The Social Construction of Adolescence

This weekend I was at the National Youth Workers Convention. I absolutely love these types of gatherings. Yes, because I learn a lot; yes, because there are great resources for youth ministry; but mostly because I get to be around a bunch of people who don't think I'm crazy, we can be crazy together. A few takeaways from the conference? Andy Root is the Rob Bell of Youth Ministry (in a good way), Kenda Creasy Dean is not just brilliant but funny too, the way churches behave is more important than what they say, and Francis Chan is still a fundamentalist...

But another discussion that I am sure will continue post-conference is the one that was sparked by the musings of Dr. Robert Epstein. His essential argument from the stage of the "Big Room" was that adolescence is not a biological reality but merely a social construction that does not reflect the true level of these young people's competency. We restrict their rights. As Epstein argued, if you're a teenager and you want to gain some rights, commit a crime and go to prison. Your rights will about double. Dr. Epstein said that there's no science behind any of our legal restrictions nor our systemic condescension toward anyone under the age of about 25. In other words, as far as he's concerned, there's no such thing as adolescence--at least not outside the realm of the systems we've created. We talk about them as "kids" which he says is a lie. "They're not kids, they're young adults." We underestimate their ability to process, to question, to think, and to perform when they're just as competent, if not more competent than the rest of us. I think that Dr. Eptein wants to see something of a cultural revolution like the civil rights movement. He wants to see the systems--those we have put in place that isolate and oppress those whom we call adolescents and which hold up a low bar of expectation--brought down. He wants to see their rights and the respect we have for them reflect their true adulthood and competency.

Now, I actually enjoyed what Dr. Epstein had to say. There were certainly issues with it. Just because someone is an adult in their brain does not mean they're ready to take on every adult responsibility and just because they're capable of processing rigorous concepts doesn't mean that they can equally contribute to a conversation about historical soteriology, for example. Indeed, people need training in these things. Just because an adult brain can handle it doesn't mean you're ready to handle it. So, even though I stand in agreement that we should be seeing teenagers, especially in our churches, as equal members of society, I also believe that there is a necessary apprenticeship required for all people. We should see teenagers in our churches not as lower class citizens, but as people who can contribute, at what ever level they're on, to the identity of the church. They should not be isolated but included as adults--even as apprentice adults. Adolescence is a social construction, but that doesn't make it bad. It's how we approach it that makes it good or bad. Yes, we've abused our apprentices for too long. But if we provide a structure of respect, of empowerment, then we give them a chance to learn and grow. That may begin with our language.

In working with teenagers, I believe that they're hungry to contribute as adults, they're ready to be treated as adults. But they're also hungry to be taught, to be "discipled," just like the rest of us. They're still students. That being said, they need good teachers and not all adults are ready to be adults either.

A Post-script on language:
If so-called "adolescents" are indeed to be seen as adults-in-training, then what should we call them? Isn't "offspring" a bit strange? Isn't AIT (Adult In Training) somewhat odd? Should we stop calling them students? Should we stop calling them "kids"? As Kenda Creasy Dean said, "kids is a relational term... it means they belong to someone (i.e. they're loved)... Offspring?! What's that?!" So "kids" and even "children" are acceptable terms but what matters more than our language is how we embody it. If we say "kids" but do not behave as though they belong, then despite our intentions, we become condescending--perpetuating an unjust social construction of adolescence.


Cabe Matthews said…
Well said. I like that you're critical of the social-construction-means-we-should-just-toss-it-away logic. We're all socially constructed and we all inhabit many different social constructions, because people are social animals. But as people concerned with discipleship to Jesus, Christians need to be considering how the gospel transforms existing social constructions.

I think that means at least a cross-generational worshipping community. But the whole church needs to take a stake in our young people. It takes a village, and a village we have. But the church needs to step it up and become the kind of village that accompanies teens through the strange and lonely journey our culture calls adolescence.

Which leads me to another thought. Are young people leaving the church, or has the church left young people?