequently ‘complain that parents have no time to spend with them, no interest in what interests them, or no desire to ‘talk’ to them… This was confirmed by refusals (or reluctant agreement) of so many parents to watch the favorite TV shows of their children.” [23] Many a father decides for the first time to take his teenage son fishing only after the son has gotten into trouble with the law. “Ample social research shows that youth deeply desire to share their lives—ideas, feelings, hopes—with elders, including their parents. They interpret a lack of parental interest in their interests as an indication that parents do not really care.” [24]

Let me give you an example. Our son Tim’s high school friends were amazed that we wanted to talk with them about their ideas, interests and values, when Tim brought them home. I asked, “what’s so unusual about that?” and was told that most other parents would leave when their teenage children brought friends home. I believe this response comes in part from adult insecurity. Parents feel that “kids aren’t interested in us.” The adult world envies the strength and beauty of youth, no longer believing that it has anything, like wisdom or truth, that the young either need or want.

These are examples of one set of stumbling blocks the adult generation has put in the way of teenagers growing up. Too many of us have opted out of the creative and time-consuming responsibility of befriending and nurturing the next generation, something which must start early, when our children are young. It is unrealistic for a parent to expect a friendship of honesty, love and trust with a 16 year old son or daughter, if the parent hasn’t invested a lot of time and energy in that relationship from the beginning. But if parents and other caring Christian adults are not there to provide wholesome nurture, guidance, friendship and support, the Youth Culture is there to provide unwholesome alternatives.

But there is another set of stumbling blocks well-meaning adults can erect that makes growth into maturity difficult. Often, out of a desire to protect our children from the World, including the Youth Culture, Christians withdraw from the world into their own tribal Christian sub-culture, with its own dialect, rules and regulations about things like dress, hair length or sex roles, that are not in the Bible.

In fact, this option is no more godly than blending in to the secular world. It is really another kind of worldliness, because it is finding security in our own sub-culture, rather than in the Lord Himself who calls us to the difficult task of being salt and light, “in the world but not of the world.” Our children need a vision of what this call means for them, now and into the future. It is also naive to think that as long as they are in Christian schools or even being home-schooled, they will automatically be protected from the youth culture. The “world” is everywhere, and we need to help our children understand and evaluate it. Again, this means spending time with them, watching movies, listening to music, reading books, magazine articles and newspapers together, and talking about them. (This is a joy, not a chore!)

There is obviously a place for protection, particularly when children are young. I think it is important to monitor television and videos very carefully. Not only because of the content, but perhaps even more because of the passivity of this kind of entertainment. When they are watching television they are not doing all kinds of creative and active things. In our experience, if your children develop active interests (in art, music, reading, the natural world, sports, etc.) when they are young, they will find telelvision boring when they get older.

Things to be done
Positively, the Christian Church and community has tremendous potential both in the area of ideas (beliefs) and social structures to help the young want to say “Yes” to God and to grow up as Christ’s disciples.

Ideas. In the area of ideas, both Postman and Becker are wistful about what the biblical world view used to provide for our culture. We can rejoice that the biblical story is true. We have a story to believe that makes sense of life and provides a basis for human value, meaning, learning and work, for morality and cosmic heroism that is accessible to all people, young and old.

Read the first chapters of Deuteronomy to see how Moses prepared the Israelites for entering the promised land, where they would be surrounded by people with alien beliefs and lifestyles. Over and over again Moses reminded them to “tell your children the story…of how God brought you up out of the land of Egypt, delivered you from slavery, and gave you this good land, and good, life-affirming laws.” Furthermore, the calendar was marked by long feasts and festivals (parties) for the whole community (all ages!), to remind them of this story. Imagine how the children would have looked forward to living in tents for a week to remember the Exodus. (What can we do similarly, perhaps with the Christian calendar?)

Moses also anticipated the children’s questions: “Why are we so different from our neighbors? They’re allowed to work on the Sabbath. Why can’t we? They practice sacred prostitution. Why don’t we? Why do they eat things we’re not allowed to eat?” Moses told the parents to take their children’s questions seriously, and never give authoritarian answers like “Because God says so,” or even worse “because I say so,” or empty moralisms like “Just say no.” They were to take the time to tell their children the story of redemption by a loving God. Without that, the moral laws would seem arbitrary and make no sense.

Moses also specifically warned against adding to God’s law or subtracting from it (Dt. 4:2). Both are equally serious ways of distorting God’s truth. If we subtract, we lose our Christian distinctiveness and blend in to the world. If we add laws, we inevitable turn our culture’s (or sub-culture’s) idiosyncrasies (about dress, hair length, music, etc.) into legalistic absolutes. We lose our grip on the freedom of the Gospel, and very often lose our children who cannot imagine themselves “walking in our old-fashioned ways.” As Francis Schaeffer used to say, the Holy Spirit is never “old fashioned.”

