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What is a Teenager?

Have you ever wondered where your teenager came from? No, I do not mean that the way you think I do. I mean literally, do you know where this whole idea of teenager came from? The concept of the “teen years” is a rather recent social invention and I believe that understanding the history of the teenager can be helpful in understanding your teenager better.

There have been two movements in America that have helped to produce what we now refer to as a teenager. First, industrialization had a profound impact upon the family unit as families moved from rural agrarian societies into cities to pursue factory jobs. On the farm, families worked together and had very strong ties to the community. Children were expected to contribute to the family work and the motivation to move children into responsible adult work was healthy. Education was important for many but only up to a certain point. When a child grew into young adult the farm became the priority and they took on more responsibility. People married earlier and produced families because that was what you did to contribute to that society.

“We live in a society that tells teenagers it is okay to live out their adult desires and yet refuses to hold them responsible as adults.”

Industrialization moved families into cities which pulled the family unit apart. Children became wage earners as fast as possible instead of the steady growth towards responsible adulthood experienced on the farm inside families and tight-knit communities. The healthy growth and connection inside a family was lost for most of these families and young adults became independent from their family units. Education was either not made available or not a priority for most of these youth as the pressures of the cities required them to become part of the workforce.

The second movement that helped to produce the “teenager” is in fact an anti-movement. In the late forties and early fifties America was afraid that National Socialism and Communism would affect her youth. These feared, political movements that had torn apart Europe were deeply connected to influencing young workers. Americans were determined not to let the same influences infect their youth. It was during this time that formal education through high-school became a significant cultural pressure. The goal was to collect our youth into educational systems that would prevent them from being influenced by unwanted ideologies. America would educate our youth and prevent what had happened in Germany and Russia.

By putting this age group together for long extended periods of time in educational environments these young adults had a profound impact in the shaping of one another. An unintended result was the formation of a whole new consumer group that didn’t exist prior. The teenager became a target for corporations who wished to exploit them for what money could be made. The clothes, music, and entertainment marketed to this group helped to solidify its identity. Churches also changed the way they approached this group as they hoped to rescue them from the worldliness that they were falling into. Thus, you have the formation of the concept of a youth group.

Now, I hope you understand that there is a whole lot of information that goes between these paragraphs that I simply do not have the time to express. I am not trying to oversimplify a complex issue. However, what I have given here is enough to show that what we have come to understand as a teenager today is largely an economically and politically motivated construct. In other words, teenager is not a real category. Not understanding this has caused a lot of us to believe some of the stereotypes and generalizations made concerning this age-group.

Here are three thoughts I would like to offer you regarding your son or daughter in this age-group:

1. Your teenager is not a child

God has made it quite clear when our bodies make the transition from childhood into adulthood. That person living in your house has real, God-given, adult desires. Unfortunately, we live in a society that tells teenagers it is okay to live out their adult desires and yet refuses to hold them responsible as adults. Or, on the other side parents tell teenagers to suppress those adult-desires until some undefined time down the road when they magically arrive into adulthood. This confusion exacerbates angst and frustration in teenager’s lives more than something inherent to the age-group. It is a parent’s duty to clarify this path of adulthood for their son or daughter and call them to it.

2. Your teen wants time with you

Your teenager needs—and secretly oftentimes wants—undistracted time with you. Our families are still torn apart by the pressures of work and school. But your work is not more important. The school is not more important. Do whatever it takes to make a priority out of spending time with your teenager. Contrary to common belief, they would benefit from time with you and other responsible adults even more than spending time with peers.

3. Discipline needs to change

If your tone or form of discipline would be belittling for another adult there is a pretty good chance that your teenager feels belittled by you. Strive for conversation and avoid lecturing. Ask them questions and listen to them instead of shutting them down when you don’t like their logic. Give them the freedom to not agree with you—perish the thought. Teach them how to reason through decisions instead of always making decisions for them. Make sure that your expectations are clear and be consistent in holding them accountable. When you get angry, confess and repent in front of them and ask for their forgiveness like you would any other person.

Connected to this you need to realize that rebellion is not inherent to the teenage years. Rebellion is inherent to fallen humanity. By saying this, I am also implying that as with any rebel the gospel has the power to transform the life of your teenager. They can live a godly, submissive life under the Lordship of Christ. They really can. This transformation must be the work of God and cannot be forced upon them. Pray for them. Love them. Listen to their heart. Show them patience as God has shown you. Believe and hope in the gospel’s power to transform.

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