Vocabulary for OT Young People

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

The OT is a great place to start in our look to find adolescents in Scripture. We find people of all ages in the OT. There are numerous chronicles of babies, kids, young people and old people in the OT. This is most likely due to the abundance of narrative writing (that is, writing that describes events and history) as compared with the primarily theological (and propositional) nature of the NT.

In our look at OT vocabulary I have not included any words that ONLY refer to infants, babies, children, or older men, even though some of the ones I will refer to overlap with these age groups. This is a short list of four nouns (not adjectives) that are used at least somewhere in the OT as a reference to youth or young men/women. Again, as we’ll see, these four words do have overlap with words for babies and children and with words used in reference to older men.

יֶלֶד (yeled)

This word is used some 90 times in the Hebrew OT. It is translated in various ways in the ESV including “young men,” though predominately by the word “child” or (plural, “children”). Just one example of this use will be sufficient:

For to us a child (yeled) is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

Of course, this is a prophecy about the coming of the Christ; the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. Calling Him a child in this verse doesn’t really tell us much about His age, it is simply a general reference to offspring of parents (in this case Mary and the Holy Spirit).

But the word does have more definite age restraints in other places. For example, it is the word used to describe David’s child with Bathsheba.

2 Samuel 12:18 On the seventh day the child (yeled) died.

This is the account of the death of David’s infant son, a punishment of God on David’s crimes of adultery and murder. His son was only seven days old, not even having been circumcised yet. So yeled is used here to describe a very small baby.

More important for our discussion, however, is its use to describe “youth” or “young men.” Yeled is translated as “youth” in Daniel 1:4.

Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths (yeled) without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding, learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. (Daniel 1:3-4)

You can imagine that this might be a good model to study later in our series. But before looking at anything else we should figure out how old these “youths” really were.

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon adopted a policy of taking the most promising young men and “recruiting” them for government positions in his empire. Rather than reserving leadership for Chaldeans alone, Nebuchadnezzar resolved to pool the best brains and abilities to be found among the nations he had conquered. Though they were to have certain qualities already, probably the one “quality” not prized was stubborn persistence; someone who was “stuck in his ways.” Being stuck in one’s ways is something that is more likely to describe older people.

With that in mind, as well as from other indicators from history and from within the book of Daniel itself, most commentators believe that Daniel and the rest were somewhere between fourteen and seventeen. Yeled is used in Daniel to describe those who were … teenagers.

One more example of this word is important to note. Let’s go back to the story I mentioned in my previous adolescence blog, the story of Rehoboam and the “young men” he took counsel from.

1 Kings 12:8 [h]e abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men (yeled) who had grown up with him….

Forget for just a moment that it is translated young men, not adolescents. The important question is, how old were these “young men”? It sounds typical of teenagers, doesn’t it? It seems like the immature, impetuous manner of most adolescents. So how old were these guys? Take a quick look at 1 Kings 14:21:

Now Rehoboam the son of Solomon reigned in Judah. Rehoboam was forty-one when he began to reign, and he reigned seventeen years in Jerusalem.

He was forty-one! His peers, his equals were then probably somewhere in their mid-thirties to mid-forties. And yet the same word, yeled, is used to describe them as it is to describe a seven day old baby. I guess sinfully stupid and proud decisions are not something limited only to teens. This is not a passage that adolescent advocates can use to support their position.

So depending on the context, just this one word, yeled, can be used to describe anyone from the age of David’s dead seven day old baby, to Daniel and his teenage friends, all the way to Rehoboam’s mid-life counselors, “young men” who were around forty.

עֶלֶם (elem)

This word is used about five times in the Hebrew OT. It is always translated as some form of the word “youth.” In 1 Samuel 20:22 the youth are military assistants and in Job (20:11 & 33:25) it describes the physical strength, liveliness, and vitality of young people compared with those who are old. It is also used to describe David in 1 Samuel 17:56 after killing Goliath. We’ll look at some of these verses a little later.

נַעַר (na’ar)

This word is the Hebrew workhorse to describe young people, used over 200 times in the Hebrew OT. It is translated predominately with the word “youth,” but also frequently as “young man” or plural, “young men.” But it too is translated in various ways in the ESV. Let me show you a few examples of the various ages covered by na’ar.

