The Birth of Adolescence

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

In 1904, G. Stanley Hall published a book titled, Adolescence: It’s Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education. Regardless of our opinion on his title, this is the first documented writing on adolescence. Let that sink in. The first time someone delineated adolescence as its own stage of development was 1904. Similarly, the term “teenager” was first published in the magazine Popular Science, but not until 1941.

The thesis of Hall’s book and his assumption about adolescence is that everyone between the ages of thirteen and eighteen is in a constant state of turmoil. Life is stormy for every teenager, a constant series of crisis and violent reactions. And this presupposition was based on his belief in evolution. The backbone of his argument was the evolutionary process, where through a sequence of events an organism passes by degrees to a different stage. Thomas Hine summarized Hall’s argument as,

The development of the individual mirrors the evolution of the species as a whole. He saw the adolescent as a savage, prone to violent, disruptive, impulsive behavior. The good news was that, just as humanity evolved to a higher form, adolescents will grow out of their savagery….[T]he optimism inherent in the notion that adolescence is something you’ll eventually grow out of does survive. (p.36)

So first, the idea of adolescence is based on the faulty assumptions of evolution. And second, the idea itself has only been around for 100 years!

Of course, Thomas Edison didn’t get his patent for the light bulb until 1889. I say that because I recognize just because something is relatively new in history doesn’t automatically make it invalid or unacceptable. New and helpful discoveries are frequently made. But it is also important to recognize that adolescence is not a timeless category, it is a modern invention and in this case, being “new” is not in favor of it’s being true.

But the biggest problem is not that adolescence is a new idea, it is that the idea of adolescence is unbiblical. The purpose of this entire series is to expose the origin of the lies of adolescence while also providing a more positive biblical approach with examples of young people from the Old and New Testaments. It will also address the impact of adolescence on youth ministry and offer more specific counsel to youth pastors.

Before we do that I need to share a few qualifiers. First, please understand that I have no intention to attack particular individuals, churches, or parachurches. But I do have a strong desire to assault false ideologies. An ideology is an orientation, a bent that characterizes the thinking of a group of people. And adolescence is just that. It is a social invention, an artificial concept, a lie. It is a myth that wrongly dominates the mindsets in our families, our schools, our society, and our churches and it must be challenged with truth.

Second, there is no denial that growth is a process. I happily acknowledge that the changes in a person’s life, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, are progressive and gradual. Incremental maturity is seen in small stages or steps that are followed by still more stages and steps.

But even though normal growth is gradual, gradual growth is still growth! Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a child doesn’t become an adult overnight, but that is not the same thing as giving a person a free pass from pursuing maturity and responsibility because that person is a teenager.

I also make no denial that most teenagers act like…teenagers. The world and the church are filled with 12-20 year olds with adolescent mindsets. What I deny is that this is how it has always been and how it must be. I believe we have created this context and it only continues because we keep giving it credence. Ideas have consequences and the consequences of believing the lies of adolescence are no myth, they are very real. We in the church must work to change our collective thinking as God’s community before we will see any change.

Let me also say that I am thankful for God’s patience with me, and a rejection of adolescence is not equal to an approval of intolerance for or impatience with those who are in the growing process. My challenge is to those who argue that adolescence grants them the right to stay stagnant and prolong immaturity and irresponsibility as long as possible.

There is no doubt that the influence of our culture is profound, persistent, and real, but it is largely an act of human imagination. No matter what else you come away with from this series, the purpose of every pastor (and every parent too) is to present every man complete in Christ. The NRSV translates Colossians 1:28, “to present every man mature in Christ.” Whatever age you are, wherever you are on the road of maturity, the goal is always increasing maturity in Christ. Teenagers are no exception.

So, the earth is not flat, and most people have never thought it was. You know what else? Teenagers are not incapable of responsibility or maturity, and most people have never thought they were. To believe otherwise is to believe the lies.

A Definition for Adolescence

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

Adolescence has achieved objective status as an obvious stage in human development in our culture. It is probably un-American and maybe even un-Christian, depending on what circles you’re in, to dispute it. And though this attitude toward teenagers is not surprising from the world since the secular culture is always looking for ways to excuse behavior, it is inexcusable that so many in the church have adopted the same mindset.

Webster defines adolescence as, “the state or process of growing up; the period of life from puberty to maturity terminating legally at the age of majority.” It categorizes the time period beginning at puberty and ending in adulthood, typically designated somewhere between the ages of twelve and twenty. Of course the high-end number continues to climb and entire books now suggest that the end of adolescence is closer to 25.

