ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Adolescence, as we’ve come to know it, is changing-and parents and other adults who care about young people passing through that life stage need to understand those changes and learn to address them.
That was the message Wendell Loewen delivered to about 80 parents and youth workers from a variety of church backgrounds who participated in a seminar titled “Modern Parents & Post-modern Teens” Sunday afternoon at Parkview Mennonite Brethren Church.
Loewen teaches at Tabor College, where he specializes in youth, church and culture and serves as a regional youth minister for the Mennonite Brethren Church.
Mixing illustrated lecture with discussion, Loewen mapped out what he called “the changing face of adolescence” and offered suggestions on how adults might reconsider their efforts to meet the needs of this generation of children and young adults.
Loewen said the life stage known as adolescence-defined as a period that begins at puberty and ends when the child is recognized as an adult-is a relatively recent invention.
G. Stanley Hall first identified it less than 100 years ago, Loewen said. During that time, a child searches for individual identity, a place to belong, and a sense of autonomy that comes through meaningful choices.
“The way they get those (issues) answered and how long it takes them will determine the length of their adolescence,” Loewen said.
The process is taking longer these days, he added.
In the early 20th century, puberty in the average child started at age of 14. The culture communicated a sense of reaching adulthood at that same age.
Today, in part because of better nutrition, puberty begins on average around age 12 and, because modern culture has erased most markers of adulthood, the process of establishing an “adult” identity can last to the mid-20s or longer.
Since the 1970s, society has moved from “modern” to “post-modern” as the role expectations, values and lifestyles have changed for women, men and, consequently, children.
As women entered the work force, usually because of economic necessity, they have added the role of co-bread-winner to their traditional role as primary nurturer.
At the same time, men have become co-nurturers in addition to their traditional roles as primary bread-winner and protector.
In the struggle to meet those changing expectations, Loewen said, childhood has evolved from a safe place for exploration and dreams to a place where children are left to fend for themselves. Survival has become their primary value.
As a result, many modern teens are experiencing what Loewen called a sense of “psychosocial abandonment.”
“Materially and physically, kids aren’t abandoned-they still have ‘stuff,'” Loewen said. “But they feel abandoned. As a culture, we’re not saying that in so many words, but we’re communicating that by our actions.”
Loewen said children and youth respond to this sense of abandonment by forming bonds with peers. Fun used to be the primary motivation for peer involvement, but today it is emotional survival, Loewen said.
“They’re looking for others who make them feel safe,” he said.
Today’s youth also respond to the adult world differently than their parents did. They sense that much of the world that seems on the surface to be tailored for them-such as home, school, sports, work, church-are really designed to meet the needs of the adults who manage them.
“The sense of teens is that adults have turned their back on them,” Loewen said.
To survive in the adult world, youth do what they have to do to please the adults in charge. But they find their sense of belonging in what Loewen called “the world beneath” the adult world.
In the process, today’s youth have developed views of school, home, sports, sex, busyness and stress, and ethics and morality that are different from their parents’.
“What they say might anger you, might bother you, but this information is coming from youth themselves,” he said.
To illustrate, Loewen said youth feel pressure from parents and teachers to achieve excel in the adult system known as school. To survive the stress caused by those expectations, students see cheating as their best option.
Loewen acknowledge that children who grow up in Christian home often have resources other children lack. But research indicates that, as a group, the behavior of those children does not differ markedly from children who do not grow up in such homes.
Loewen challenged seminar participants to try to see the world from their teens’ perspective. Instead of judging them, which only widens the chasm, parents and youth workers would be wise to slow down long enough from their own agenda to spend time with their kids and to listen to them.
“They do want us,” he said. “They do want our presence in their lives.”
He also said youth want negotiable boundaries in their lives. Too often parents make one of two mistakes: they are too rigid with the boundaries they set, and kids respond with hostility, or they set no boundaries, which kids interpret as abandonment.
In between those extremes, parents can determine boundaries that are intentional and well-communicated, but also are renegotiated as a child matures.
“Be a teacher when you want to be a judge, be a guide when you want to be a boss, and be a friend when you want to be a protector,” he said.
Loewen said the church may need to be the one to initiate conversations about nurturing children with other players in the “adult systems,” including schools, coaches of athletic teams and others who manage programs for youth.
“Somehow, we adults need to get together and figure out how to nurture our children,” he said.