This is the word used to describe Moses at three months old, left in a basket by his mother in the river. Exodus 2:2 says that he was three months old, and then in verse six we see that:

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her young women walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman, and she took it. When she opened it, she saw the child (yeled), and behold, the baby (na’ar) was crying. (Exodus 2:5-6)

This verse shows that yeled and na’ar can be used synonymously (interchangeably), though obviously na’ar can be used to describe someone extremely little. By the way, na’ar is also used to describe David’s dead infant in 2 Samuel 12:16.

2 Samuel 12:16 David therefore sought God on behalf of the child (na’ar).

So there is overlap in the different vocabulary words, as well as an overlap in age distinctions covered by the same word.

na’ar is the word used of Samuel from before he was weaned (1 Samuel 1:22), immediately after he was weaned (1:24), probably somewhere around two or three years old. Then it continues to describe him as a young person:

Then Elkanah went home to Ramah. And the boy (na’ar) ministered to the Lord in the presence of Eli the priest. (1 Samuel 2:11)

Samuel was ministering before the LORD, a boy (na’ar) clothed with a linen ephod. (1 Samuel 2:18)

The young man (na’ar) Samuel grew in the presence of the Lord. (1 Samuel 2:21)

Now the young man (na’ar) Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man. (1 Samuel 2:26)

But look over at chapter three. Here we find the “young man” (na’ar) (3:1) ministering and this is the account of God revealing Himself directly to Samuel (3:8 – na’ar as well). How old do you think Samuel is by this point? The Jewish historian Josephus suggests Samuel was twelve…12! Based on the running story in 1 Samuel at most he could have been only a couple years older than that. He would be considered an early “adolescent” in today’s vocabulary.

But look at the description of him in verse 19:

And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. (1 Samuel 3:19)

This means that God was using Samuel as a young teenager to reveal divine things. He spoke with divine authority as an adolescent! Here was no superficial, trivial, cartoon-watching, computer-game-playing, silly, skin-deep young person with no substance. Samuel was a young person whose life was ripe with knowledge of God. Here was a young person defined by his relationship with God.

A little bit further in 1 Samuel we find the young shepherd David described by this word. Na’ar is the word used of David in:

And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” (1 Samuel 17:33)

More than likely David was a mid-teenager, perhaps between 15-17. He was also young enough that Goliath mocked his youth (“when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him for he was but a youth” v.42). You can imagine that we might come back to this representative teenager as well.

Finally, na’ar is the word used of Job’s sons who had their own houses in Job 1:4, 19. We can safely assume a certain level of responsibility and means for these young men to care for their own homes.

So depending on the context, just this one word, na’ar, can be used in a broad variety of ways to describe anyone from the age of Moses in the basket, all the way up to Job’s sons who had their own households.

בָּחוּר (bachur)

Bachur is used over 40 times in the Hebrew OT. It is translated in the ESV predominately as “young man,” and generally seems to refer only to those in the middle to older part of the “young men” spectrum. We could probably limit this word to the time from puberty to around forty.

These young men are of the marrying age:

For as a young man (bachur) marries a young woman…. (Isaiah 62:5)

Though they might not be married:

Fire devoured their young men (bachur), and their young women had no marriage song. (Psalm 78:63)

Another interesting description of these young men was that they were apparently able to have children:

[T]hus says the LORD of hosts: “Behold, I will punish them. The young men (bachur) shall die by the sword, their sons and their daughters shall die by famine. (Jeremiah 11:22)

And yet at the same time they were apparently still close to their mothers:

I have made their widows more in number than the sand of the seas; I have brought against the mothers of young men (bachur) a destroyer at noonday…. (Jeremiah 15:8)

They are able to battle (as they are promised to be killed by the sword in battle, while being described as different from men:

May their men meet death by pestilence, their youths (bachur) be struck down by the sword in battle. (Jeremiah 18:21)

So the fourth word, along with the previous three, can refer to a variety of persons in different stages of life, though bachur seems to be the most consistent in its description of those in their teens to their forties.

I will make some additional summary observations in a future blog. For today’s entry I simply want to point out that noticeably absent from this list is one (let alone more) words that restrict a person to the time of 12 to 20. We do not find any equivalent OT vocabulary for persons or the period of adolescence.

