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youth ministry

4 Ways We Hold High School Students Back

Photo by Megan Ann via Flickr (Creative Commons)

In reading Robert Epstein’s book, Teen 2.0, the one thing that fundamentally shifted my thinking is that adults lament about childish behavior while simultaneously funding and celebrating it.

Politely, Epstein says we have infantalized our youth. Maybe we need to take it a step further? We treat our young like pets.

4 Quick Examples to Illustrate that Point

  1. We spend bagillions of dollars on the Rule of Law and Regulation of Teenagers: In the last 40 years we have created an immense amount of laws aimed at regulating behavior of those under 18. We force them to go to school. We regulate where they can go when school is out. We regulate when they can be out. We tell them what they can wear. Who they can be with. What they can ingest or not ingest. Epstein did a study comparing inmates to high school students and found that men in prison have more freedoms. But magically, despite 18 years old not being a significant number in physical or emotional development, we have decided that those over 18 can do whatever they want.
  2. We Celebrate Low Expectations: We have removed adult expectations from high school students. They can’t be bothered to even get out of bed in the summer, right? Forget the fact that physically high school students are near the pinnacle of their strength and can outwork their parents. Forget the fact that the adolescent brain is mostly ready to tackle adulthood, ever seen what happens when a teenage son asks his mom to help him with his physics homework? And forget the fact that teenagers can do amazing things. (Like say, discover a cancer treatment for a high school science fair) Instead of ramping up expectations for them, in our wealth, we remove expectations of productivity. We even limit the ability to have expectations of our high school students. Instead, we slyly whine about our teenage children at home and what they won’t do. Or a post-college student who has moved home but can’t find the right job.
  3. We have an unlimited spending appetite for teenage sexuality: Think of how many billions of dollars are spent annually preventing teen pregnancy? BILLIONS! But not nearly as many billions as are spent celebrating adolescent sex in advertising, television, movies, etc. Our culture has an obsession with adolescent sexuality. It’s taboo. And that taboo drives our spending on both prevention and celebration. Since we’ve labeled high school students as children, this forces a label that their sexual activities as irresponsible. Meanwhile everything in pop culture celebrates adolescent virility and fertility. (Television, music, news media, movies, etc.) Physically, the average 16 year old is completely ready for sex. But if that 16 year old wants to have a serious, long-term relationship? Oh heck no! We need to prevent it. We argue that they aren’t emotionally ready for a sexual relationship. (Hypocritically, we were but deny that even happened. And our great-grandparents married at 16 and had our grandparents at 19. Today’s teen pregnancy tragedy was yesterday’s normal sexual expectation.) Meanwhile, our Christian constructions argue for waiting until marriage… something which we’ve delayed almost 10 years on average in just 100 years! The average first marriage for a woman in the U.S. is now 26.5 years old.
  4. We Spend a Lot Keeping Teenagers Out of the Workplace: Up until the Great Depression most adolescents didn’t finish high school and entered the trades, farming, or a factory to work full-time. For the most part that is now illegal. We’ve regulated the types of and length of employment adolescents can participate in. We’ve created a false expectation that every student should go to college. (A notion our economy cannot support.) But we’ve created a multi-trillion dollar industry called compulsory high school we can’t bear to let go of or adjust in all of its disfunction. Instead, we now expect that students won’t go to work, earn money for their families, or otherwise contribute because they will perpetually get education for things they don’t want to study. We expect them to consume. And we’ve created industries around entertaining them so they have something to do while not working or not learning. (Sports, video games, summer school, camps, etc.)

Is it no wonder why this period of adolescence has extended from 4-5 years in the 1940s to 13-14 years today? 

Maybe it is time we reverse this trend? Maybe we need to start by getting out of the way and allowing adolescents to become adults?