I just ran across this Newsweek article from a year and a half ago that points to a problem regarding how we as a country treat our adolescents. Titled "Why Teenagers Are Growing Up So Slowly Today
," it is a review of a book by Dr. Joe Allen titled "Escaping the Endless Adolescence." His main point in the book is that adolescents in the country are not allowed to do meaningful work, or to make any meaningful contribution to society. He claims that without this opportunity, our children are not allowed to gain the experience needed to learn how to work, or the satisfaction of activities with purpose. Without this kind of experience, he claims adolescence is extended and adulthood is delayed. This rings true!
The statement that we are not doing well by our young people is often made. Usually, those saying this have in mind that we need more government programs for young people like the "midnight basketball" that was a major public relations push a number of years ago. However, when I hear this statement, I have a different perspective. Things that come to mind are public policies like Mandatory school attendance and Youth labor laws. These laws were developed in an era when exploitation of young people was more common and these laws did a good job protecting children from being exploited in dangerous factory work, or in urban areas preventing them from running loose which was a serious problem in the early 20th century. However, the unintended consequences in the 21st century make it virtually impossible for a teenager to do anything but low skill entry level jobs. Added to that, is these are the first jobs a company will eliminate when laws are passed to increase minimum wage rates. The result today is it is very difficult for young people to even find a job, let alone a job that challenges them. In the name of protecting our children, we are inadvertently extending their adolescence and dependency far beyond what was the norm a scant couple of generations ago. We need to rethink these laws so that while they still protect children, they don't suffocate them.
In addition, there are many cultural customs that are designed to protect our children. Pretty much gone are the days when a child could seek out his or her own friends and develop games that expressed their interests, which incidentally gave them experience in learning to be responsible for themselves and develop their own interests. Substituted for this are a custom of "play dates," organized sports and other activities (organized by adults mostly), and attempts by parents to monitor their child's every move. In addition, the old idea that "children should be seen and not heard" seems to still exist but in a radically different form. Patronizing the opinions of young people is all too common (We'll let you know when we want to hear what you think). Again, children should be protected appropriately, not suffocated.
The result of all this is adolescents have little they can do that is meaningful. They usually go to school, and then most spend the rest of their time playing. So far as school being the equivalent of a job, the most common complaint by young people about school is that it is not challenging and rather boring.
The result: energetic young people with the urge to get involved with life and to learn how to be independent adults tends to focus on what is left to them - sex, drugs and endlessly hanging out. With little chance of learning from mistakes (protection efforts all too often wind up just saving them from the consequences of their own poor decisions), adolescence is extended and maturity delayed. Learning from consequences will happen, but instead of under adult's protection, it will be during adulthood when consequences can be more permanent and limiting.
Virtually all the special needs residential schools and programs I work with have work responsibilities and community service as integral parts of their curriculum. These students are learning the satisfaction of work well done. These students for the most part had been caught up in a life of making poor decisions (some complicated with Mental health disorders) and so partly are the result of extended adolescence and dependency. These students are learning at these schools and programs that their contributions to the school community are important. In just the work element at these schools, these students are healing and growing up, something that had been denied them in our national culture. Seeing the positive results in these schools and programs of the school's work program is a good reminder that we need to find a way to make the opportunity to contribute through work and service available to all adolescents. We need to balance protection of our young along with allowing them the opportunity to contribute. The Allen book makes a good case that in raising our young we are out of balance and need to adjust to modern society.