On the Myth of Adolescence

When I first looked over the list of David Alan Black’s books I kind of skimmed past The Myth of Adolescence. I have no adolescent children and didn’t really care to read about the matter one way or another. Over time I took a further look at his article, Want to Reform Your Youth Ministry? Reject Adolescence, and also heard him speak on the topic here in Pensacola. I still haven’t read the book, but based on those two items and my own experience, I want to make some comments and invite you to explore the subject.

Those who know that I am a strong advocate of public education might be surprised to know that I was homeschooled for all but four years of my first twelve. Those four years were spent in a small private school where my experience was substantially different from what it would have been in either public school or a larger, more “mainstream” private school.

The difference is not just in where I went to school, but in the way I was raised. These differences have been emphasized to me repeatedly over the years. I remember encountering a mother at a church I attended a few years back. She was sitting at a table in the church library surrounded by paperwork. I asked her what she was doing.

“Filling out application and financial aid forms for my daughter to go to college,” she said. The girl in question was nowhere in sight.

I was amazed. Here was a girl who was 18 years old and presumably ready to go to school away from home, and yet her mother was filling in all the paperwork for her. Not only did my parents not fill in any of my college applications, they required me to prepare any financial aid paperwork all except for their signatures where required. I’m not trying to paint a picture of the good old days. I’m not anxious to turn back the clock. And no, I didn’t walk three miles to school, in the snow, uphill both ways.

I was reminded of this again when I saw an ad for the new show “Glory Daze” about going off to college. The assumption in the show is all too frequent. Young people will leave home irresponsible and ready to go crazy, and this is the natural thing. There’s an expected wild time when young people get to high school as well. In fact, it seems that we expect quite a lot of our children and young people–in terms of trouble, irresponsibility, and downright stupidity. Responsible behavior? Not so much!

Responsible decision making is not learned by being told what the right decisions are. We seem to think that if we teach enough Sunday School classes that tell our young people they shouldn’t use drugs, they’ll be properly inoculated. We think that if we repeatedly indoctrinate them with the right beliefs and doctrines, they will keep on believing those things as they go on through life. No matter what the evidence, we cling to such ideas.

But life itself is going to involved repeatedly making decisions and dealing with the consequences of those decisions. Life is going to force responsibility on people in some way. Often, because their first experience with real responsibility comes very late in life, young men and women make wrong choices that harm them for a lifetime.

My parents were missionaries. That is a very important point in my background. Now not everyone will be a missionary overseas, but the most important witness parents can have on their children is by living their faith. I know that my parents’ faith was a faith that would hold in the face of major hardships and even the threat of death because I saw them live it in that way.

They had high expectations of their children. We were expected to take responsibility. I went on mission trips when I was eight years old. It was my responsibility to carry out the garbage for the portable clinic. This was not a mission trip by car or by air. We were already at a clinic that was about as far as you could get by car. The clinic equipment was carried by two mules. I recall being rather disturbed that there was no room for me to take a pillow. Actually I think the problem was more that there was no way it could be kept dry, but that’s retrospect! The people walked.

When I was 12 years old I became a teacher for the kindergarten section of my church’s Vacation Bible School program for the first time. It was a bit hard to endure the teasing of other kids my own age who laughed because I was “going back to kindygarten!” I taught that class both for VBS and often during the rest of the year for many years after that.

When I was a teenager in South America, I would go out to churches by myself. I know my mother’s prayer life must have really grown during that time. Most of the time the host pastor or evangelist would stop at our house on a motorcycle, and I would grab my trumpet (my reason to exist at the time!), hold it in one hand, jump on the back, and head out to some church where I would support pastor’s ministry with music.

I’m also a high school dropout. Yes, really. I have 2 1/2 high school credits earned by correspondence. My parents decided that it was no point pushing me to go through the regular high school curriculum when I was so busy doing so many useful things, including reading a small set of encyclopedias through. The high school curriculum really couldn’t keep my attention. Just to finish this story, at one point I thought I was going to have to go back to high school to get the credits. It was going to require some determination on my part just to tolerate it. Fortunately, I met with a friend of my parents who was also a college president. He told me that once I graduated college nobody would care where I went to high school. “Take a GED and get on with your education,” he told me. Best advice I ever got!

I’m not telling these stories to illustrate how wonderful I was. In fact, I don’t think these are examples of how I was exceptional at all. They are just minor examples of what young people can do when parents, teachers, and church leaders have high expectations of them. We consistently set our sights too low.

When I was in college I worked in a small private school teaching whatever they needed taught. At one point I was teaching American history. I picked up a wonderful book of readings, but it was aimed at the college level. As I read it myself, I could see nothing that my kids couldn’t handle, so I added it to my list for the class. I got a number of complaints. Was I sure the kids could read the book? Maybe I was overestimating their comprehension. But I got no complaints from the young people, who were in seventh and eighth grades. They just read the essays, discussed them, and had a great time.

I believe that our educational system is becoming less and less capable of handling the world in which we live. We are still spending years and years getting the basic preparation to start working, when the world is changing so rapidly that the career for which one begins to train may be totally transformed by graduation. This suggests the value of a lifelong attitude of learning, working, and adapting. Our educational system is not providing that.

I would suggest three words to guide child raising and education: Expectations, responsibility, and risk.

We need to expect more and expect better. If we expect adolescents to be rebellious, they will likely live up to those expectations. If we expect college students to be wild, they certainly will be. I often mention the effect my mother can have on a room full of four-year-olds. She can begin with chaos, and in moments transform the room into order. This is not accomplished through mass violence or yelling. I’ve often said I don’t understand it, but I think now I do. She expects good things of the children and she gets them.

Second, we need to permit responsibility. Responsibility is not something drilled into people. I receive ads in e-mail all the time for boot camps. I have no idea why. My children are grown and have their own children. But these messages claim that their boot camps will transform a child. Now there is a value in this military style training, especially for the military. But responsibility comes from making decisions and dealing with the consequences. It is practiced and not drilled. I don’t mean there is no teaching involved; rather, I mean that teaching responsibility is insufficient. Young people need to practice responsibility. In the essay I cited Dave Black uses the phrase “novice adults.” A novice learns by doing.

Finally, we need to accept risk. Allowing young people to practice responsibility involves risk. Some aren’t going to get it right. When my parents dropped me off at the top of a mountain about 20 miles from home with just a bicycle I had repaired and refurbished myself, and then headed off for the weekend, there was risk. (No, I wasn’t going to be “home alone.” My older sister was there.) It turned out that I hadn’t been quite perfect in restoring that bicycle. I had to stop at a town half way home, buy a part, and install it in order to finish my ride, but I made it just fine. Parents may face more daunting risks, but I suggest that no risk is greater than the risk of not allowing your child and then young adult to learn responsibility through facing risks.

I’ll get around to reading the whole book here sometime soon, but at the moment I’m convinced I’m likely to agree with most of it, and enjoy quibbling about details. I hope you’ll give this some thought.

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One Comment

  1. Great Article. I have read the book and I currently teach 7th grade. It is amazing to me the amount of teachers that give a worksheet and sit behind a desk all day. The kids in my class can do more, but they hate to be pushed. You hit it right on the head though. Responsibility and real world consequences are key. However, our public school systems continually throws all of the student responsibility out the window.

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