The birth of adolescence in American history

The birth of adolescence in American history

The birth of adolescence in American history

When my son was about five years old, he overheard me talking to his older sister – about my neice.  

“Can you believe she’s 13 today?”

His alarmed response:  “She’s a teenager?!  Can somebody please help her?!”

As a young child, he perceived something was about to be very, very wrong.

Adolescence hasn’t always been experienced the way it is today in America.

In America we conceived this, too often dreaded and chaotic, season in the 1900’s – primarily during the decades following the depression (1929-1939).  The end of WW II (1939-1945) saw the birth of what we now think is normal – or “just the way it is” for this season.

I agree – we didn’t invent puberty; puberty is the season of life when a child becomes an adult in the ways of sexual maturity (physically, that is!) But we have done something very “new” and strange with this important season of every person’s life.

Historically (prior to 1900), children rarely lived at home during the teen years.  Many began apprenticeships; some went to live with other relatives – because these relatives needed help with real work.

History also shows us the age of puberty closely marked the beginning of married life; natural “mating” urges indicated a call to establish a family of our own.

In most of the animal kingdom, physically mature beasts simply are not welcome in the family den.  Their departure is not a rejection – just a normal time of transition in a healthy kingdom.

A perfect storm fertilized our invention of adolescence.

The depression offered unmet needs and unmet expectations in traumatic proportion.  These wounds were fresh and not yet healed when WW II began to write the next chapter in American family history.

American families experienced a decade of extreme poverty and “no work” that transitioned to a time of war requiring almost every man over the age of 18 to fight.  And these men needed what factories produced.

So moms worked in the factories – and in the homes.  For almost every one of these faithful American women, it was the first time to get financially paid for working an “outside of the home” job.

When the men came home from war, couples celebrated. For the next two decades – a baby boom!

These children were born into families – many of which – had decided to offer what they had not experienced in their own childhoods: financial provision.  A season of childhood play – in a world where “want” was scarce, instead of rampant.

“What if we offer them the financial stability we never had?” one parent said.

“Yeah, let’s do!” replied the other.

Seemed like a great idea – considering the trauma of the great depression.  A good idea, too, because many women found satisfaction in the jobs they had begun to enjoy.

A two parent income family planted the seed that gave birth to the world of adolescence we experience today.

A change in the American education system fertilized this seed.

This is the time in the history of American education when schools transitioned from the one-room school house to a more industrial style, grade-level institution.

Most of the nation’s schools were not prepared for the number of students arriving six years after the baby-boom began.  As a response to this overcrowding crisis, children began being sorted into grade-levels and class size increased significantly.

These school system decisions made good sense as a response to the “population increase emergency.”  However, this “response to crisis” became the “new normal” in education.

Many false traditions now endure. And when schools and children struggle, we too often still respond to the crisis — and hold on to these decisions as ongoing practices, instead of building a lasting foundation based on the truth of how children mature.

The one-room school house had it’s disadvantages – to be sure. And the one-room school house offered opportunities not available in our current system.

Students did chores as well as lessons; there were opportunities to contribute in mature ways.  Older students taught younger students.  Multi-age grouping was the norm, instead of grouping by age and skill capacity.

Maturity was possible in the one room school house in ways that are often impossible in today’s system.

Love is the fuel of maturity – love received, and love given. Love is the process of meeting needs.

In the one room school house, it was expected that more mature students help less mature ones; this is love. In agrarian societies, families had many children because much help was needed on the farm.

In the school house and on the farm – in all the ways a child was mature, he was given the opportunity – and expected – to share that maturity.

Helping wasn’t a chore – it was a way of life.

Adolescence wasn’t a planned pregnancy.  It was a perfect storm.

  • Unmet needs, fear and the trauma of the depression; still healing wounds when a war began.
  • A response to war that took mothers out of the home.
  • Well intentioned parental love and care.
  • An educational response to schools overcrowded with baby-boomers.

Never in history had we experimented with this recipe.  And now we’ve watched the effects of this combination of ingredients for more than 50 years.

  • protection from struggle; labels when struggle is apparent
  • access to pain relief when life is not deeply satisfying
  • shame with the struggle of puberty
  • few opportunities to be mentored- and to learn, in relationship, what real life requires of adults
  • few opportunities to mentor others

We think it’s always been this way.

This quote from H. Stephen Glenn maybe helpful:

“Kids used to wear jeans because their parents were poor; now parents are poor because their kids wear jeans!”

Prior to the 1950’s, children were adults in their families and in society when their bodies became “adult,” too.

Because of that expectation, young children spent their childhood enjoying play and leisure – as well as working alongside mom at home and dad in the field, barn, workshop, and office.

