Teenagers: Do They Exist?

There’s an idea afoot that this whole “teenager” thing is a modern invention and therefore suspect. The argument begins with an explanation of how the word “teenager” wasn’t coined until the late 1930’s, around the time American society’s expectations of persons of this age underwent a profound shift and the automobile got invented and so forth. My dictionary agrees about the dating of the word. “Teenage” is a little older, going back to 1920 or so. Interestingly, an older synonym, “teener,” showed up around 1890 before evidently being replaced by “teenager” three decades later.

But just because a word is new doesn’t mean the concept it represents is new also. The word “youth” has been around since before 900. “Adolescence” dates to the early 1400’s.

The argument against the existence of the teenager is popular among conservative Christians, of whom I am one. I first heard it as a young parent and was deeply impressed. The idea in its simplest form is that prior to the twentieth century, people were considered either children or adults, with no in-between. But an honest reading of old literature, including the Bible, doesn’t bear this out. Heck, common sense doesn’t bear it out. Maturity happens incrementally. You don’t just flip a switch when they turn twenty-one. There is a distinct transitional period, and the transition is not always smooth. Growth happens in uneven spurts. Witness the half-fledged bird, the juvenile lion with his mane growing in patches, the young dog all gangle and outsized feet, and the thirteen-year-old boy. They’re funny-looking—although a little later, as they approach the end of the transition, they gain their own particular glory.

This physical transition has its nonmaterial counterpart. Of course it does. Mental and emotional growth are uneven as well, and hormones agitate everything. My own resident eighteen-year-old boy can be a blockhead in a number of ways but often surprises me with sporadic feats of insight and patience.

None of this should be surprising. Teenagers are in-between, no matter how vehemently some may deny it. They’re taking their first heady, intoxicating sips of power and freedom, and they want more, but they’re still economically dependent and don’t quite have all their faculties in order. Naturally this is frustrating, and sometimes they chafe at authority, make boneheaded choices, or go all dramatic on us.

That being said, I understand the thinking behind the whole anti-teenager argument, and I agree with it. What’s really being objected to is the modern idea of the teenage years as a time when rebellion, laziness, and irresponsibility are to be expected as a matter of course. As a disciple of Christ, earnestly desiring and praying for godly character in my own children, I absolutely reject this notion of youth. Indolence and disrespect should not be tolerated in children of any age. But I would caution the Christian community against these grand, sweeping pronouncements. They sound impressive but don’t hold up under close examination, and in making them, we can discredit ourselves. We must make every effort to be accurate in our speech and eschew sensationalism of all kinds.

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