Social structures. In the area of social structures, we can (and must) provide alternatives to some of the destructive patterns in our culture.

Work. As much as possible, give children responsibility for real work, in the home, in the Church, in the community. Expose your children to your work, so they know what you do; and involve them in it, as much as possible. Bringing up children in L’Abri has had some real advantages—of the pre-industrial type! There is a lot of low tech work (cooking, raking leaves, or wood splitting, stacking and hauling, for example), which our children have been able to help with, alongside a broad age range of students and workers.

Families in the church or community can give paid jobs to other people’s children. Our boys were able to work for a friend who runs a small restaurant upholstery business. They learned about running a small business, and we expected them to put one-half of their earnings toward school expenses. The rest was their own. Encourage and help young people to start small businesses of their own—like lawn work or house-painting. Our boys started a house painting business to help with school and college costs.

In 1985 two English friends of ours wrote a book called 4,000,000 Reasons to Care: How Your Church Can Help the Unemployed. [25] It is filled with practical and challenging ideas about how Christians with capital can (and should) help the unemployed by actually creating jobs, by helping people start businesses, etc.

Age Segregation. Perhaps most important, families, Churches and schools need to provide alternatives to our culture’s ubiquitous pattern of age segregation. Reactivate the extended family where possible; old and young need each other. Abolish junior high schools! That age group needs contact with older and younger students.

All too often, the church just mimics the culture. Everyone is divided up into same age or experience groups: youth group, young marrieds, college and career, mature marrieds, single parents, divorced, seniors, etc. I am not saying we should abolish all peer groupings, i.e., “Fire the youth pastor and disband the youth group!” I am not saying that. But we must provide alternatives to the pattern, as Kett puts it, of “institutionally segregating young people from casual contacts with a broad range of adults.”

The Church provides the ideal kind of community to bring together a whole range of ages to engage in real activities, in casual (non-professional) contexts, i.e., to do:

Work projects: locally or further afield, house or church repairs or decorating, leaf raking, etc.
Service projects: helping local single mothers; Habitat for Humanity (a local church sent young and older to Florida to repair hurricane damage); feeding homeless people; volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center or foster home; organizing fund raising events for worthy causes; visiting prisons or nursing homes.
Political activities: helping good local candidates with their campaigns; in environmental issues (responsible stewardship over God’s creation); getting involved with the pro-life movement; and fighting pornography and violence against women and children.
Planning special worship services: evangelistic events, using drama, street theater; discussions on important issues.
Artistic endeavors: organizing art shows, and encouraging artistic gifts in a variety of contexts. We have informal musical soirees, including all ages and abilities.
Having fun together: making music together; playing games together; watching a teen movie and discussing it.
All ages need each other. At the birth of the church, the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh, breaking down divisions between men and women, slaves and free, Jew and Gentile, old and young. The old would dream dreams, and the young see visions. Young and old still need the inspiration of each other’s dreams and visions. Christian adults should be thinking of ways to encourage and express our appreciation for our young people, many of them are quietly and sometimes not so quietly honoring God in their lives, against powerful pressures.

Modeling is of central importance. The Bible is clear about the importance of modeling. In fact, as many have pointed out, faith, values and attitudes are caught by observation probably more than they are taught. Jesus said “imitate me”, and Paul said “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Jesus told adults to imitate the faith, humility, and imagination of children. And throughout Scripture, older believers (not only parents) are exhorted not only to verbally teach, but to model lives of beauty, integrity, joy and godliness for children to imitate. All research shows that where there is a discrepancy between what we say and what we do our children will invariably imitate what we do rather than what we say.

Church leaders (like Titus) are to be models of good works, integrity, gravity and sound speech. They are to practice hospitality, as all believers are commanded to do—to be “lovers of strangers”—willing to share their homes and material possessions with a diversity of people. This is a powerful way to break down age segregation in the home.

Notice particularly that church leaders are not to be “lovers of money.” In a materialistic consumer culture like ours, it is especially important that we hear this, and live it with integrity. As I mentioned earlier, youth consumerism just mimics adult consumerism. The Christian Church and community needs to model an alternative!

Given our culture’s preoccupation with sex, it’s crucial that Christian adults teach and live out (model) the goodness and beauty of God’s purpose for sex in marriage. Our marriages must be attractive and life-affirming for men, women, and children. The young also need a positive vision of chaste singleness. Sex and marriage are not necessary for a rich, productive and fulfilling life (see I Cor 7).

Given all this, which is just the tip of the iceberg of Biblical teaching, the authors of Dancing in the Dark ask “How are youth going to mature except by contact with adults?” (p.9).

Rethink youth group activities. Many church youth groups specialize almost exclusively in entertainment and consumer activities: bowling, pizza, movies, and at Christmas, “Shop til you drop.” This practice just reinforces our culture’s reductionist definition of adolescence. All they can handle is fun, entertainment, and social life. This is incredibly condescending, and is little help in preparing them for adult life.

