Where Do Teens Belong?

Our friend Joe has been telling us about teens.

Joe works with teenagers: he loves them, he listens to them, he learns from them and about them. I, on the other hand, am intimidated by teens: I didn’t understand my own teen years, and have been bewilderingly perplexed by the whole adolescence thing most of my life. However, we have three kids who are creeping towards adolescence faster than we realize.

And so, I listen to Joe when he tells me about teens.

This is what I am learning: Adolescence (that period between childhood and adulthood), is lengthening. 100 years ago, puberty started later, and people were considered “adult” by the time they were 17 or 18 – ready to marry, work, leave home. They knew who they were, to whom they belonged, and what they were supposed to do.

These days, however, puberty is starting earlier, and experts are saying that adolescence is only really ending towards the end of their 20’s. It is only as people today are staring their 30th birthday down that many begin to know who they are, to whom they belong and what they are supposed to do.

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The work of adolescence is to figure those key things out, and in our world teens are having a dreadfully hard time doing so. They are barraged by information and pressured to perform at a level that has never before been expected from teens. But, unlike generations before, they are required to do more and more of this work of “figuring life out” by themselves.

Our world today is characterized by age-specific activities and programs: at school, on the sports field, in church, in camps – we group people by age, and do our best to “meet their age-specific needs” by creating a program “targeted at their ages”. Much of this is done with love and concern for teens’ development and well-being – and even their social comfort in being with their “own”, but Joe is at pains to point this one thing out:

The downside of age-specific activities is that our teens begin to feel unwanted by any other age groups. Rather than feeling nurtured by the programs designed “just for them”, there is a residual feeling of being abandoned by adults, left to their own devices, both literal and figurative.

These issues are complex and there are no doubt many contributing factors underlying why things are the way they are today. Joe is careful not to over-simplify, but surely he is right to point this one thing out: whereas adolescents used to spend the majority of their day around adults, experiencing life and learning alongside adults; these days adolescents spend the majority of their time around other adolescents, experiencing life through a teenage-grid. Thousands of hours of organic lifestyle mentoring and parenting have been traded for specialized skills-training and youth-specific activity.

Perhaps, teens today are learning economics in a class, rather than from an adult who trusts them enough to watch them figure out how to balance a tight household budget.
Perhaps they get YouTube rather than long conversations over dinner.
Perhaps by shielding our teens from tough conversations about death, betrayal, finance and sex (because it isn’t fun, and they shouldn’t have to think about those horrible things at their age),we are doing them a disservice in not allowing them to feel welcome in our adult world of facing challenge, sometimes failing, and having to try again.

I don’t yet have teens, and so I’m still a decade away from having to put this into practice, but Joe’s words as ringing in my ears as I look at the kids in my life. We cannot give up, we need to engage. We need to be present, we need to start the conversation and not give up. No matter what we do or say or plan, we want to communicate to them that they BELONG. They belong at home, they belong with us, they can stick around for the tough times, they can do the tough projects along side us.

And so we say this to our children: We’re going to do to this thing called life TOGETHER. We will not abandon you to your peers to learn about life. We will do our best to make home a safe place for you to be you as you grow up here. We will affirm our love for you, we will welcome your friends. We will not hide our mistakes from you. We will ask for your trust, your forgiveness, your partnership in our family. We will pray together, serve together, learn together, laugh together.

I think Joe is wise. He knows about teens. I so very much want to be wise about teens too, that we may love them better all the way into adulthood. If you think Joe is wise too, perhaps consider how you can tell a teen you love that they belong in your life today?

7 thoughts on “Where Do Teens Belong?

  1. Sometimes all the “teen-centered” activities start making adults feel unwelcome too, perpetuating the sense of distance between the age groups. I used to be scared of interacting with teenagers, until my cousins started hitting puberty and we began to have conversations about driving, following your passions, or having your first kiss. I suddenly realized they were just in-progress adults.

    Good thoughts 🙂

  2. i’m all for joe’s perspective. and additionally, as a mom who has been on both sides of the people we have brought into this world, i say put in Coke-colored carpeting and make sure the frig is always stocked with pizza, Coke, and other teen sorts of delicacies. make the living room comfortable for teens to gather there. and, most of all, be there, really BE there for all of those kids. welcome them into your home and make sure they know it is their home as well whenever they need it to be. keep your ears open and your mouth shut unless you are asked to speak about something. always listen to their story first before you make a judgement. and LOVE them ALL for who they are and for who they are trying to figure out they want to be. the world generally refers to the age over 60 or so as the “golden years.” in my world those growing up years were the golden ones.

    • That’s exactly how we would love our home to be Ruth: a welcoming and safe place for teens, more fun than the mall, more real than the internet, more alive than whatever else is on offer.

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