Want to Reform Your Youth Ministry? Reject Adolescence!
To me it seems clear that our society is seriously malfunctioning in its role of preparing children for adulthood. The upheaval and disarray we are seeing in childrearing patterns are unprecedented in modern times. —Vance Packard, Our Endangered Children
In his book, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, Thomas Hine provides a devastating exposé of American teenage culture. His principal thesis is that most of the traits that we have come to expect from teenagers—identity crises, rebellion, high-risk behavior, and self-defined rites of passage such as premarital sex and gang membership—may not be inevitable and would be avoidable if we treated teenagers not as a special subgroup but as “novice” adults. Teenagers, he asserts, must be treated and educated as the young adults they are and encouraged to participate more fully in our social, economic, and political life. If this happens, he says, we might find ourselves free of vulgar teenage antics and the self-destructive lifestyles we seem to tolerate so willingly. In particular, this would mean breaking up the artificially age-segregated environments of high school and giving teenagers real responsibilities and real jobs. At the same time, it would mean no longer excusing teenagers’ often silly and bizarre behavior with the worst sort of jargon about psychosocial development.
My own book, The Myth of Adolescence: Raising Responsible Children in an Irresponsible Society, makes many of the same points that Hine’s excellent study makes, though neither of us was aware of the other’s work while writing. Both books decry the “culture of irresponsibility” that we have tolerated for so long, and both of us argue for a return to the ideals of a previous generation of Americans, who allowed youth to be relatively independent and gave them a real role in life.
The enthusiastic response to The Myth of Adolescence since its publication has convinced me that many Americans are ready to question—if not jettison—the unjustified moratorium we have granted teenagers from moral responsibility. The book came out one week before the tragedy that took place in Littleton, Colorado. Immediately after the murders at Columbine High School, I gave radio interviews in such places as New York, Sacramento, Dallas, and Littleton itself. The consistent response of the radio audience was, “I’ve always felt that teenagers should be held responsible for their actions, and I’m so thankful to you for putting this into words.” In essence, my book verbalized what millions of Americans intuitively know is wrong with a large segment of American society—the absence of teenage responsibility.
Enter the “experts.” Rather than calling into question teenagers’ irresponsible and selfish behavior, they tell us that teens are supposed to go through an out-of-control time-out between childhood and adulthood. “Sowing wild oats” is perfectly normal, we are reminded. Chances are you have entertained such notions to explain away the strange behavior of a teenage son or daughter. But deep down inside there’s something tugging at you, urging you to say “No!” to all this irresponsibility. That “something” dare not be ignored. It may very well be the voice of God quietly yet forcefully reminding you of His plan for teenagers: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. Instead, be an example for other believers in your speech, behavior, love, faith, and purity” (1 Tim 4:12).
Is that what we find in our nation today? Exemplary young people? Hardly. American teenagers are in trouble. And I’m talking about Christian teenagers. Frankly, I’m always surprised when I see a family with responsible, well-adjusted teenagers. I’ll tell you, that family is pulling off an amazing feat! But why should this be so? We have the power and presence of the living Lord available to us, the inner working of the Holy Spirit, plus the divinely-inspired handbook of instruction on the home and family. Could it be that we have ignored what he has to say to us?
Bookstores—non-Christian and Christian alike—have shelves bulging with books on adolescence. Most are written by qualified people, many of them Christians—good books by good authors who believe in the Good Book. But as I read them, I keep asking, “Where are the Scriptures that support your point?” Or, “That sounds good, but is that a biblical principle or a personal one?” Isn’t it time we dusted off God’s original blueprint for the family and the home? Our greatest need is to hear what He has to say to teenagers about His plan for them. After all, the family is His invention. It’s obvious that He understands it best, since He holds the patent on it. Because He is the Master Architect, we must seek His counsel first and foremost.
The first step is understanding the basics of Jesus’ human growth and development, his “life cycle,” if you will. The Scriptures relate three basic phases in Jesus’ life cycle: (1) birth to twelve years (Luke 2:41-52); (2) twelve until Jesus’ baptism at approximately age thirty (Luke 3:23); and (3) the period of Jesus’ public ministry culminating in His death, resurrection, and ascension. These phases may be pictured as follows:
These phases correspond exactly to the persons John describes as “little children,” “young men,” and “fathers” in 1 John 2:12-14—a passage that uniquely captures the idea of the necessity of growth.
