Why Teenagers Grow Up Slowly

Posted on: 11/10/09 10:41 AM | by Jonathan McKee

Why are teenagers growing up so slowly? It’s not that hard to figure out. Just compare the responsibilities of your great grampa to kids today.

100 years ago: Help dad with the farm…. or Mom, sister and the rest of you won’t have any food.

Today: “Mom… I want the new iPhone! All my friends have it!”


For years I’ve been reading about the increasing length of Adolescence and theories as to why. Last week, Newsweek highlighted a new book by Dr. Joe Allen titled, Escaping the Endless Adolescence (more on that in a minute). I loved the article, especially the timing of it- the same week as our most recent podcast, Episode #30, a conversation between Walt Mueller and I about today’s youth culture. In this podcast, Walt describes the crucial time of parenting adolescents as “the space between” (The title of his book on the subject).

Here’s his logic:

We all know that when our kids are young- we think for them.

We all know that someday- our kids will have to think for themselves.

How do we get them from “us thinking for them” to “thinking for themselves?”

Hence, the space between, when we think with them. (Simple, but profound, huh?)

In this podcast (free on iTunes), Walt and I have a great time talking about what this actually looks like day to day for parents who are raising teenagers. Fun stuff.

Back to the Newsweek article. It basically argues that teenagers are growing up slower because our society is not giving them opportunities to think and act for themselves… so we think for them, protecting them from “real life.”

Here’s just a snippet:

Allen has concluded that our urge to protect teenagers from real life – because we don’t think they’re ready yet – has tragically backfired. By insulating them from adult-like work, adult social relationships, and adult consequences, we have only delayed their development. We have made it harder for them to grow up. Maybe even made it impossible to grow up on time.

Basically, we long ago decided that teens ought to be in school, not in the labor force. Education was their future. But the structure of schools is endlessly repetitive. “From a Martian’s perspective, high schools look virtually the same as sixth grade,” said Allen. “There’s no recognition, in the structure of school, that these are very different people with different capabilities.” Strapped to desks for 13+ years, school becomes both incredibly monotonous, artificial, and cookie-cutter.

As Allen writes, “We place kids in schools together with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other kids typically from similar economic and cultural backgrounds. We group them all within a year or so of one another in age. We equip them with similar gadgets, expose them to the same TV shows, lessons, and sports. We ask them all to take almost the exact same courses and do the exact same work and be graded relative to one another. We give them only a handful of ways in which they can meaningfully demonstrate their competencies. And then we’re surprised they have some difficulty establishing a sense of their own individuality.”

And we wonder why it’s taking so long for them to mature…

Fascinating stuff.

(ht to Adam for highlighting the article in the YS Update)

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One Reply to “Why Teenagers Grow Up Slowly”

  1. This is my whole ministry right now. Last night I told my kids that it is not my job to go around slapping movies out of their hands at the movie rental place. My job was to teach them to think and make wise choices. I know you’re familiar with “Do Hard Things.” We made it required reading for our missions trip. It changed the atmosphere around here.

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