Adolescents in the Old Testament

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

There is a great old story about King Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12. At the beginning of the chapter we find Solomon’s kingdom divided, and Solomon’s son Rehoboam was made king in the South. The people of Israel petitioned the new king to lighten their heavy work burden and the high taxes placed on them by Solomon (vv.1-5). The new King Rehoboam sent the people away with a promise to answer in three days.

As we insert ourselves into the storyline we are initially impressed that Rehoboam immediately went to get counsel. There is, after all, safety in the abundance of counselors. Our impression is further strengthened when we see that at first he goes to the “old men” who had also stood with his father Solomon. These were the guys who had been around; they were the wise guys. But the story takes a turn for the worse when Rehoboam turns from their counsel in verse 8.

[Rehoboam] abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him…. (1 Kings 12:8)

The advice of his peers was to make the burden heavier than before. Their counsel to the new king was to increase his authority, his power, and wealth. The people should serve the king, not visa versa.

Now I don’t know if we would say that Rehoboam followed his friends’ direction because of “peer pressure” or because he didn’t want to lose his relationship with them by offending them. But regardless of his motivation, it definitely was not a good idea to listen to these punks.

But isn’t this just the way we would expect a teenager to act? Doesn’t this behavior seem adolescent, ignoring the elders and following the crowd? This is no surprise; it’s just what young men do.

In our discussion on the birth and growth of adolescence we have looked primarily at the various historical elements over the past century that have promoted (intentionally or unintentionally) this social myth. We’ve talked about the modern idea of adolescence as including more than just the actual years of being a teenager, but the mindset of rebellion and instability that are said to define those years. But whatever the history, we are most concerned with what God’s Word reveals about young people, what it expects of them, and what it expects of those who train them.

This leads us to the next step in our series: to look at the various OT vocabulary for young people and attempt to identify any relevant terms or descriptions of adolescent behavior as we recognize it today.

So does an account like that of Rehoboam reveal adolescence in Scripture? Is this narrative just the tip of the biblical iceberg? If we go below the surface will we find uncontrollable teenage hormones dominating ancient adolescents just like today? Will we find a category of juveniles who can’t help but be trouble causers?

We’ll have to see….

The Easy Sell of Irresponsibility Excuses

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

This is (finally) the eighth and last ingredient in the growth of adolescence: it appeals to the flesh. Everything about adolescence appeals to human nature, which left to itself pursues laziness, irresponsibility, and if possible, an excuse for it all.

For example, adolescence appeals to the most basic attitude of sinfulness: pride. It makes adolescents out to be special and unique, significant and great. And if a teenager’s problem is a lack of self-esteem, their pride doesn’t need to be deflated, but inflated! This is certainly anti-biblical.

In addition, adolescence appeals to the most basic expression of sinfulness: rebellion. We are presented as if it were a medical fact, that a teenager will be rebellious. They will always want to break out of the cocoon and get out from under the umbrella of parental authority (not to mention other God-placed authorities).

But think for a moment about the chief biblical commandment for children: “honor your father and mother.” The fifth of the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20:12 provides a clear word to children of all ages – including teenagers.

And here’s what is so instructive, apparently God does not expect young people to despise their parents and see them as irrelevant and useless and restrictive. God expects young people not just to submit and obey with unhappy hearts. Instead, God expects that young people look up to their parents. He expects that they “honor” both their father and mother. The word “honor” has the idea of giving weight or value or importance to. In other words, God requires young people to attach value and worth to their parents and respect them accordingly.

Don’t you think this exactly where Satan would challenge? Young people today are encouraged to think of their parents as irrelevant, restrictive, and narrow. The examples they see night after night in TV sitcoms, the typical parental models found in movie after movie and in popular music indoctrinates teenagers into thinking that their parents are incompetent. Media brainwashes adolescents into thinking that parents are incapable of understanding them. You can forget the old-fashioned notion that “Father knows best.” Make way for the wisdom of the teens.

By the way, this aspect of the parent-child relationship is so important that the death penalty was prescribed for disrespect towards one’s parents. Exodus 21:17 “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.” While this was typically only applied to over-the-top rebellion from an older child, it does remind us that God has a very serious perspective toward rebellion against parental authority.

