Whatever Happened to Growing Up and Moving Out?
At the reception following Max’s bar mitzvah, the 13-year-old’s father raised the toast, “Today you become an adult … yeah, right.” Everyone laughed, including Max, but clinical psychologists Joseph and Claudia Allen found the contrast between the traditional ceremony and the modern reality very pointed. Their book, Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old, looks at why teenagers seem to be backing away from adulthood so often that the Allens say the age of 25 is “the new 15.”
Where once the achievement of a driver’s license at the earliest possible moment was the goal of every teen, now many shy from the responsibility it carries, rather than grasping for the independence it offers. As many as 10 percent of twentysomethings have moved back in with their parents for economic or other reasons, according to a recent survey. Yet society’s belief that adolescents are hormone-driven and unable to assume adult roles without decades of formalized training is false, the Allens say, and it needs to be replaced with an appreciation for teenagers’ capabilities and practical means to cultivate them.
The authors attempt to exonerate parents for this state of affairs, but they clearly show parents are responsible for their children’s maturation. The problem may be that parents share the societal attitude that it’s OK to “take care of things” for their teens even if that means hindering their development. The school system doesn’t help, creating an unhealthy “bubble” of adolescents being socialized by their peers rather than by adults. A credential-driven business world has shut the door on many opportunities for young people to gain useful experience before graduating from high school or college, leaving students at loose ends and despairing of ever gaining adulthood through the multitudes of hoops erected in their path. Outrageous behavior like early sexual activity, substance abuse, or petty crime may be lunges at “adult” behaviors that can be attained immediately, rather than postponed for a decade in the misty future.
The Allens don’t identify the chicken vs. the egg here, but if pressed they probably would point to the changes in American communities since the Civil War. In rural society, teenagers were expected to handle meaningful roles on the family farm or with the family business, or to fulfill similar roles with the neighbors. Shifiting from an agricultural to an industrial economy demanded more formal education — in 1900 only 11 percent of eighth-graders went on to high school — and labor unions encouraged longer schooling to reduce the pool of young workers.
Now, rather than contribute to their family and community, teenagers find themselves largely surrounded by other teenagers. How would an adult feel about a job which only simulated “real work” day after day? they ask. That’s the high school experience. It offers a future some students find bleak, and others rebel against.
The Allens’ recommendations are “not complex, but … not obvious.” At the basic level, they urge steps to “put adulthood back into adolescence,” bringing teens into the adult world wherever possible, giving them challenges to master, and letting them suffer real consequences. The professors point out that students accustomed to arriving at class five minutes late without repercussions are dismayed to find that airlines operate with different rules. This can be taught to high schoolers, too.
It is not a blood-and-thunder kind of parenting book, though. Frankly, they say, few parents have the time to carry out high-intensity disciplinary regimens while taking care of work, family responsibilities, and other demands. “In contrast to parents’ highly limited time to spend on parenting,” they write, “a teenager … who wants to do something other than what his parents want is often able to devote something close to 24 hours per day, seven days per week to figuring out a way around parental rules. Adolescent creativity in such situations knows few bounds.”
The Allens’ key is to build adult-to-adult relationships with teenagers. In situations with strong parent-child relationships, often the children internalize their parents’ values and act accordingly, even in the absence of strict and enumerated rules. “Discipline,” after all, comes from the same root as “disciple” — a common observation in the Christian education community — and it calls for constant adult-level interaction, even if frequently rejected.
They single out the educational system for radical change, treading a fine line between the value of classical education and the “school as job training” model. Certainly our own state’s “Learn and Earn” program already makes a tacit acknowledgment that undergraduate coursework frequently duplicates high school classes, so why not go ahead with college if you’re motivated enough. In fact, the Allens propose abandoning the concept of high school as a four-year program and adopting a content-mastery model, with exit exams that allow students to receive a diploma as soon as they demonstrate a sufficient basic education. There is a whisper that a fundamental body of literacy and citizenship is most appropriate for teenagers, leaving the detailed studies of literature, history, and science for college or even later, rather than letting watered-down high school coursework delay entry into productive life.
There are some unanswered questions and omissions in the book. The authors, though parents of teenagers themselves, gather most of their information from their clinical settings. The composite case studies they give are frequently students already in trouble with authorities, involved with social services, or in foster care or group settings. They don’t address the role of fathers or their absence, and since there seem to be more boys than girls in the examples they give, that would be an interesting ground for inquiry. There is little discussion of the impact of religious community, though what is said is positive.
Overall, though, the Allens offer a reasoned and practically attainable approach to making adolescence a time of training and growth, rather than one of passivity and stagnation.
This review originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Carolina Journal.
NOTE: Helping our sons to become men who are ready, willing and able to take on adulthood is a primary focus of our new book, Raising Real Men. We’d love for you to read a chapter. Just click the link in the left sidebar.