Teenagers Are Incompetent

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

Today we’ll address the first of the six lies of adolescence. Remember, by the name “adolescence” we are not simply referring to the biological changes that take place in a person over a small period of time (i.e., puberty). In our culture the word is more than a convenient catalog of the days, months, and years of being a teen. Adolescence refers to a mindset, and now an entire sub-culture, that has been established by certain lies that need to be laid bare.

1. Teenagers are incompetent.

*The first lie of adolescence says teens are not quite competent, in some ways not really complete humans. Thomas Hine said, “The concept of the teenager rests…on the idea of the adolescent as a not quite competent person, beset by stress and hormones” (The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, p.4). Someone who is “incompetent” is a person who fails to have or show the necessary skills to do something. This lie presumes that teenagers don’t yet have the necessary skills for life. The church version of the lie maintains teens do not have the wisdom or ability for spiritual life.

To be sure, growth and maturity is a process. There is no reason to expect teens will have the wisdom and competence that they will when they are 30, 50, or 70. But the lie of adolescence implies that because teens are not as mature as they will be someday, it is okay for them to remain childish. Many parents defend their child’s incompetence like it is a right while others even insist that it is unreasonable to expect them to grow up!

This low expectation has far reaching consequences. Because we believe the lie that teenagers are incompetent we don’t expect them to be responsible, so we don’t give them responsibility, and the downward spiral is perpetuated. We’re not surprised when they fail. We anticipate their excuses. And now even medical doctors are dispensing excuses for their incompetence.

For example, one diagnosis of teenage incompetence comes in the form of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). ADHD is a behavioral disorder found mostly in boys that renders them incapable of paying attention for any significant length of time. Those with ADHD are easily distracted and physically incapable of sitting still. Currently, ADHD is understood to be “a persistent and chronic syndrome for which no medical cure is available.”

There have been some very excellent advances in medicine and technology in our day. Of course, some of those advances have enabled us to become really good at packaging our bologna. ADHD may just be old bologna in new packaging. When I was growing up, failing to pay attention was called rude, and 1 Corinthians 13:5 exposes rudeness as a lack of love. Getting low grades in school didn’t mean that you had a disorder, it typically meant that you were sluggard. Proverbs 6:6-11 clearly designates laziness as a moral problem, not a medical disorder.

I am not denying that there are legitimate disabilities that make it difficult for some people to learn and that may even make it hard for some people to sit still. In fact, I don’t love sitting still for long periods of time. Maybe I have adult ADHD (which of course is now a sanctioned diagnosis from medical professionals). But isn’t it obvious what happened? The kids diagnosed with ADHD grew up and, low and behold, it didn’t go away. But the reason their inability to pay attention didn’t go away is because it’s not an adolescent problem, it’s a heart problem.

For the majority of young people, hyperactive behavior, unwillingness to pay attention, habitual forgetfulness, etc., is just plain selfish. Selfishness says that my plans and what I want to do with my time are more important than what you want me to do. Not paying attention to someone else has more to do with focusing on yourself (cf. Philippians 2:3-5). That is selfishness and pride, not a disorder. Selfishness is a sin.

The lie of certain adolescent incompetence paints a pathetic picture of teens. But to believe that every teen is incompetent ignores thousands of years of capable and accomplished young adults. Consider David the shepherd boy as he defeated the giant, Daniel the exile who stood up to the Babylonian king, Mary the young mother of the Messiah, and even Jesus Himself as a young man in the temple confounding the wisdom of the Scribes. The Bible specifically exhorts young people, “Don’t let anyone despise your youth, but be an example of the believer” (1 Timothy 4:12). Scripture assumes teens are capable of spiritual competence with the Spirit’s help.

Of course, saying that teens are incompetent not only casts an ugly shadow on teens but it also calls God’s competence into question. Is adolescent incompetence so powerful God cannot overcome it? Or does He just not care about teenagers to begin with? We must press to this final point of trusting God at His Word and looking for His grace in our young people. Buying into the cultural lie that adolescents cannot be spiritually empowered to live wisely merely reveals a deeper problem, namely a belief that God cannot or will not use our teens for His own glory.