Monday, August 27, 2007

Making a Monster: The Trouble with Adolescents

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?



Lucretius said...

Long time no see :)

Nice post. I think that was the best I've seen on my update list for several weeks.

I'd add, however, that, in fact, teenagerism is pretty much a function of TV, the computer, and these other methods of mass communication. Peer pressure can thus be readily applied, and people influenced easily from the centre of Hollywood. Hence the uniformity of teenagerism. Regardless of the strength of a given person's will, if you invariably watch Grey's Anatomy, listen to the latest music fad, and hear all your friends talking about such, it will be virtually impossible to remain aloof. So the cure to teenagerism needs to start with Hollywoodlessness, IMO.

Kathleen Hamilton said...

Ah, but Philip, we stay away from all that stuff! Actually, though, I think the cure to teenagerism is teenagers' parents and other adult authorities. I'm reading a book called The Death of the Grown-Up, and it's pretty clear that the whole teen phenomenon could never have happened without the complicity of adults (who for the most part never want to grow older).

I've never seen Grey's Anatomy, but I was under the impression it was about doctors, not teens.

Connor Hamilton said...

Hello, Philip! Thanks for your comment.

It's certainly true that popular culture influences the teenage mindset--as I said in my post, it's a combination of cultural pressures, low expectations, and consequently abysmal parenting. I think, however, that these cultural patterns may not be so much the cause of the modern teenager as his product. If parents and other authority figures had not rolled over and permitted teenagers to rebel (like Mom was talking about in her comment), then likely Hollywood would never have the conception of a teenager to fuel the entertainment business. Likely enough it has become a vicious circle, with teens informing the entertainment industry and the industry informing the teens, but raise the teens right and the industry disappears, because there is no longer any market.

Nevertheless, you are quite right that one major step to rectifying the problem--raising the teens right--would probably be trying to shake off Hollywoodness (if one is a teen) and to shelter one's children from undue influence. It's just that if parents hadn't failed in the first place, Hollywood wouldn't have had any mental image of the teenage years to promote. How much better things might have been in that case!


Sir David M. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sir David M. said...

Splendid post as usual, Connor. I wish I had time to comment more fully, but you've expressed something that I've become increasingly aware of in my studies of history.

I think the trouble that we have with teens, however, has its roots in the trouble we have with children. Compare a book written for children under 13 today to one written for children of the same age 100 or even 50 years ago. The difference is tremendous. We deliberately condescend to children and teach them to wallow in their childhood, rather than instructing them in such a way as to allow them to naturally grow out of it. The result is that by the time they reach the teen years, they're already quite stunted. We tend to forget that a child is someone learning how to be an adult, and that an adult is someone who has learned how to not be a child. In fact, every period of life is spent (or should be spent) in learning how to move beyond it. But at the same time, we oughtn't to be in too much of a hurry to do so. To use your pupa analogy--a butterfly who emerges prematurely from his cocoon and without struggling to free himself will never fly. So a balance, as usual, is necessary.

Glennsp said...

I believe it is possible to trace the beginnings of the so called 'teenager' to the aftermath of the Second World War.
Your post is an excellent analysis of the prevailing problem today.
As to Hollywood, if the market wasn't there it would not be able to feed it.
Also the unwillingness of parents to discipline their children and the continued efforts of a minority to ban effective discipline in the home all feed the sad thing called 'teenager'.

Matthew Anderson said...

As a former Torrey Academy tutor, this post makes me proud. Well done.

erin dennis said...

This post truly inspired me, Connor. Splendid writing! God has blessed me with friends like you (and other ISLASers) to help me stand up against the ways of the world. I'm definitely going to send this post to all the teenagers I know.

God Bless, and keep up the great writing! :)


Connor Hamilton said...

My thanks to those who commented! You make a good point that we stunt growth in children even before they're teenagers, David.

Thank you for dropping in, Glennsp. I'm always happy have to have new readers!

A former Torrey tutor? Alas, did I send my precis in on time? Are my cites all correct? Did--oh. Calm down, Connor, it's all right. ;-) Thank you so much, Mr. Anderson! I'm honored.

And thank you, Erin, as I said before.

tobiwan said...

Hey man,

Good thoughts. I enjoyed reading it. I thought you made a particularly good point here: "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.'"

When you lower expectations it's hard to break the downward spiral.

I also liked what you said about not expecting to learn everything from your direct peers, but rather learning with them and expecting to learn from the older generation. We should be open to lessons from wherever they come, be it peer, those elder or those younger than yourself.

Some things that made me think:
"He is expected to follow their manners, their morals, and their styles of dress and speech."
"..a product of the overwhelming pressure to conform that exists there."

Whilst this very readily describes teenagers, I find it scary to think that it often applies to christianity as much if not more. Particularly middle-class western christianity.

It's important that people think for themselves and are encouraged to reach their own conclusions, or what we pass on will not reach the subsequent generations in a healthy way. Forcing people to conform to something will not produce well-rounded balanced people.

I don't think I agree with this statement:

"..guided almost wholly by other teenagers."

As has been discussed already, the media has a lot to answer for. And I'm not sure it's as easy as saying which came first. What is see is that money drives A LOT of peer pressure. And that drive seems to come from the money-makers. More through advertising and marketing than hollywood necessarily. Although I guess they drive each other.

The pack mentality in conforming is not exclusive to teenagers.

That's about it. Sorry for the long comment.