"Young people are capable of making great contributions to society, but they currently have virtually no way of being hear...In times past young people often accomplished great things; it's tough for them to do so in today's America.
When we restrict the rights and activities of young people - say, the more than twenty million people in the United States between thirteen and seventeen, or the more than one billion teens worldwide (more than one-sixth of the world's population) - in some sense we just throw them away, just as much of the world still discards women, the elderly, and various minorities." (Robert Epstein, Teen 2.0, 13)I once had to send a young person home from on the last day of a youth retreat for fighting. His parents arrived late in the evening and before I could begin speaking this young person's mother began berating me for not "stopping these children from acting like children." I explained to her that she and her child had signed a covenant of conduct that stipulated that "physical violence of any kind will not be tolerated" and that young people who act violently toward one another will be sent home as soon as possible. This mother, obviously very angry with me, then said, "Well what do you expect. You bring a group of kids to the beach and give them a little freedom and they're bound to start beating each other up. They can't handle this kind of responsibility -- they're just kids."
This exchange has haunted me for quite some time. Of course, I was concerned about whether I did the right thing in sending this young man home and I have second-guessed myself numerous times. But the most disturbing aspect of this conversation for me has been the mother's characterization of her fourteen year-old son as "just a child" and of teenagers in general as unworthy of respect and incapable of any amount of "adult" responsibility. Indeed, in her assessment, young people are inherently violent and are unable to be in one another's company absent adult supervision because, sooner or later, they'd just start fighting.
This is disturbing to me because I have seen this same young person engage in real ministry that entailed listening to the needs of others, sharing their faith and life story with others, evaluating complex situations and choose a plan of action, and lead their peers in engaging in ministry. In short, although this young person did get into a fight on a youth retreat that caused him to be sent home early, I have otherwise experienced him to be a perfectly reasonable, competent, and responsible person.
Granted, this mother was probably upset about having to drive two hours away to pick up her son from a youth retreat for breaking our group covenant. Nevertheless, her reaction betrays what I believe is a deep-seeded belief in the inherent incompetence and irresponsibility of young people.
Robert Epstein, in the first two chapters of Teen 2.0, chronicles both the rise of adolescence as a recognized period of life and the ridiculous amount of restrictions placed on young people based not on their competence but on their age. Epstein and Diane Dumas created the Epstein-Dumas Test of Adultness to measure the actual level of restriction that young people and adults face every day. Their findings are rather startling:
"Noninstitutionalized adults scored near zero (2.3 out of a possible 42), but teens outscored prisoners and soldiers by a large margin (26.6 for teens vs. 14.6 for prisoners and 10.9 for soldiers)...In other words, teens appear to be subjected to about twice as many restrictions as are prisoners and soldiers and to more than ten times as many restrictions as everyday adults.Epstein then goes on to paint a picture of "adolescent turmoil" (the condition that we now call "normal" for teenagers) as inherently unnecessary. He chronicles extensive research into the changing roles of young people even in the last century and shows, rather convincingly, that the level of restrictions placed on young people in 21st century America is historically unprecedented. Until roughly two centuries ago, it turns out, young people began living and functioning as adults as soon as they reached puberty. He believes that this state can be achieved once again by carefully yet swiftly reducing the level of restrictions faced by young people and surrounding them with competent, caring adults who are willing to help them begin to function as the competent, responsible young adult people they already are.
He lists four "enabling premises" that can help adults and young people take initial steps toward helping young people reclaim their place as functioning members of society. I've placed some basic implications for young people in parentheses.
- Individuals are unique (i.e., Just because someone is young does not mean that he or she is inherently incompetent. The converse is also true, just because someone is older and has more life experience does not mean that they are automatically able to function as adult members of society.)
- People are competent (People should be measured by their competency not by inherent traits that come with their age, race, class, etc. Competencies can be taught and improved over time.)
- People have unrealized potential (We should ask what a person's potential is rather than labeling them based on current performance).
- Labels are dangerous (Dismissing a young person as "just a kid" is just as dangerous as calling someone "just a black person" or "just a woman." Labels are inherently dangerous and prone to inaccuracy.)
These enabling premises have allowed us to make headway (gradually, of course) toward reducing discrimination toward various minorities, women, the elderly, and the disabled. "Applied to teens, the Enabling Premises have clear implications: teens need to be judged (a) as individuals, not as a group, (b) based on their competencies, not on their age, (c) based on their potential for learning and growth, not merely on their current characteristics, and (d) without disparaging labels such as "adolescent," which imply limits or flaws" (16).
These "enabling premises" will easily resonate with youth workers of various stripes. We are used to seeing the uniqueness of individuals at work, we are used to seeing young people do things that show them to be highly competent and responsible, we are used to seeing young people grow in their faith and their ability to face great challenges with courage, and we are used to seeing the inherent danger in labeling people because labels can be so harmful, limiting and demeaning.
What I am reading so far in Epstein resonates deeply with me because I have long believed that the infantilization of young people is actually partly to blame for stunting their growth into mature followers of Jesus. We expect so little of them because we believe them to be capable of so little and as a result, young people's lives are far too often characterized by unnecessary hurt and conflict, unhealthy levels of compartmentalization, and myriad destructive behaviors. I've seen all this play out in the lives of young people I know and love and, so far, I think I am with Epstien in believing that so much of this is entirely preventable if we will make room for young people to begin to play a greater part in our communities rather than keeping them shut away and sheltered.
So what do you think? Do young people face too many restrictions? Are they capable of so much more than we currently expect of them? Is it time to help each young people seize his or her "inner adult"?