Is Adolescence New?
Original photo by Shanna Riley.
Last year, a blogger wrote about adolescence, calling it a “modern plague” that – (thank goodness) – has a cure. He said:
“Back in the old days, there were two types of people in the world: children and adults. You were a child, then you became an adult. …Adolescence is a state of the art modern innovation, like crack-cocaine and chemical warfare.”
And just like that, he eradicated youth ministry as sacred vocation, effectively smithereening (real word) it into a juicy pulp of cultural repulsion. Thank you for that.
This blogger’s view of adolescence is what academics like to call a “recent social construct,” and it’s a familiar one. Most of us have heard it. Many of us have read it. Lots of us have studied it. Some of us have taught it.
So it might come as a surprise that it’s not entirely – or even mostly – accurate.
True, some aspects of the adolescent experience are recent, and certain societal characteristics of it have shifted over time – just like with every other life stage and every other major identity demographic. But adolescence, understood as an in-between stage of life bridging childhood and adulthood, is not a new idea. Not by a long shot.
During the murky intertestamental period, Aristotle described adolescence as a time of strong passions, fickle desires, moodiness, hot tempers, hopeful dispositions, surprising courage, a hesitancy to accept rules of society, exalted notions, know-it-all-ness, and a focus on peer groups. During the time of Polycarp and Irenaeus, Claudius Ptolemy determined that the third stage of life – adolescence, following infancy and childhood – was controlled by Venus, the planet of love, desire, and sexual gratification. Tenth-century thinkers identified adolescentia as one of four distinct stages of life, following childhood, and preceding adulthood and old age, lasting from the early teen years to the mid-twenties. (Here is just one example of this illustrated theory. Image from Byrhtferth's Enchiridion, as illustrated in the Ramsey Computus, Oxford, St John College, ms. 17, fol. 7v.)
Preachers of old worried about young people who knew all the stories and ballads about Robin Hood but couldn’t remember the Our Father. They bemoaned adult men who wore their hair long, their hose tight, and their tunics short – like adolescents – because if they didn’t set a good example, who would? English dictionaries going as far back as 1538 included entries for adolescence, defined in one as a yonge man, whiche is yet growynge, in another as the age betwene childhoode and mans age, whiche is betwene 14 and 21, and in yet another as the Flower of Youth; the State from Fourteen to Twenty-five or Thirty in Men, and from Twelve to Twenty-one in Women.
They may have talked and dressed differently, sang different songs, learned old-fangled math, and been less attractive to the economic powers-that-be, but adolescents have always been to a certain degree the in-betweeners. And adults have always been the ones to define and control the in-betweeners, in part by placing immediate limits on their allowed freedoms, and in part by determining and sometimes delaying their entrance into full and independent adulthood.
Adults have also had consistent worries and fears about adolescents (their proclivities for sex, drinking, carousing, dancing, dicing, and all manner of naughtiness) alongside opposing envy of adolescents (their health, beauty, passion, energy, and all manner of awesomeness). This tendency to either idealize or demonize adolescents should sound familiar. They are either Katniss Everdeen, savior of dystopia (and the box-office), or “a modern plague,” bane of society (and the blogosphere).
Where does that leave those of us who love and are committed to adolescents? Are we ministering to a freakish-construct-of-contemporary-culture or to a designed-masterpiece-of-sacred-creation? Are adolescent angst and identity confusion (to the extent that they actually exist) merely negative consequences of our own era’s making, or is the adolescent experience of growing out of childhood and into adulthood a natural and common process?
These questions matter. If we accept that adolescence is both new and man-made, then what hope do we possibly have for successfully guiding them through a natural stage of development and into a life of mature personhood and deep faith? Why even bother?
But we do bother…because it’s anything but a bother to do so.
Eugene Peterson writes that while infants are God’s gift to younger parents, adolescents are His gift to middle-decades parents, when there is sometimes stagnation, letdown, and disappointment as the “ideals and expectations of earlier years are experienced as fatigue. ...And then God’s gift: in the rather awkward packaging of the adolescent God brings into our lives a challenge to grow, testing our love, chastening our hope, pushing our faith to the edge of the abyss. It comes at just the right time” (Like Dew, Your Youth: Growing Up with Your Teenager, Eerdman's, 1994).
At just the right time, indeed, not just for middle-decade parents but for youth ministers of all decades.
(For further information or reference citations, email Crystal at email@example.com)
Crystal Kirgiss has worked with students for more than 25 years. She earned her Ph.D. from Purdue University where she lectures and studies the history of adolescence. She writes the “Guys” and “Girls” columns for Youthwalk magazine, was part of the core writing team for The Way Bible, and is the author or co-author of 11 books. You can hear Crystal speak at both NYWC Sacramento and NYWC Atlanta.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.