Notice that, biblically speaking, adulthood begins at puberty—not at 18, or 21, or 26 years of age. Indeed, for centuries the word “adult” meant “grown one” and referred to a person who had passed his or her growth spurt at the age of puberty (around twelve or thirteen years of age). In essence, an “adult” was a person who was able to have children. The problem is that modern society generally considers an “adult” to be a person who has “come of age” (this “age” of adulthood being variously defined), not necessarily a person who is sexually mature. This separation of the two meanings of “adult” has given us the modern concept of “adolescence.”
According to David Bakan (“Adolescence in America: From Idea to Social Fact,” Daedalus 100  979-995), “The idea of adolescence as an intermediary period of life starting at puberty... is the product of modern times.... [It] developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century... to prolong the years of childhood.” Thus today, the term “adolescence” refers to the teen years, during which post-puberty teenagers are treated as children even though they are really “adults” in the original sense of the word.
Bakan identifies three developments in American society that made adolescence an officially recognized period. First, compulsory education laws were passed that removed the decision about whether a child should be educated away from parents. Education was mandated by law, and parents could be punished for keeping their children out of school. Modern laws mandating school attendance began in Germany in the seventeenth century, though the laws were seldom enforced since parents viewed those laws as the state trying to do what they should do. Gradually, laws were passed in the United States that required all children to go to school. In fact, the high school is a part of our society’s invention of adolescence. With these changes, young adults (“adolescents”) and not just children were forced to attend school.
Second, child labor laws were enacted that made it illegal to employ persons below certain ages. This served to lengthen the period of childhood since early teenagers, for example, could no longer work full time. The result was to make young people economically dependent. They were not allowed to work, so they did not have their own money to spend. However, for thousands of years it was not this way. Young people worked with their parents or beside a master as an apprentice until they could become independent. In nineteenth century Massachusetts, for example, young people over twelve were expected to at least partly support themselves.
Finally, a juvenile justice system was created to segregate younger lawbreakers from older ones. This produced a different system of record keeping, punishment, and probation for “juveniles.” Just as teenagers were no longer expected to be responsible to support themselves, so they were no longer held responsible for their criminal acts, despite the fact that for thousands of years the legal system treated teenagers as adults. In nineteenth century America a fifteen-year-old lawbreaker could be punished the same way as a thirty-five-year-old offender would be. Today, however, our laws have turned adults into children. As a result, young people can literally “get away with murder.”
The intrusion of legal adolescence into American society was fairly well established by the early part of the twentieth century and quickly began to influence how young people grew up. By the 1920s the marriage age, along with inauguration into the work force, was steadily moving upward. Young people were “protected” from environments that ‘forced’ maturity on them. Instead, they lived in a period of extended childhood. For the first time in history, young people were not allowed to make adult decisions at the age of puberty. Adolescence became a “psychological moratorium,” a delaying of adult commitments. As a result, permissiveness and playfulness were encouraged. There even developed organizations to turn youth from adults into children. With the invention of the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and boys’ and girls’ agricultural clubs, adults officially began calling people in their teens “boys” and “girls.”
What’s wrong with this concept, you ask? Simply this: the theory of adolescence undermines the Christian understanding of human nature. It underscores the modern disinclination to treat a person as responsible for his or her actions. When we assert the “fact” that teenagers are to act like irresponsible children rather than like responsible adults, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And when school, church, and family treat 16-year-olds like young children, teenagers act in ways that justify that treatment.
What, then, do the Scriptures say about adolescence? The answer is: Absolutely nothing! In the Bible, people went directly from childhood to adulthood. Moses, for example, is never referred to as an adolescent. In Exodus 2 he is called a “child” in verse 10, and by verse 11 he had “grown up.” Here we might have expected to find a reference to a period between childhood and adulthood, but no such reference is to be found.
The same contrast between the “child” Moses and the “grown up” Moses is found in Hebrews 11:23-24: “By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after he was born, because they saw that he was a beautiful child, and were not afraid of the king’s order. By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter.” Adolescence as a psychological moratorium from responsibility simply did not exist among the ancient Hebrews.
