Is “teenager” a modern construct? It is a product of our times, according to Michael Waldstein, father of eight, internationally-known biblical scholar, president of the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, and translator of the recently published Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Pauline Books) based on the original notes of John Paul II.
Waldstein traces three causes of “teenagerism.”
“First and most fundamental, it seems to me, was and is the absence of fathers,” Waldstein explains. “I say fathers, though mothers are always included, as well.”
He references some scary statistics: “Children who grow up without a father account for 63% of adolescent suicides, 71% of pregnant teenagers, 90% of all runaways from home, 71% of school dropouts, 75% of adolescents with drug problems, and 85% of adolescents in prison.”
The physical absence of the father is a problem, but Waldstein notes there can be a “personal” absence, as well: “The hearts of fathers were and are turned toward the pursuit of wealth and power. They are bent on constructing a civilization of things from which children, particularly adolescent children, can only feel excluded.”
Thus, the abandonment of the family by the teen seems preceded by the abandonment of the teen by the father.
Waldstein proposes that the sexual revolution also played a role in the formation of teenagerism.
“Again, the fault lies primarily with the fathers,” he says. “They were the ones who first embraced an ethics of utilitarianism, which is the suitable counterpart to the pursuit of technological progress and wealth. Utilitarianism sees the final goal of all life in pleasure. Everything is to be evaluated according to its capacity to provide pleasure.”
Third, Waldstein considers the rise of technology in the home and the explosion of the entertainment industry as a key factor.
“Children don’t return to a home after school. They return to a house with electronic appliances,” he shares. “They fill the absence of what makes a home with an alternative world constructed by entertainment. When they come together, it is this world of entertainment that forms their relationships, from the clothes in which they choose to appear to each other (usually in amazing conformism to the group), to the love relationships they develop.”
Perhaps it is this very busyness which has led both mothers and fathers to miss something else — that their children are no longer children, yet they still live in a child’s world. I often think of my 16-year-old daughter Anna. Chances are, 200 years ago in rural Prince Edward Island, she would have been getting married, having children and running her own home by now.
In previous generations, teens were getting ready to manage their lives. But now, mandatory schooling to 16 has legislated that teens are not free to head off in their own directions. Even the goods of university degrees, technical colleges and certification programs have all extended the duration of formal schooling, and this, in fact, limits the ability of the teen to take on his or her life.
Refused legitimate entry into society as a maturing adult, teens remain irresponsible or frustrated adolescents.
“As children gradually grow up,” Pope Benedict XVI told a Rome diocesan convention last year, “their inner desire for personal autonomy naturally increases. … When they feel that their freedom is respected and taken seriously, adolescents and young people, despite their changeability and frailty, are not in fact unwilling to let themselves be challenged by demanding proposals: indeed, they often feel attracted and fascinated by them.”
Changing how we raise our children is possible. We can stop financing teenagerism by reducing pocket change, encouraging the connection between income and work, and eliminating the free ride.
We can reduce the use of entertainment technology in our home long before the teenage years arrive. We can choose alternate forms of education to counter the effect of the large, impersonal school. We can spend more time with our kids, cut down on day care, and explore part-time work arrangements and work-from-home options so that our minds and hearts are freer to attend to our children and their needs.
We can practice a less affluent lifestyle to diminish economic demands, and we can reduce our busyness so we have time to “be.”
In re-creating the home, we can remove the excessive influence of peers from our children’s lives, set limits, include prayer, and love them as Pope John Paul II defined parental love: “availability, acceptance and help.”
We can recognize the unique persons our children are becoming, and through our presence, help them channel their talents, interests and gifts into directions where they will truly begin to take responsibility for their lives.
Most importantly, instead of giving into fatalism about negative teenage behavior, we must acknowledge that the tide can be reversed.
As Michael Platt, author of The Teenager and the West, says: “The teenager is not something inevitable, let alone natural, but something fashioned and permitted, and therefore something that need not be.”
Holly Pierlot is the author of
A Mother’s Rule of Life