Tony Campolo advises that Church youth groups should purposely avoid the kind of social events that accentuate physical attractiveness—dances, etc.—that involve pairing up. Teenagers have to cope with these things everywhere else, and they are the cause of a lot of pain for many of them. Campolo asks, shouldn’t we spare them these pressures in the Christian community? Instead, why not have square dances or country dancing that includes mixed ages, and involves changing partners. It’s great exercise and fun. We used to do it in our Church in London; everyone enjoyed it. Obviously, children who have grown up with these kinds of events will be less likely to think they’re “weird” and “uncool” than those who are first introduced to the idea as teenagers.

Young people can and should be handling work, service, serious teaching and discussion. For example, in a church in London the teenagers outline the sermons, and meet the preacher afterwards for discussion. This has dramatically improved the preaching! In another church, anonymous questions on paper are handed to the elders for discussion. The young people know that anything and everything is fair game to ask.

These are just a few suggestions for ways we as Christian individuals, families and churches can help our young people in the process of growing up. Some of the stresses associated with adolescence today are the product of secular ideas, and some come from changed social structures. Thinking back to my older friend who said “she didn’t believe in adolescence,” I now understand that there are good biblical and historical reasons for her attitude! But obviously, the better we understand our culture’s pressures, the better we will be able to provide attractive, life-affirming alternatives so our children will not only remain our friends through their teens and 20’s but even more important, will want to say YES to God, with their whole lives! Many parents and their children go through hard times during these years. Thankfully, God’s love and grace toward our children (and us) is much greater than ours. He is able to bring hope and healing, and restore broken relationships. And like the father of the Prodigal Son, He is ready to embrace us and throw a party, the moment any of us comes to ourselves and returns home.




Endnotes: Joseph F. Kett, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present (New York: Basic Books; 1977) p. 215. back to article Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the days of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 1987) pp. 103-105. back to article The Apostle Peter learned a similar lesson in his painful conversation with Jesus after the resurrection. Jesus faced Peter with his three-fold denial, and Peter was clearly humbled and repentant. Like the Prodigal, he was not allowed to use his failure to disqualify himself from Christ’s call to lead and care for the church. Jesus recommissioned him: “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” “feed my sheep.” back to article Kett, Rites of Passage, pp. 3-4. back to article John Demos, Past, Present and Personal: The Family and the Life Course in American History (New York: Oxford; 1986) p. 97. back to article By the late 1980’s, only 4.5% of young people lived in agrarian settings, compared with almost 70% in 1890. See Tony Campolo, Growing up in America (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1989). back to article Viviana A. Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (New York: Basic Books; 1985) p. 3. back to article For example, in the 1880’s and 1890’s in America, Irish children earned 38% to 46% of their families’ incomes. Native born working class children earned between 28% and 32% of their families’ incomes. See Zelizer, p. 58. back to article See Bruno Bettelheim, Surviving, “Alienation and Autonomy” (New York: Random House; 1979) p. 341. Bettelheim contrasts the work experience of children growing up in Israeli Kibbutzim with middle class American children: “In the daily life of the Kibbutz, there is little alienation between child and adult because the worlds of the children and the adults have much more in common than with us...he sees and understands adult work, and at his own level participates in the same kind of work (farming, raising animals, etc.)... This enhances beyond measure the child’s feeling of being an integral part of his society, or making an important contribution to it. In turn, this creates a feeling of competence, security and well-being... While the American child’s powerful desire to be useful is mainly frustrated, this need is fully satisfied for the Kibbutz child whose work is appreciated by the entire community because it contributes to its immediate present well-being.” back to article Zelizer, p. 11. back to article Kett, p. 5-6. back to article Ibid., p. 17. back to article Ibid., p. 230. back to article Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media by the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 1991) pp. 11-12. back to article Newsweek issue on “The Family” (Winter-Spring 1990) p. 57, and “The New Teens” (Summer-Fall 1990). back to article The Seattle Times, April 30, 1990. See also Dancing in the Dark, p. 79. back to article Newsweek, “The New Teens,” p. 29. back to article Campolo, p. 27. back to article Seattle Times, 1990. back to article Ernest Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning (New York: Free Press, 1971) p. 126. back to article “Learning by Story” by Neil Postman, Atlantic (December 1989) pp. 122-124. back to article Dancing in the Dark, p. 2. back to article Ibid., p. 62. Quote from Joan D. Tierney, “Parents, Adolescents and Television: Culture, Learning, Influence: A Report to the Public,” summary of findings of a report prepared for the Canadian Radio-television Commission, May 1978. back to article Ibid., p. 73. Tierney, Part III, p. 5. back to article Peter Elsom and David Porter, MARC Europe, A Ministry of World Vision, Church Action with the Unemployed. back to article