They worked alongside mom and dad because they were children, learning to be adults.

These children never experienced childhood as a season preparing them for adolescence.

Can I be bold enough to define “adolescence” today as a season of financial provision without financial responsibility, and a season where the resource of a young person’s “time” is spent on self-focused (as opposed to others-focused) pursuits?

Adolescence is now a season when sexual maturity is confused with sexual activity; it is a time when nature says, “Go!” but children are still children – instead of ready to be adults.  And the shame we often offer for their lack of self-control only makes the problem worse.

To new parents after the depression – protecting their children from struggle seemed like love.

Wow.  How that lie has grown.  We’ve witnessed a fly on the wall transform into a helicopter parent.

We know the truth; struggle is required for maturity.

No struggle = immaturity.  Immaturity is marked by behavior appropriate to someone younger; it is a time of unfruitfulness.

Maturity requires mentoring relationships while we move through struggle; it will not happen in the company of same aged peers.  When I struggle, I need to trust someone wiser and more mature to share wisdom and strength.

Consider this:  today we put more than 1,000 13 and 14 year olds under one roof and call it “middle school.”  Have we really thought this whole idea through, or are just walking in a false tradition?   I don’t offer this thought with shame; this fact is just a blinding glimpse the obvious!  (BGO!)

Personal fulfillment – the kind that is hard-wired in us – happens most profoundly when we are sharing our wisdom and strength with someone else who trusts us and who asks us for help.  This is uncommon with same-aged peers, because we know about as much as they do – but not much more – and because we’re often embarrassed to ask for help.

We’ve followed the path of several false traditions for decades, now.  These roads don’t lead us to maturity.

Financial stability is not the fuel of maturity.  Good grades are not the fuel of maturity.  Satisfaction of chance desires is not the fuel of maturity.

So now, adolescence.

And for five year olds and eight year olds and anyone younger than twelve – the expectation of adolescence.  A young child in America today spends the first ten+ years of their life aiming for adolescence – not maturity.

The resulting lack of personal fulfillment is often met with various forms of pain relief – and often an excess of entertainment.

A lack of fulfillment always puts us in danger of the attraction and addiction of wrong choices.

Adolescence was not part of God’s original design.  Never was there a plan to spend a season of life in self-focused preoccupation because God knows that “love one another” is our only hope.

Because we’ve invented it, we can end it.  If we choose.

We can make choices in the direction of truth, instead of false tradition.

The plan begins with us; our children cannot mature beyond our limits of immaturity.  I know – ouch!  “The Cure and Parents” is a great resource to dive into this conversation.

(An interesting side note: when searching for pictures for this blog, I couldn’t find any of children legitimately helping mom or dad – just pictures of mom and dad helping children – or letting children “pretend” to do real things, but not really do them.)

There is always hope – and the strength and wisdom for course-correction.

The inaugural launch of our new online class begins Oct. 1, 2017 – you can respond to this invitation to reserve your place at the table.

The class is called “connecting…and reconnecting – at home.”  It’s for people who are recognizing their hunger for connection….and maturity.

If you’re willing to be a part of a community that welcomes struggle, side by side – this class may be for you.  

If you’re wondering about the difference connecting…and reconnecting could make in your relationships at home, this class may be for you.

If you’re hoping to find a safe community to try out vulnerability in the midst of struggle, this class may be for you.

RSVP to this invitation by following this link to the contact page of our website – and include “connecting…and reconnecting – at home” in the comment section.  

Watch for a new website remodel…coming soon!  The remodel will allow you to enroll and pay to reserve your spot directly on our site.

The class will include five video lessons and a downloadable participant’s guide we’re calling “Connection Chronicles.”  The five lessons will be available one at a time – every 10 days.  The class continues for seven weeks.

During that seven weeks – you will have access to the videos and the additional ideas in the participant’s guide.  You will also have access to vulnerable community – in a closed FaceBook group…for members only.

I’ll be an active participant in the group.  We’ll offer and listen to different perspectives and views and experiences and wisdom.  We’ll protect each other.

We’ll connect.  and reconnect.  Connection is the place where nothing is fixed, but everything’s changed.  

We’re excited about learning to draw one circle in our families; welcome home.  



  • Tiffany Cowen Halsell

    This is so so true! I have known this!! I didn’t know the WWII and the Depression played into that, but that makes so much sense!! Now, how to fix it! 🤔

  • Yes, Tiffany – such an interesting story in our American history – that we did not intentionally write, but that is very true. And we can write another chapter rebuilding what we have lost! There is great hope – if we will choose to walk a new way together. Thank you for joining the conversation.