The bottom line here is that the Creator of humanity did not chalk up teenage (or any other age for that matter) rebellion to raging hormones. To disobey or disrespect one’s parents is not a mark of adolescence, it is sin. And one more thing, just as God did not excuse sin in teens, He likewise does not permit parents to passively sit back and excuse such rebellion. Again, God takes this very seriously. So should we.

Adolescence Growth Enhancements

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

Though we’ve finished covering the eight ingredients in the growth of adolescence there are a few additional elements that have enhanced its growth.

For example, the age of marriage. The myth of adolescence (and its real results) has obviously had an impact on the age young people get married. Under Roman law (2,000 years ago) women could marry at twelve and men at fourteen. A thousand years ago this was true under English law as well. Two hundred years ago in the United States it was still the same: women could marry at twelve and men at fourteen. For at least three thousand years, the minimum legal age for marriage stayed the same. I didn’t include this as an element in the growth of adolescence, though perhaps it should be. Maybe it is more a result. Regardless, today we have trouble imagining that a person would be ready to get married until they have finished at least a Bachelor’s degree and established themselves in a job and whatever else. Currently the average age for first marriages in the United States is 26, and that will only continue to rise.

Now I am not suggesting that we promote and push teenagers to get married. Many teen marriages in our day end in divorce, though obviously age is not the only problem. But we might argue that it is precisely because of our assumptions about adolescents that parents don’t even consider it possible to train their young person for marriage-responsible maturity. Perhaps if our society expected them to act like responsible adults, many of them would be mature enough to marry (impacting a significant number of additional problems that later-age marriage brings with it).

But beware, parents, allowing this immaturity has results. It used to be in the United States, at least to hear the older generation tell it, that young people reaching adulthood could not wait to leave home and be on their own. And their parents longed for an empty nest and quieter lives. But young people are spoiling these plans. According to the 2000 Census, nearly four million Americans aged 25 to 34 are still living in their parental homes or have moved back in with Mom and Dad. Boomerang kids, as they’re called, leave home for college or a job or the military, only to end up back home. Newsweek magazine called them “adultolescents,” young adults who just aren’t ready to face the world on their own.

Perhaps still another adolescence growth enhancement is the invention and accessibility of the automobile. The most obvious value of a car for a teenagers is that it is a private space in which to be alone. Not only is a driver’s license probably our culture’s most important rite of passage, cars impress girls and get you away from your family for a little fun.

Still yet another enhancement relates to the current American economy, namely that the United States is wealthy enough for most everyone to afford to have a troubled adolescence. Many dads (or dads and moms together) make enough (or borrow enough) so that their kids don’t have to work to support the family. There’s no reason for them to act mature if they don’t have to. Why work today when you can put it off until tomorrow?

For many individuals, such a long period of education, exploration, and deferred responsibility has been a tremendous gift. For other individuals, it has not been a blessing. … This lengthy waiting period has tended to reduce young people’s contacts with older people and increase them with people who are exactly the same age. That in turn has lead to the rise of a youth subculture that has helped define and elaborate what it means to be a teenager (Hine, p. 7).

I mentioned this before, but I want to say again that I make no denial that most teenagers act like…teenagers. The world and the church are filled with 12-20 (30-40) year olds with the mindset described above. But I truly believe that we are to blame for creating this context, and it only continues because we keep giving it credence. Ideas have consequences and the consequences of the myth of adolescence are no myth, they are very real. But 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 again that I am thankful for God’s patience with me, and a rejection of adolescence is not equal to an approval of intolerance 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.

The Expansion of National Media

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

Whether it is mass produces pop music, or cable television, or the internet, adolescent culture is disseminated and domesticated by national media outlets.

One of the first examples of this national media influence in the spread of adolescence was the show American Bandstand. This was the original TRL (Total Request Live). This weekday afternoon dance party program had its national debut in 1957. It was created by Walter Annenberg who was also the owner of Seventeen. With the clean cut Dick Clark hosting, the show made teenagers and their music acceptable to middle America (the majority of the country) by taking the edge off. The dancers didn’t look like juvenile delinquents in their jackets and ties or skirts and blouses, but they did look like they were cool.

The media, which some feared were corrupting youth, had tamed and exploited the threatening adolescent subculture, and together they put on a real nice show.