And what do we find in the New Testament? When the apostle Paul described his own development, he talked only about childhood and manhood: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up my childish ways” (1 Cor 13:11). Notice that the major differences Paul mentions are in language, thinking, and reasoning. In these areas he went from being a child to being an adult, without an intervening period of “adolescence.” Moreover, when the apostle John described people at different stages of maturity, he talked about “little children,” “young men,” and “fathers” (1 John 2:12-14). The “young men” were not adolescents; they were young adults.
Finally, as we have seen, at the age of twelve, Jesus Himself began to make the transition into adult responsibility under the Law. While He was soon to be a teenager, He would never be an adolescent. Like any other 12-year-old in His culture, He would be a young man and treated as one by everyone in town.
Moses, Paul, John, and Jesus went directly from childhood to adulthood. They were teenagers, but they were never adolescents. Although the Bible talks about teenagers, it treats them like responsible human beings, not like children. Today, however, we have invented a period during which childhood and adulthood overlap. No longer is there a definitive transition between these stages of life.
Several books on childrearing I’ve read say, “You have to treat your teens as much like children as possible. Don’t confuse them by teaching how to be responsible young adults.” One Christian father, for example, has written (Larry Richards, “The Stages of Adolescence,” in Parents and Teenagers [Wheaton: Victor, 1984] 157):
Unfortunately, our culture forces teenagers’ development too rapidly.... With my own teens I felt that slowing down their adolescence was a positive thing and so I very consciously insulated my teens from the fast pace of growth that adolescent culture assumes. One way I did this was by not letting them get their driver’s licenses until they were out of high school.
Although I empathize with this parent’s struggle with “adolescent culture,” this seems to be an ill-advised means of handling the problem. A different approach is suggested by Ronald Kotesky (Understanding Adolescence [Wheaton: Victor, 1987] 20-21):
The basic thing you can do to help your adolescents now is to treat them as much like adults as possible.... Even if other people expect your teenagers to act irresponsibly, you can expect them to be responsible.
This is precisely the point of the biblical texts we looked at above: Parents are to expect the best from their teenagers. If we allow them to act like irresponsible children, they will. On the other hand, if we expect them to act like responsible young adults, as people did for thousands of years, they will.
Some parents may object, “Our children are only in their early teens. That’s too young to expect them to behave responsibly.” I disagree. On the one hand, it’s clear that our modern philosophy of treating teenagers like children is not working. On the other hand, if you do not expect responsible behavior from them now, when will you? When they go off to college? (If you do not help them develop self-discipline when they are still at home, they will not know how to study.) When they get married? (If you do not expect responsible behavior toward the opposite sex now, you will be making their adjustment to marriage in the future all that more difficult.) When they get a job? (Teenagers who have not learned how to work from their parents are frequently ill-prepared for the job market.)
I’m not saying that we should impose adulthood on our children before they are able to handle it. The basic gift of childhood is innocence and carefree play. There is something horribly wrong when young children are used by adults as status symbols, when they become the decision-makers in the home, when they become therapists to dysfunctional parents. Kids should be kids, and children should be allowed to play. But I’m not talking about your 13- or 14-year-old; I’m talking about pre-teens.
One thing is clear. According to the Bible, the teen era is not a “time-out” between childhood and adulthood. It is not primarily a time of horseplay, of parties, of sports, of games. It is not a period of temporary insanity. The Bible treats teens as responsible young adults, and so should we. Paul told Timothy, a young man, to “be an example for other believers in your speech, behavior, love, faith, and purity” (1 Tim 4:12). Though still young, Timothy was to speak, act, love, believe, and relate to the opposite sex in such a way that others would look at his life and want to be just like him.
If we are to understand how to deal with our youth, we must begin by taking seriously this matter of adolescence. If Christian parenting is to be biblical, false traditions and misconceptions that have obscured childrearing must be challenged and exposed in the pure light of God’s truth. Holy Scripture is the surest foundation and blueprint upon which to build parenting reform, renewal, and revitalization. Reformation of Christian parenting and youth ministry can only begin when the distorted structure of human tradition is dismantled and replaced by a return to biblical origins. Such a reformation is not only possible, but absolutely essential.
January 6, 2004
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.