God has not willed that we should come into the world as mature men and women, ready to take a full- fledged place in life. Adam and Eve never had a childhood or youth. Their offspring, however, born into the world as helpless babes, must pass through a long period of growth and development before they attain maturity. This long period of development that finally emerges into manhood or woman hood may again itself be divided into two sharply distinct periods: childhood and adolescence. It is the latter period, that of adolescence, that we are interested in in this article, and primarily in the early part of that period. Irving King in his The High-School Age well says, “There is no season in the life of the boy or girl, which, to parent and teacher, is more interesting and more baffling than are these years which we may roughly consider as lying between thirteen and twenty.”
Our English word “adolescence” means: “the state of growing, applied to the young of the human race;” “youth, the period between childhood and manhood.” As the above quotation indicates this period includes the years from thirteen to about twenty. As a dependent child one enters that period of development, and emerges from it as a full-fledged man or woman taking a full place in society.
Adolescence itself is frequently divided into two periods: early and later adolescence. Although these two are not as sharply distinct as childhood and adolescence or adolescence and manhood are, there is a noticeable difference as everyone realizes who pays attention to the difference between a normal fifteen year old and an eighteen or nineteen year old. Early adolescence extends roughly from thirteen thru sixteen, while later adolescence runs from seventeen thru about twenty. The settled adult is clearly recognizable in the adolescent passing through the years just prior to maturity. While the early adolescent is naturally thought of as still belonging in the group of minors, the late adolescent quite readily takes his place among mature men and women as soon ready to be one of them.
Early adolescence has one outstanding characteristic: change. During the years thirteen through sixteen a great change takes place in the life of the individual. There is first of all: physical change. Profound physical changes come about, changes that bring about a series of bodily adjustments. Even the most ordinary observer has noted how most boys and girls suddenly begin to grow rapidly somewhere between the ages of twelve and fifteen. The youngster whose growth excited little attention from those about him daily during the years prior to this, now suddenly begins to shoot up. In spite of a watchful mother his sleeves get too short and an awkward length of shank appears between his shoe-tops and the bottoms of his knee trousers. His movements become ungainly. He stumbles about and has great difficulty in knowing what to do with his hands and feet. This awkwardness is more apparent in boys than in girls. This marked physical growth is usually a little later in boys than in girls, but the boys go on growing for a longer period. The maturity of the sex function is, of course, central in these physical changes; the rapid increase in stature is so nearly coincident with the change of puberty that it may ordinarily be taken as a proof that that change has taken place. Usually this is a period of good health. Ill health is not normal at the time. The vital forces are intense, and the over-flowing energy is all needed for the accomplishment of the change. If this energy is diverted, by an excess or physical labor or by excessive social interests with interference with regular habits of rest and sleep, the child suffers for it.
But there is more than physical change going on during this period—there is corresponding mental change. Parents realize the child cannot be taken by the hand so easily, the adolescent wants to know the reason of things, he disputes the authority of others over him. Mentally the child is undergoing as profound a change as physically. This period shows a marked change taking place, a change that should take place. It should take place for God has willed that the child become a man. Parents should realize this, expect it. They should desire it. It is God in His providence that brings about this change.
This mental change reveals itself in various ways. First of all, in distinction from childhood the time of adolescence is the time of reflection. The child in his teens is not interested in mere facts but begins to relate them. While the child took for granted and believed what parent and teachers told it, the adolescent wants proof, and asks for the why’s and wherefore’s. This is not the time of pure memory work anymore; it is time to explain, to help the growing child answer its problems. Secondly, this is the period when the individual begins to declare its independence. The pre-adolescent child was satisfied to be led by father and mother, to go where they went, to go with them. The adolescent wants to live its own life, prefers to go without parents, delights in taking care of itself. Especially when the adolescent begins to earn a little money does he wish to be more or less independent. Thirdly, this is the period of the exuberance of life and vitality. The child is full of the exuberant joy of living. The cares and problems of life do not oppress. There is an unbounded hope and conviction of being able to accomplish great things. Everything throbs with the joy of living. Fourthly, we ought to add that this is the period of instability. The adolescent, during early adolescence especially, turns from one thing to another. He is easily influenced by others, though during these years he would be the last to admit it. The adolescent wishes to be acceptable to others, and easily adapts himself to others. He often acts before he thinks.
Of course, if there were no sin and no consequences of sin there would be no dangers during this period of adolescence. Rut there is sin in the world, and there are consequences of sin. The adolescent child of the Kingdom also, even as the non-covenant child, is by nature a child of darkness. And it must grow up and develop in a world that lies in sin and darkness. It is a period of rapid growth, and we must use our utmost efforts to keep up with that growth in the spiritual surroundings and influence we as Christian parents must provide.
We mentioned adolescence as a time of reflection. This reflection is perfectly natural and normal. Do not repress the adolescent’s questions. Often the adolescent reaches wrong conclusions in his reasoning; don’t get too excited about it. Many of these things adjust themselves. Be sure that you can’t by a final command of authority correct your child if he errs. Try to show him where he errs; often you can accomplish your purpose better indirectly than directly. Don’t forget that at sixteen there are many radicals, at seventy there are very few. But by all means see that the adolescent, as far as his spiritual training is concerned, finds a healthy Christian atmosphere in the home, and if he goes to school in the school. Instruct him in good reading, in listening to good radio programs, encourage him to attend worthwhile meetings. Teach him to pray for himself, rather than pray with him.
We also mentioned youth as a time of self-assertion and independence. Also this is in itself normal, and divinely willed. It is an evidence of the growing consciousness of individuality and may not be repressed. As parents seek to guide this new-found self-assertiveness in the right channels. That is not an easy matter. Usually, however, the turn which this self-assertion will takes depends upon the home atmosphere in early childhood. If the child has felt irritated and repressed, if it feared rather than loved mother and father before adolescence, then you will find it next to impossible to lead the child in adolescence. An adolescent revolts against imposed authority that rules by decree rather than by love. But by all means seek to influence the child for good. Don’t on the other hand, allow the child all the freedom to go out evenings, etc. it desires. The child is not able to handle uncontrolled freedom during these years. Usually the child thinks it is, but it is not, any more than the young calf led from the barn for the first time.
Then there is the youth’s exuberance and vitality, which brings dangers and problems of its own. Life seems so sweet, there does not seem to be a cloud in the sky, marriage seems nothing but roses, sin and evil often seem so distant. The youth easily imagines that by his own efforts he can change conditions that none could before him. The young girl imagines she can choose a life-partner, the young man that he can choose his mate. The young girl of sixteen or seventeen, and even older, thinks if she marries a young man of the world, she can lead him and take him to church. The youth is full of hope, and sees no danger, not naturally nor spiritually. It is a time of unconcern, even more so than in childhood. This brings dangers. The youth must be guided, not uncontrolled, lest it form friendships and alliances that will bring sorrow and disillusionment later, if not life-long grief.
As a fourth characteristic we mentioned instability. In itself that is perfectly natural and normal. But due to sin in the world and the consequences of sin, it brings its dangers. Dangers that this instability will go to extremes, and it will emerge from the period of adolescence still unstable. A certain amount of firmness is necessary on the part of parents and teachers to control this instability and tide the youth over it.
Adolescence is the spring-time of life, indeed. The world beckons to the covenant youth, Give me thy heart. Home, school and church must use their best efforts toward the youth. If in one period of their life we must not let them down, it is in this period. An understanding, sympathetic, spiritual attitude is above all things needed. It is in this period above all that the admonition of Ephesians 6:4 is in place, “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”