One of the “advantages” of the nation media is that disaffected young people all over the country (and the whole world for that matter) can find out exactly what gestures, costumes, and attitudes were driving adults nuts at any given moment.

Today the only constant presence in the household is the television set, which instructs children not on what they should become, but rather on what they should buy. If you research the inauguration of media monsters like MTV you will find out that their goal is to promote the ideals of adolescence through flesh-feeding entertainment and then to sell young people on worldly, liberal values as well as the “in” bubble gum to chew.

As you know, the political left attempted to use this force in the last election to their benefit. I guess thankfully the results of the myth of adolescence kept most older teenagers and tweeners from exercising their citizen’s responsibility by voting. Nevertheless, through music and movies and television shows and commercials and magazines and the internet and even video games, teenagers are learning more about who they can and should be from the media then perhaps anywhere else.

Buy Biography

Good afternoon blogreaders! I haven’t much time to dilly-dally around writing a blog, but since Mo and I are off to the elders’ retreat tomorrow through Friday, I thought I’d get at least one in before departure.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been to the one28 home page. And if you’ve been to the one28 home page, you’ve probably noticed that the 05SR Session 2 mp3 on Sola Scriptura/William Tyndale is uploaded for your downloading pleasure. Of course, if you were in big church this morning you also heard that sermon live and in person – maybe for the second time.

But whether you’ve been to the one28 page or downloaded the mp3 or heard my message in big church today or not, the suggestion I’m about ready to make is still for you.

*You should buy the book, God’s Outlaw, by Brian Edwards, a biography of William Tyndale. While I don’t necessarily love history, I had trouble putting this book down. Sure, there were parts that I had to sludge through, but most of it was simply captivating. Here is an excerpt from the back cover:

God’s Outlaw has every ingredient of a thrilling story – a king, a cardinal, secret agents, a betrayer and a fugitive.

William Tyndale lived in the colourful and cruel days of Henry VIII, when men were burned, racked and maimed for lesser crimes than that of smuggling the Bible into England. When Tyndale set out to provide the first printed New Testament in English he was forced to do so in defiance of the king, the pope and almost every person in authority. Compelled to flee from his homeland, he continued with his work of translating the Scriptures whilst slipping from city to city in Germany, Holland and Belgium in an attempt to avoid the agents who were sent from England to arrest him. His story is one of poverty, danger and ceaseless labor.

This fugitive and outlaw gave the English-speaking people their most priceless heritage: the Scriptures in their mother tongue.

And here’s the thing: it’s all true! Tyndale was a stud. By God’s grace, he was the Reformation in England. He has moved up the ladder in my own mind due to his indefatigable effort in the face of ridiculous odds. Get this book, read it, and imitate Tyndale in his love for and submission to the authority of Scripture.

The Emergence of Marketing Strategies

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

This might be one of the biggest reasons our culture has perpetuated the myth of adolescence…because they are easy to sell to. And so the sixth ingredient in the rise of adolescence was the emergence of age-targeted marketing strategies. Whether it is because companies figured out that peer pressure marketing works or because most teenagers aren’t paying the electric bill, and therefore their income is disposable, adolescence is big business.

There are at least two reasons why it is easy to take this particular cause for granted.

First, defining a person strictly in terms of age feels natural to contemporary Americans (as psychology has taught us well). Objective age distinctions are one of the few remaining discriminations society encourages us to make. Second, it is almost impossible to imagine a world where someone isn’t trying to sell us something!

From the book, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, we read that “(t)eenage consumers help drive such leading industries as popular music, movies, snack foods, casual clothing, and footwear. They spend about $100 billion a year, just on things for themselves” (Hine, p. 23). Many teenagers have part time jobs without the responsibility of paying large bills, so they have the most disposable income. So commercials target the deep well of those teenage, designer blue-jean pockets.

But not only did companies seek to capitalize on this new source of revenue, they also recognized the power of peer groups. By 1942, several clothing manufacturers were making clothes with labels such as “Teentimers.” Magazines, particularly those aimed at women, added features for young girls. In 1944 Seventeen was published, the inaugural magazine aimed specifically at this age group. It defined, for the first time, a distinct teenage market: millions of young people looking for acceptance, popularity, fun, and dates, therefore, the right clothes, makeup, clear skin, great shoes, new music, and all the latest things. Hey, they just want to be cool.