Growing up is a process. It would be foolish to suggest that a person should or could skip straight from 12 to 20. But there is more to the term adolescence than simply as a handy label to catalog the days, months, and years of a teenager.

The entire idea of adolescence is built on a mindset. A mindset is “a fixed mental attitude or disposition that predetermines a person’s responses to and interpretations of situations.” Parents assume that their teenager will have a certain mindset, and teenagers typically believe what adults tell them they will act like.

So what are some of the characteristics of this mindset? Though not organized in bullet form, Thomas Hine helps describe this mindset in his book The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager.

  • A teenager is incompetent. “The concept of the teenager rests in turn on the idea of the adolescent as a not quite competent person, beset by stress and hormones.” (p.4)
  • A teenager is irresponsible. The period of adolescence is a time for experimentation and prolonged preparation. It is a deferring of responsibility. “Inevitably, the teenagers is a disappointment, whose combination of adult capacities and juvenile irresponsibility sows personal heartbreak and social chaos.” (p.8)
  • A teenager is in a perpetual identity crisis. Every adolescent is always in a constant struggle to find self-esteem. “Who am I?” “Why do I have pimples?” “Why don’t other people like me?” “Why don’t I fit in?” Their struggle is one just to survive by adapting to ever changing situations.
  • A teenager is a problem waiting to happen. There is a kind of mystique surrounding teenagers that “encourages adults to see teenagers (and young people themselves) not as individuals but as potential problems.” (p.11) In addition, adolescence assumes that what teenagers do doesn’t really count.
  • A teenager will be rebellious. Rebellion is not a question of if, but when. An adolescent always wants to break out of the cocoon and get out from under the umbrella of parental authority. They will naturally want to challenge their teachers if not the law. They have no desire for accountability from anyone, including the church.*
  • A teenager is at the mercy of their hormones. There is a bias against teenagers, “expressed in the two-word term that serves as the vernacular explanation for almost everything teenagers do: Raging Hormones” (p.29).

The greatest danger of these descriptions of the adolescent mindset is that they are presented to as timeless, universal, and inevitable. The culture, and many in the church, have swallowed these definitions hook, lies, and sinker. This is precisely the way Hollywood portrays teens on television and in movies. This is exactly what popular music assumes life is like for teens.

And the result is that teenagers cannot be held responsible for what they do. An adolescent cannot possibly be expected to function like a reasonable, normal human being, they are just victims of their hormones.

Some have seen through the smoke of excuses, even non-believers.

[W]hile endocrinology (the study of glands and hormones of the body and their related disorders) is a field where fundamental discoveries are made regularly, there is not yet any biochemical explanation for surliness (uncontrolled anger), self-absorption, or rebelliousness. (ibid., p.30)

But sadly, the facts seem to have far less power than what people believe is true. Parents, teachers, church leaders, and teens themselves believe the lies.

An Introduction to the Myth of Adolescence

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

“The facts are simple,” says Charles K. Johnson, president of the International Flat Earth Research Society. “The earth is flat.”

As you stand in his front yard, it is hard to argue the point. From among the Joshua trees, creosote bushes, and tumbleweeds surrounding his southern California hillside home, you have a spectacular view of the Mojave Desert. It looks as flat as a pool table. Nearly 20 miles to the west lies the small city of Lancaster; you can see right over it. Beyond Lancaster, 20 more miles as the cue-ball roles, the Tehachapi Mountains rise up from the desert floor. Los Angeles is not too far to the south.

Near Lancaster, you see the Rockwell International plant where the Space Shuttle was built. To the north, beyond the next hill, lies Edwards Air Force Base, where the shuttle was tested. There, also, the Shuttle will land when it returns from orbiting the earth. (At least, that’s NASA’s story.)

“You can’t orbit a flat earth,” says Mr. Johnson. “The Space Shuttle is a joke–and a very ludicrous joke.”

His soft voice carries conviction, for Charles Johnson is on the level. He believes that the main purpose of the space program is to prop up a dying myth–the myth that the earth is a globe.

The preceding excerpt is from an article titled: “The Flat-out Truth” printed in Science Digest, July 1980. The man mentioned in the article, Charles Johnson, died March 19, 2001, having fought the lonely and futile battle to, in his mind, “restore the world to sanity.”

