The Myth of Adolescence

by Steven J. Hayhow

I once spoke on The Myth of Adolescence to a group of teenagers. The youngsters did not mind, but one of their leaders was most upset that someone should dare to question this canon of humanistic orthodoxy. It seems that some Christians would rather side with the humanists outside the church than with the faithful within. This is a distressing trait. Is adolescence normal and therefore something we are not responsible for, or is it simply a product of our modern culture and therefore a set of sinful attitudes?

By adolescence I do not mean the biological changes that take place in a person (i.e. puberty), but rather the change in attitudes and behaviour observable in many teenagers, especially towards their parents and/or authority in general.


Let's be clear about the implications: if adolescence is biologically determined, even to the point of affecting our attitudes and temperaments, then it cannot very well be reprimanded. After all, it is natural, so what can I do? Don't tell me off, it's outside my control! If the child cannot be any other way through this stage of his development, then it is pointless punishing him as if change were possible. In fact, it would be unfair and unreasonable to do so. On the other hand, if adolescence is a relatively modern feature of our culture, then a different posture needs to be taken towards it.

When I spoke to a group of young people at my own church on the subject, one young person from an African culture and background pointed out that adolescence (i.e. moodiness and rebellion against parents) was unknown in that culture. Clearly, it is not a problem everywhere.

Interestingly, the Bible never mentions adolescence; it appears not to have been expected in Old and New Testament times. Hence, it was not a problem then, either. As we shall see, the biblical teaching on growing up is fairly uncomplicated and straightforward.

The Roots of Adolescence

We need to understand whence the idea of adolescence originated. Essentially, our largely humanistic culture and society leads us to expect it, and to look for it as a trait of normality. So much so that children that fail to produce the characteristics are classified as abnormal. Teenagers are almost programmed to expect that in their teenage years they will become moody, difficult, and that their parents won't understand them. They are told (especially through the youth culture, the media, teenage magazines, and the state school system) that this will happen and that it is perfectly normal. Moreover, they are told, "There is nothing you can do about it. It is really just part of your development. You are just expressing your desire for independence from parental authority."


One of the causes of this kind of thinking is found in the idea that the old and the past are obsolete. Another lies in a spurious confidence in the "experts": "Don't worry. It's all part of growing up. Adolescence is proven scientifically by the psychologists. To suppress it will cause irreparable psychological damage to the child." Moreover, the youth culture, and especially the music that is central to it, only accentuate the divide-the generation gap-between parents and their offspring. Pop and rock music's explicit and obvious aim is to be an expression of adolescent rebellion. Thus it aims to be outrageous and unacceptable to an older generation. In short, it aims to be music of rebellion and succeeds very well.

Adolescence and the Word of God

God expects children and young people to behave very differently. Firstly, God expects young people to look up to their parents, not despise them and look upon them as irrelevant and useless. In Exodus 20:12 we are given God's word to adolescents: "Honour your father and mother..." In Scripture "honour" means literally "to give weight to someone", in other words to attach value, respect and worth to them. Parents are to be a model and prime example to their children, one that will call forth respect and admiration. Our parents, moreover, are those we ought to aim to be like where they are worthy examples of faith and grace. This aspect of parent-child relationships is so important that the penalty given in the law for violence towards parents was death (Ex. 21:17). This, of course, was only applied in the case of incorrigible rebellion by an older child. The parents themselves were to bring the charges, hence the penalty was reserved for the most desperate situations. However, it indicates that to rebel against parental authority is a serious offence.

On the other hand, young people are today encouraged to think of their parents as irrelevant and, above all, restrictive and narrow. Children and young people are indoctrinated into thinking and believing that their parents are inherently incapable of understanding them. This is a recipe for destruction of family life, if ever there was one.

Secondly, to honour means to care for parents in their old age (1 Tim. 5:1-10). More and more people are failing to undertake this responsibility. But should we really be surprised, when a whole new generation has been indoctrinated-all at the taxpayer's expense-into believing that their parents are their natural enemies?

The Biblical Emphasis

The Bible does not glorify youthful immaturity or the childish state. Instead it exhorts the young person onto maturity, not to run away from responsibility. The Lord Himself must be our model in this, as in all things. In Luke 2:52 we read: "...Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men." Firstly, we note that Jesus at the age of twelve years aimed for maturity, not rebellion. There were no "natural" teenage problems for Jesus. Secondly, to note the areas in which he grew and developed is most illuminating:

1. Wisdom. In other words, in mind and in understanding. In Scripture "wisdom" is defined as knowing what to do in terms of God's law. Christ matured in terms of the law of His Father in heaven. His development was moral as well as intellectual. That was real growing-up.

2. Stature. That is, mentally and physically. Jesus developed and grew in the whole of his personality, mind, body and soul. The emphasis here falls upon leaving childishness behind and growing into greater responsibility and maturity in every sphere.

3. In favour with God. How often do we consider this as a vital part of child development theory? Our problem is that we separate out these areas of growth and maturity and deal with them in isolation from one another. Or, worse, we swallow whole the latest humanistic, evolutionary theory of child growth and development and attempt to apply that with a few texts thrown in for good measure.

4. In favour with men. This means that Jesus developed socially. He learnt to relate to people. He knew especially how to relate to adults. One of the refreshing things about families that home-school their own children is the children's willingness and ability to communicate with adults. These children learn to respect adults; moreover, they learn to desire maturity over childishness. This stands out a mile from the normal attitude encountered, where children seem to be only conscious of other children.

What We Need

What is needed is a truly Biblical view of growth and development, one that hacks away at the root of humanism. We need to teach the expectation of maturity instead of deterministic adolescence. We need to do this in the family: fathers must teach this to their children. Moreover, we need to dispel the myth that humanism, even refined humanism, is an option for us as people of the covenant God of Scripture. Furthermore, we can teach a biblical view of growth and maturity to the children and young people we influence through the church, Sunday school and so on.

Steven Hayhow is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church, Leytonstone.

Copyright © Family Matters 1997