Enter The Teenager
We tend to take the environment in which we live for granted, to unthinkingly assume that the way things are now is how they are always supposed to be. For instance, I was born just a couple of weeks before the Cuban Missile crisis, and grew to adulthood in a world overshadowed by the Cold War and a seemingly intractable rivalry between the West and the Communist Bloc. Those of a certain age will identify with my sense of amazement when the apparently permanent Communist Bloc simply vanished in the space of a few short years. Our tendency to think of the contours of the world we know as fixed and eternal can blind us both to current problems and to future possibilities, but even worse than that: as Catholics we should know that the things that really are fixed and eternal are beyond this world, and they alone give us the context in which to consider worldly things in their true perspective.
Consider, for instance, the curious creature we know as "The Teenager", a term that does not simply mean an adolescent (with all the interesting quirks that go along with that stage of development), but a distinct "identity" with its own Teen Culture. Fifteen years ago I read an article by Thomas Hine called “The Rise And Decline of the Teenager” (here) that crystallized for me something that I should already have known from studying history: that our understanding of the teenager, and what it means to be one, even that there is such a creature, is a very recent product of our historical circumstances. Hine says:
Most adults seem to view this conflicted, contradictory figure of the teenager as inevitable, part of the growth of a human being. Yet many people now living [in 1999] came of age before there was anything called a teenager.
A Failed Adolescent
Hines writes from a secular perspective, and I don’t go along with all of his conclusions, but there is quite a lot of valuable information in his essay. He traces the birth of “the teenager” back to the Great Depression (the word first appears in print in 1941 in Popular Science magazine), when for the first time a majority of adolescent Americans were actually enrolled in high school; previously, most young men at this age would already be working full time, and most young women would have been married or working in their parents’ home. The teenager, as Hines plausibly tells the tale, is largely the product of universal (mostly public) high school attendance.
The article is more concerned with the development of teenagerdom than with exploring its ramifications (he may do more analysis in his books and on his website, which I have not explored), but he does offer some interesting insights. For instance:
Indeed, the teenager may be, as Edgar Z. Friedenberg argued in a 1959 book, a failed adolescent. Being a teenager is, he said, a false identity, meant to short-circuit the quest for a real one. By giving people superficial roles to play, advertising, the mass media, and even the schools confuse young people and leave them dissatisfied and thus open to sales pitches that promise a deepening of identity.
The word "adolescent" means "becoming an adult", but teenhood is presented to young people as a destination in itself, directing adolescents away from their true mission (hence the "failure"). Hines goes on to say:
We stopped expecting young people to be productive members of society and began to think of them as gullible consumers. We denned maturity primarily in terms being permitted adult vices, and then were surprised when teenagers drank, smoked, or had promiscuous sex.
Boys To Men?
There is a lot to think about here. While there are and have been certain natural features of adolescence, such as impulsiveness, emotionalism, and (dare I say it) a certain arrogance, the idea of a “youth culture”, distinct from (or even in rebellion against) the adult culture is a new and, I would argue, destructive phenomenon. Adolescent males in particular had traditionally exhibited their youthful “spiritedness” in an impatience to join their fathers and participate in the World of Adult Men. Their eagerness to enter this august company, to take on the “identity” of a grown man, was their impetus to integrate productively with the rest of their society. Its markers were not just work, but marriage and fatherhood, and therefore taking on responsibility was the public proof of Manhood. Now, as Hines points out, the young are encouraged to see adulthood as a time to give free reign to the sort self-indulgent irresponsibility that is so attractive to adolescents. One might add that the near-universality of college attendance seems to be extending Teenhood even further into adulthood, with the result that we are seeing ever more Perpetual Teens.
What Are They Teaching in These Schools?
|Michael Landon in the film I Was A Teenage Werewolf|
On the other hand, any institutional school, however good, will inevitably contribute to some of the negative outcomes noted above. I’m not saying this to discourage anyone; I have taught full-time in Catholic schools for the past twenty-eight years, and I would have quit long ago if I didn’t think they were, on balance, a good thing. Nonetheless, there will be a powerful attraction to the peer culture, and many, probably most, of your sons’ and daughters’ classmates will have been influenced much more by secular values and the consumer culture than by traditional Christian belief and practice.
Parents Are The Primary Educators
Whether we send our children to Catholic school or teach them at home, we are their primary educators, and God has given us parents, not the schools (and certainly not the popular culture) the graces to properly direct their formation (see St. John Paul II's Letter to Families). If we do send our sons and daughters to school we need to make an extra effort to help them form their identity as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, of their family, and of society, not their peer group. One way is to see that they are involved in activities outside of school that involve people of different ages. For example, when my sons were younger we took part in a Catholic ConQuest group with a lot of boys of different ages, but also a number of fathers who not only directed activities but also participated along with their sons, the adult men acting as guides and role models for the boys. Also, however good the religious instruction may be at the school, it’s not sufficient; the parents must take a direct role in the instruction of their children and offer an example of living a Christ-centered life (and it’s vitally important for fathers to be the high-priest of the domestic church: see here). If we who are concerned for the well-being and eternal salvation of our children don’t take the lead, then the secular culture, which cares for neither of those things, will step in.
Too often I have seen parents throw up their hands in the belief that there is nothing they can do. But there is: teenagerhood, unlike biological sex, is not an immutable fact. At the age when young men and women should be well along in the task of conforming themselves to the responsibilities of adulthood, it is unhealthy for them and corrosive of a healthy society to be accustoming themselves greater irresponsibility and self-indulgence. While each of us all must go through his or her teens, none needs to be a Teenager.