The teenage years are an artificial creation. The word teenage was coined in the 20th century to denote a somewhat undefined period in a person’s life between childhood and adulthood (typically heralded by the onset of puberty). No one in the western world would now be unfamiliar with the concept of “teenager.” Likely enough they would consider the teenage years and all its connotations something as common and natural as the bodily changes that go along with adolescence. But the concept of the teenage years did not exist in the minds of the ancients—nor even among the somewhat liberated generation of the 1920s.
Let us first consider what the connotations of the teenage years are today. The typical teen is expected, first and foremost, to be in a class unto himself. Too old to associate with younger children, and too independent and unsettled to associate with adults, he (or she, just as often) is expected to co-exist with his peers in all of his scholastic and most of his free-time pursuits. He is expected to follow their manners, their morals, and their styles of dress and speech. Parents expect their teenage children to be neutral toward them at best, and more likely hostile. Behavior that fathers and mothers would have called rebellious fifty years ago is now considered simply teenage. “Oh, well, she’s a teenager,” parents will say as they roll their eyes. “Can’t wait to push her off to college.”
This combination of cultural pressures, low expectations, and consequently abysmal parenting has produced a teenage culture that is unique from either young children or adults. Childhood is the innocent phase, when the child is trusting and copies his parents’ behavior, and tags along behind older children to be “with the big boys.” Adulthood is the steady phase, when the person has “settled down” and has acquired the judgment, circumspection, and wisdom that mark maturity. Adolescence is the rebellious phase, the questioning phase, a time for a young person to “spread her wings” and try out new things and new behaviors. Sexual promiscuity is expected. One also notices an extreme sameness in the teenage culture, a product of the overwhelming pressure to conform that exists there. For all of its talk about uniqueness, the teenage culture is internally as regular as a uniformed army. Hence the surprise of adults at home schooled children in ordinary clothes. Whether the fad be ripped jeans, studded belts, pocket chains, backwards hats, two shirts (women only), baggy pants (men only), pant-skirts, nose rings, colored hair, or what have you, chances are that 95% of the teenage culture will adopt it. The uniformity is not confined to clothing alone. Speech patterns, musical taste, and even expressions and styles of walking seem to be heavily influenced by the actions of one’s teenage peers.
The point is that, on a whole, with many notable exceptions, the vast majority of western teenagers live in a world whose structure and ethics are guided almost wholly by other teenagers. They are a class, a subculture, a world unto themselves, generally without reference and in opposition to mature and adult culture.
This state of affairs is obviously not, over all, a healthy one. But beyond the mere fact that it generally creates teenagers who are selfish, materialistic, insensitive, egotistical, foolish, and imprudent, it has other problems too. All talk of an “adult culture” will become comparatively meaningless if the vast majority of these socially inept teenagers grow up into adults themselves. And they will. I have noticed far less alarm in most circles than is due this problem. When our high school students come of age, we cannot expect them to automatically drop the habits they have formed and the style of life they have grown up leading. Denied or rejecting the guidance of previous adults, the new generation will simply pass on their adolescent values to their descendants and perpetuate a new kind of immature maturity.
Having considered the connotations of the teenage years and the effect this mindset may have on the next adult generation as these teenagers grow up, I’ll turn to what adolescents used to be. The terms “young man” and “young woman”—still used by some today—are not accidents. The period of adolescence was considered the training ground for adulthood. Young men learned a trade early, usually apprenticing themselves to a craftsman or working in the home and learning from their fathers. Sparta, though no role-model for how to treat children, certainly understood that to make a formidable warrior class they needed to train their citizens for combat and toughness from the time they were young boys. In the medieval era, boys of noble descent became pages to adult noblemen, and then—in their adolescent years—became squires, apprentice knights who learned the arts of war and chivalry so that they could mature easily into actual knighthood. Thomas Jefferson entered William and Mary college at 16, graduating with highest honors a mere two years later—the age most people begin college. Girls learned from their mothers, and older sisters if they had them, how to become a wife and mother, in some cultures at an age one would almost consider child abuse in this day. The point is that the sooner maturity was reached, the sooner a young man became a man and a young woman became a woman, the better. These formative years of life were a transitional period, like a butterfly pupa developing its wings, not a semi-permanent age group with its own market and an attitude generally antagonistic to the adult world. If butterfly pupae all got together, exerting influence on each other and refusing to associate with mature butterflies (the simile can only be extended so far, I confess), they would probably stunt their growth if they were able to. This might make them happy pupae, but once their cocoons broke open, they might not have any wings to keep them aloft.
The ancients understood that one must exercise his wings to fly well. That is why one of the key concepts of adolescence in earlier years was the child learning from his or her parents. It was the parents’ role to impart knowledge and wisdom to the young men and women they were raising, and they taught those children to listen. They taught their children to restrain their impulses, to work hard, to make sacrifices, to spend money wisely, to make judgments, to understand the world and culture—whatever they needed to become responsible adults. The immigrants who came to America and made tremendous sacrifices to allow their children to realize a dream they, the parents, might never live to see could not have made America what it is if they had been raised on the rotten fabrication of adolescence. Now their legacy is in danger of vanishing as a new generation, coasting on the affluent tide of their forefathers’ labor, forms new habits and attitudes that could never produce the kind of shrewdness, self-sacrifice, and unshakable work ethic that produced the rich, sprawling, free society they love to take advantage of.
Teenagers today need to realize that the awful and noble responsibility of carrying values and habits to the next generation rests on their shoulders. The students in high school and college today will tomorrow enter the myriad professions and vocations that form human culture. They will build our buildings, heal our sick, make our laws, write our books, shoot our guns, and teach our students. You and I, all we who are students and adolescents now, will make this country into something monstrous or something beautiful, a city of darkness or a city of light. And whatever legacy we forge with our own generation is what we will pass on to the next. We cannot hope that what so many parents lost through negligence we can gain through negligence again. Weak parenting can never produce an accidentally brilliant generation. Left to their own devices, adolescents will at best flounder, and at worst will cease to care about living mature lives. Many have already done so.
There is nothing wrong with associating with one’s own age group. Making friends around one’s age has been going on for millennia. But we must not think that we can learn everything from our friends. We learn most things with them. That is an exciting prospect: sharing what our parents have imparted, studying men older and wiser than we, following examples and learning from our mistakes. Our peers can be good influences on us—indeed, they should be—but only when they themselves manifest mature characteristics. Fear the advice of a friend who has no ambitions for maturity, and no concept of trans-generational teaching. Men are like those whose company they seek.
Scripture makes no room for the teenage years as many people understand them today. God says to train up a child in the way he should go, and commands parents to teach their children God’s truth at all times and in all situations. He also commands children to obey and honor their parents. Parents have the responsibility of passing on faithfulness and maturity to the next generation, and we who are the next generation must be diligent and eager to learn all that we can. The shape of the future is our hands’ responsibility to form. What shape will you help it take?