Mind the Gap Created By Teen Culture
The sequel to the previous article
I am not sure when we started raising young people in herds of similarly aged children. There is some logic to it when academics are the goal. But when the social development of the person is the goal, then this does not make sense. For most of the history of the world children have grown into adulthood alongside the adult world—parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and people in the broader community. Growing up into a dependable member of your community was the primary goal.
It seems that, for the past half century, the goal of growing up has been youth, or the freedoms that youths value—driving a car, socializing without adult supervision, drinking, choosing your own style clothes and hair, tattoo’s and piercing—all the aspects of youth culture that Hollywood has sold to us. Even the middle aged seek youth culture as a way of keeping young.
The word “teenager” is a new invention. Before that word was popularized, children remained children until they could make some reasonable claim to adulthood by their actions. Children were girls and boys, the stage of development referred to as girlhood and boyhood. Now, all of our developmental stages are gender neutral—toddler, pre-school, school-age, adolescent, teenager— as if the differences between boys and girls have no bearing on how they develop.
Even in the most conservative circles, “teens” are grouped together in “youth groups” where they are treated to regular play dates, often accompanied by snacks and then, to make everyone feel good about it, some sort of religious instruction or prayer. So, pizza and a rosary, if you are Catholic. Sometimes the play is organized, sometimes it is mostly hanging out. It is often supervised by a few single adults, other times married volunteers or parents. And it is always coed—ignoring the different developmental needs of girls and boys. This grouping becomes habitual, with only some sports remaining exclusively for one sex or the other. Even youth retreats are usually coed (which makes little sense from a spiritual perspective) and involve lots of fun social time intermixed with serious talks including free time to hang out.
So what is the problem with this?
Young people have a natural drive to want to socialize, some more than others. This seems like a natural stage, the beginning of looking out into the world outside the home that is their future—where a spouse, a job, and their own future family will be. The desire to have fun with friends goes back to their earliest venturings away from their mother’s side. And all along the way we have guided them with boundaries—whether we had structured play dates, or whether it was the neighbor kid asking can Johnny come out and play (and expecting to sometimes hear “No”) or whether the instruction was “come home before the street lights come on”. There were limits and guidelines. Too much playtime meant overtired kids, not enough learning or work being done, and perhaps undue influence from other kids and households. Yet, when they become “teens” we seem to want to fill them to the brim with social time. Sure, they have to go to school (which takes them away from the family and where they socialize), and do homework (which takes them away from the family while at home), and then, we cart them off to youth group, or sports, or whatever other youth activity attracts them. It is clear that life is about the youth having fun.
My observation of the many serious Christian communities I have belonged to, all of which value Godliness and virtue, is that we go out of our way to make sure our older children have plenty of time for fun. Unstructured, coed fun. Which usually consists of discussions of movies, music, or past fun things that have happened. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t listen to the music or weren’t at the last party, you are left with nothing to contribute. Therefore, the drive to be there, see that, and hear it all is increased. The social life of your typical teen (Christian or secular) seems to far out pace that of actual grown-ups. Of course you can find communities of adult-aged people who party every weekend, but they usually aren’t the ones raising the next generation, or doing the serious work that makes society better for all. Feeding our desire for fun and entertainment is not the path to virtue.
So, what did parents do before “youth culture” became a thing. Or, maybe the question is what did children do from the ages of 13-adulthood? If we take away modern institutions like universal schooling, and mother’s working away from the home, then children were growing up alongside their parents, their siblings, and the other children and adults in their community. They learned the skills necessary for adulthood in their society alongside the adults in their community.
What about social gatherings? In my experience of reading history and literature before universal schooling, and other child-based institutions, groups of families gathered together at meaningful times of the year for celebrations that included music, dancing, storytelling, food, and friendly competition. All ages interacting in all activities, according to their ability. Did children play together alongside the dance floor? Of course. Did young people seek each other out for games and dancing and conversation. Of course. But it wasn’t all about their personal fun. It was in the broader context of the family and community. And, until they were single men and women working outside the home and seeking someone to marry, children spent most of their time in the family setting.
What, then, is the remedy? I am not sure there is an exact formula for every family or community. But paying attention to how that gap is formed is step one. Our current habit in family life, as I said above, is to allow the youth to form their own culture—this is done mostly through peer-focused activity, but also through music, movies and fashion that is geared to a specific age group, with the result of blocking out older generations from the growing culture. Youth culture is the tip of the wedge that is thrust into the space between the parents and the children. Even in family oriented communities, this wedge is used to separate kids from their parents and perpetuate the generation gap. This is where we begin to lose the wisdom and traditions of the ages. This is where we begin to lose the worldview based on that wisdom. And this is where we really begin to lose the Faith that is so crucial to the salvation of the world. It is time to break the wedge and close the gap.