In 1944, a marketing expert named Eugene Gilbert had two ground-breaking insights. One was that teenagers would respond to retailers who cared about what they wanted. The second, and probably the most important, was that the way to find out what young people really wanted was to get other teenagers to ask them. He began to take surveys. This is business by questionnaire. Admittedly, these discoveries may not seem that perceptive to us today, but that is only because the doctrines of marketing have been too well ingrained into our collective thinking.

Hine gives a good summary:

With the rise of the persuasion industries during the twentieth century, large groups of people were increasingly identified by single characteristics. People in their teens became ‘teens,’ or ‘teeners’ or ‘teen-agers.’ They were largely in the same place – high school – sharing a common experience, and they were young and open to new things. They were, in short, easy to sell to. Moreover, the preferences formed when young often endure, which makes selling to teenagers a reasonable long-term investment” (9).

In the end, our culture encourages the creation of a youth culture. We profit from it. We buy stock in it, or perhaps more accurately, we have bought into it.

The Evolving Popularity of Psychology (Part 2)

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

The most obvious and direct way that psychology has helped to establish the idea of adolescence is by it’s blatant claim to objective conclusions regarding teenagers. Scientifically “proven” claims about adolescence are sold to us by the truckload. Professional psychologists deliver their findings as facts. Anyone who challenges these “facts” without a PhD in the field is passed off as a simpleton.

Psychology has hijacked our thoughts about the possibility of a mature teenager. Journal article after book after web-site after sitcom after teen movie after college psychology class curriculum conditions us and drills us with assertions of adolescent incompetency and irresponsibility. Counselors annotate their apparent restlessness and reinforce their perpetual identity crisis. Of course this is all just icing on the cake compared to the ever-repressing raging hormones. This is so remarkable that an adolescent might “suffer from symptoms that would be considered mad in an adult, but are just part of the normal mental development for the young person” (Hine, p. 33).

The finishing touch to the psychologist’s argument is that to suppress a teenager’s adolescent mindset is to cause irreparable psychological damage. It is kind of convenient that suppressing adolescence (“suppressing” defined as expecting them to grow up and act their age) is the guaranteed path to creating teenage casualties. Not a bad position for them to take, threatening harm to the teenager proportionate to disagreement with their theory.

Never mind that “while endocrinology is a field where fundamental discoveries are made regularly, there is not yet any biochemical explanation for surliness, self-absorption, or rebelliousness” (Hine, p. 30). Never mind that the Bible explains surliness, self-absorption, and rebelliousness as part of human nature, not just teenage nature. Never mind that Scripture grants no exceptions for hormones, it only offers forgiveness for sins.

The rise of psychology established the adolescent as a special, unstable sort of creature. Again, in claiming to be “science,” it has given professional, medical, scientific credibility to the “I’m only an adolescent, so I’m not responsible for what I do.”

But “[d]espite their claims to universality, the much-watered-down psychoanalytic views that underlie popular discourse on the problems of youth are time-bound and culture-bound” (Hine, p. 39). In other words, that means our culture has invented this myth in the last hundred years or so. We have been indoctrinated by this hypothetical myth. Adolescence is a distorted, biased assumption and not an observable, objective phenomena. If only the truth was more persuasive than fiction.

The Evolving Popularity of Psychology (Part 1)

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

The fifth ingredient in the dominant belief in adolescence is the evolution of popular psychology. Of course, psychology is simply “the study of mental life.” It is a field concerned with mental processes and behavior looking at the emotional and behavioral characteristics of an individual or group. It introduces itself as science, attempting to observe, identify, describe, investigate, and make categorical conclusions on human phenomena. It claims objectivity in its examinations and in its judgments (even though we know that the human heart is desperately wicked and not easily nailed down). But it is almost impossible to imagine a modern life without psychology. Psychology continues to have a dramatic impact on the way we think about life.

One way psychology has helped to establish the idea of adolescence is simply by its insistence on categorizing everyone and everything. Psychology could not exist without these divisions of race, gender, age, financial status, and so on. Coming up with conclusions is hard enough when observing only narrow group of persons let alone trying to summarize the whole of humanity. So perhaps as much as any other field of study psychology thrives on pigeonholing. The separation of adolescents into their own class has ironically helped to establish the very same separation.