A Google search for “flat earth” reveals a somewhat surprising reality that there are still many people today, even in the 21st century, who believe our earth is flat. There are even entire organizations devoted to fight the idea that the planet we live on is a globe.

But there is a simple problem: the earth is not flat. It is a lie that the earth is flat and that lie has generated a flat earth myth. A “myth” is just a traditional story accepted as history. A myth serves to explain the worldview of a people. And the story of a flat earth is quite literally a worldview; a made-up view of the world; an imaginary story passed from generation to generation.

In addition, I have come to find that there is a bigger myth, a bigger “story” than the story that our earth is flat. The bigger myth is the myth that asserts everyone used to think the earth was flat.

Now I admit, I didn’t always pay great attention in school. But until doing some research one Saturday night I’m sure I remember reading and discussing in school the whole account from 1492 where everyone thought Columbus was crazy for sailing off into the ocean because they all thought the earth was flat. I’m positive my teachers regaled me with the great drama on the high sea as sailors readied themselves to mutiny against the great Captain Columbus, fearful that after so many days without finding land they were sure to sail right off the edge of the world.

That story is all wrong. I read some fascinating research by a gentleman named Jeff Russell, a professor of history at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He says in his book, Inventing the Flat Earth, that throughout history and up to the time of Columbus, “nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the earth spherical.” Russell claims there is nothing in the documents from the time of Columbus or in early accounts of his life that suggests any debate about the roundness of the earth.

He attributes the myth about flat-earth popularity to the creator of another story, the story of Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving. Irving wrote a fictitious account of Columbus’s defending a round earth against misinformed priests and university professors.

The book was titled The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus and was published in 1828. It was a mixture of fact and fiction with Irving himself admitting he was “apt to indulge in the imagination.” Its theme was the thrilling victory of a lone believer in a spherical earth over a united front of Bible-quoting, superstitious ignoramuses, convinced the Earth was flat. Irving invented the picture of a young Columbus, a “simple mariner,” appearing before hooded theologians at the council of Salamanca, all of whom supposedly believed–according to Irving–that the earth was flat like a dinner plate.

There was, in fact, a meeting at Salamanca in 1491, but Irving’s account was pure fiction. He “let his imagination go completely…the whole story is misleading and mischievous nonsense.” The well-known argument at the Council of Salamanca was a question of the distance between Europe and Japan that Columbus presented and therefore had nothing to do with the shape of the earth. Needless to say Irving took some “dramatic license” to make the story more exciting.

But if the majority opinion was not that the earth was flat, how did the fictional version become the non-fiction truth taught in schools and schoolbooks as of the early 1860’s?

Russell says the flat-earth mythology flourished mostly between 1870 and 1920, and grew in a environment with an emerging acceptance of evolution. He says the flat-earth myth was an ideal way to dismiss the ideas of religion in the name of modern science.

The fundamental reason for promoting the lie about a flat earth was to defend Darwinism and provide ammunition against the creationists. The argument was simple and powerful: “Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as the idiots who denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you be?”

So not only is the earth not flat, it has never been the popular view that it was! We might say the liberal media of the 1800s spun the truth to make Christians look stupid for teaching a flat earth and make evolutionists look smart. But the idea of a flat world is a lie. And the idea that everyone thought the earth was flat is an even bigger lie.

But this is not a series on the geometry of the earth. The major lesson from flat-earth beliefs is how well-spun myths mislead and how easily they blind one to contrary evidence. Embedded lies are major obstacles to the truth.

And there is a parallel myth running rampant in the church today; dangerous lies propagated by parents, spread by many youth pastors, defended by educators, and swallowed by young people themselves. The presuppositions of our generation about teenagers have become a story–a way we talk about life, and this story is a myth called adolescence.

The lies depict teenagers as helplessly incompetent, irresponsible, and in a perpetual identity crisis. Young people are portrayed only as problems waiting to happen, they are guaranteed to be rebellious, and always at the mercy of their hormones. Belief in these lies has become so commonplace that hardly anyone questions the reality or legitimacy of adolescence, resulting in an inability or unwillingness to hold teenagers responsible for what they do. This has produced widespread confusion among adolescents themselves and frustration for authorities.

Let me be clear as clear as possible, the popular idea of adolescence is not true and it is painfully unbiblical. Adolescence is not a fact–just like the earth is not flat. It is equally wrong to think that everyone has always recognized adolescence as a fact–just as everyone has not always believed that the earth is flat.