“There was a time, literally, when there were no teenagers.” This is the opening line of a recent book by columnist and author Dianna West. Her thesis is given away in the title: The Death of the Grownup: How America’s Arrested Development Threatens Western Civilization (St. Martin’s Press, 2007).

Adolescence didn’t always exist. In fact, it is a rather recent phenomenon. This is the point of West’s opening line. In fact, the word “teenager” wasn’t really used until 1941. Not because there weren’t people who were teen aged, but because those years were not considered any more remarkable than any others.

In virtually every other culture in the history of the world prior to late 20th century Western culture, kids became adults. Not so anymore. They now become teenagers or, to put it in more sociologically acceptable terms, they become adolescents.

What happened to bring about this new stage in human development? The sexual revolution and political upheavals of the 60’s are, of course, the most obvious suspects. However, West suggests a number of other things, some earlier than the 60’s: a generation of disconnected fathers trying to deal with what they experienced during WWII, factories no longer producing necessities for war begin producing non-necessities for consumption, new marketing engines to sell these goods to people who didn’t realize they wanted them, Chubby Checker’s Twist, Elvis’ hips, the Beatles’ hair, automobiles-perhaps more than one-in every home, the growth of Hollywood, and the recognition by the marketing engines of the fortune to be made from this brand new segment of the population.

Of course, adolescence is now considered a fixed stage of development. It is now expected that students will lose their minds from ages 13-18. “Kids will be kids,” we say. Only, we aren’t referring to kids anymore, we are talking about 15 year olds.

There is another complication with adolescence. Its grip has forcefully expanded beyond teenagers, and in both directions. On the front end, we went from teens to “pre-teens,” and the marketing engines quickly spotted more financial potential. On the back end, whereas eighteen was once considered the end of adolescence, it is now considered the middle. Psychologists and sociologists now refer to adolescence as the stage from age 11 to age 30.

But, there’s more. The reach of adolescence is even greater than this. Adolescence is now, and this must not be missed, the goal of our culture. Somewhere along the way, we ceased to be a culture where kids aspire to be adults and became a culture where adults aspire to be kids.

What are the marks of a culture with a dominant adolescent mindset? Not surprisingly, they are precisely what we have come to expect from adolescents themselves.

Demand for immediate gratification. We want what we want now, and we will not wait or work for it. Spiraling credit card debt, addiction to new technologies, bouncing from church to church till we find the one we like, abandoning marriages – this list could go on and on.

Absence of long-term thinking about life and the world. Hand-in-hand with a demand for immediate gratification is a distraction from the real issues that actually matter. For example, on a recent 20/20 John Stossel showed pictures of major political figures and a few celebrities. 100% recognized TV personality Judge Judy, while no one recognized Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. A generation who is unaware of what is important in life will certainly misdirect their time and energy.

Motivated by feeling rather than truth. This is a key indicator of a volatile person, and an even more significant indicator of a failing culture. Truth is murdered by pooled, and polled, ignorance. Other casualties include families, churches, masculinity, femininity, art, words, justice, charity, love, education, psychological stability, any coherent sense of identity, theology, mission, wisdom, beauty, and human sexuality.

Wanting grown-up things without growing up. Ironically, despite our addiction to all things adolescent, we still expect to be treated like adults. “Don’t tell me what to do,” we say. “Every opinion matters” and “Treat me with respect,” we add. Of course, fools actually do not deserve respect and their opinions are, at best, a thorough waste of time and, at worst, dangerous.

Expecting bailouts rather than accepting consequences. Not thinking before acting is a trait of adolescence, as is making excuses for it. In our acceptance of adolescence accepts we label this thinking as merely immature. “They’ll grow out of it,” we suggest. A quick look around reveals that “they” are not. Bad mortgage decision? The government should help. Sexual immorality? Birth control, abortion, and HPV vaccines. Falling grades? Tests are to blame. Poor behavior? They’re just kids.

Focusing on appearance rather than depth. Seen in everything from fascination with celebrity to the way presidents and churches are chosen, cultures that choose style over substance are easily deceived and destined for tyranny. Few things are more historically verifiable than this.

More could be added here, but the point is that sometimes what is normal, well, shouldn’t be. Adolescence is a recent, and foolish, invention. And, ideas have consequences. Good ideas have good consequences; bad ideas have bad consequences; foolish ideas have foolish consequences.

Still, there is good news. Cultures like ours have a leadership vacuum. So, there is a terrific opportunity for influence for those who produce the leaders, especially if they produce who can think beyond the current cultural shallowness. Home school parents are in a unique position to raise leaders who will rise above the adolescent abyss.

How can we do this?

Challenge students, instead of coddle them. We aim too low with teenagers. Students do not need more entertainment, whether it is from the television, the IPod, or the youth group. They need, and want, to be challenged. We see this every year at our Summit student leadership conferences – student endure 70+ hours of lecture and instruction on worldviews, apologetics, culture, and character. Then they call home and ask for more money, so they can buy books!
Give them a thorough education in worldviews and apologetics. First, students need to know what they believe. Too many see Christianity as merely a private faith rather than as a robust view of reality that offers a tried and true map for life. Second, students need to know what others believe. There are non-Biblical worldviews that are battling for their hearts and minds, and for our culture. We contend that, at minimum, students need to have a handle on these six worldviews before going to college: secular humanism, Marxism/Leninism, postmodernism, Islam, New Age, and Biblical Christianity. Third, Christians must know why they believe what they believe. Too many Christians cannot answer, and are even afraid of, the challenging questions about God, Jesus, the Bible, morality, or truth that come at them.
Show them that Christianity is not just about what we are against, but what we are about. Proverbs says that without vision, the people “cast off restraint.” One of the main reasons that students are casualties of immorality is that they lack vision. While they may know what they are not supposed to do, they fail to understand the life of meaning, purpose, and impact Christ calls them to. Christian students often get the impression that we are merely saved from, and not to. They miss the “re” part of the salvation words that sprinkle the Scriptures: renew, regenerate, reconcile, redeem, etc. They miss that Christ not only came to save us from death, he came to save us to life - and abundant life at that!
Confront with them, rather than isolate them from, the major cultural battles of our day. Historically, Christians have sought to understand, and respond to cultural crises. They understood that these crises were the site of the battle of worldviews. Unfortunately, many Christians today are unaware of, disinterested in, or avoiding of issues like embryo-destructive research, euthanasia, emerging technologies, the arts, film, fashion, legislation, human trafficking, politics, and international relations. In the Garden on the evening before His death, Christ prayed these astounding words for his followers: “Father, do not take them from the world, but protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Our prayer, and preparation, for our children should be no different.