It isn’t hard to find this fragmentation in our own conversations. It seems like the last quarter of the twentieth century especially has been all about fragmentation. And while once we were enlightened to speak of a youth culture, now there are a whole range of youth subcultures: skaters, geeks, jocks, freaks, druggies, nerds, band geeks, and the list goes on. This terminology comes largely from the world of psychology as it attempts to interpret everyone and get them into a tidy group. There is no doubt that most of us in the church have adopted this worldly way of thinking and talking, and perhaps we are guilty of giving credence to these categories just by the way we communicate about them.

The Establishment of a Juvenile Justice System

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

The fourth ingredient to the growth of adolescence is the creation of the juvenile justice system. This was developed to segregate younger lawbreakers from older ones and produced a different system of record keeping, a different standard for the punishment and probation for “juveniles.” Just as teenagers were no longer expected to be responsible to support themselves, they were no longer held responsible for their criminal acts, despite the fact that for thousands of years prior the legal system treated teenagers as adults.

The juvenile court movement began in idealism and outrage. It all started when Benjamin Lindsey, a young lawyer recently arrived in Denver, was assigned to defend a couple of burglars. He was lead down a long corridor to what he called a cage, where he found two boys playing poker with a safe-cracker and a horse thief. He didn’t say whether the boys were teens or younger. But they had been locked up with these “hard-core” criminal companions for more than sixty days. The youths had learned to gamble from the two older men, “upon whom,” Lindsey said, “they had come to look as great heroes.” He protested to the warden who agreed it was a problem, but said there was nothing he could do about it.

“Here were two boys,” Lindsey wrote, “neither of them serious enemies of society, who were about to be convicted of burglary, and have felony records standing against them for the rest of their lives. And pending the decision of their cases…the state was sending them to a school for crime–deliberately teaching them to be horse thieves and safe-crackers. It was outrageous and absurd.”

The juvenile court he founded and presided over in Denver in 1900 was not the first, but it did receive much attention and the movement gained momentum. Lindsey did not propose merely to punish people differently, or separately, for the crimes they committed. While the traditional goal of the legal system was to be detached and impartial, Lindsey’s vision was for officers of the court to become a part of the young peoples’ lives. He argued that determining guilt or innocence shouldn’t be the goal of the court, but rather to encourage or induce (or even coerce) young offenders into changing their conduct so that they would not grow into adult criminals.

In our day there are not only separate procedures and punishments but also “a large roster of offenses that are considered crimes only if young people commit them,” such as youth curfews in various cities (Hine, p. 20).

The widespread failure to hold teenagers legally responsible for their actions is well documented on an almost daily basis in newspapers across the country. Consider just this one account:

It was 6:20AM, July 29, 1995. Starting home from an overnight camping trip with seven friends, the young man lost control of his father’s 1987 Chevy Suburban and sent it tumbling across a barren stretch of the Mojave Desert in Southern California. As the 5,000 pound truck rolled across the desert floor, the lives of four of his friends were snuffed out. “It’s my fault,” he told the survivors, sobbing, “I killed my friends!”

California Highway Patrol officers quickly agreed. The young man’s breath reeked of beer, and a blood test showed that he was legally drunk. Had he been considered an adult, James Virgil Patterson probably would have been sent to prison, perhaps for years. But because he was two months shy of his eighteenth birthday, the law regarded him as an errant youth. Despite the fact that he admitted to killing his four friends and seriously injuring three others, the law exempted him from adult punishment. Instead, the San Bernardino County Juvenile Court sentenced him to 120 days of alcohol rehabilitation. (As a gesture to the parents, the court also barred him from taking part in graduation ceremonies at his high school). (David Alan Black, The Myth of Adolescence).

Even though he admitted his offense, the officers on the scene confirmed his responsibility, and the court acknowledged his guilt, the assigned penalty was not proportionate to the crime committed but to his age.

While I am in favor of taking a person’s maturity and intentions (as much as they can be determined) into consideration, the current system has certain built-in flaws that tend to let younger offenders off the hook. And it is just possible that this “kinder, gentler” approach has not only failed to stunt the growth of adolescent crime while but has also reinforced the myth that young people can’t really help breaking the law anyway. Because everyone knows, teenagers are, by nature, irresponsible for their rebellion.