The Gift of Responsibility


In 1963, a prominent American psychologist, Erik Erickson, proposed that life could be divided into eight developmental stages: infancy, early childhood, play age, school age, etc.  In his theory, the fifth stage of human development, which he called adolescence, occurs between the years 12-18.

Recently, psychologists and sociologists in the western world have been suggesting an extension of our society’s definition of adolescence.  For instance, new guidelines in the UK say that child psychologists rather than adult psychologists should be consulted until a person reaches the age of 26.

I am disheartened by this trend.  The very idea of adolescence was problematic to begin with.  It is an artificial space between childhood and adulthood that has created an entire set of sociological and personal problems.  In many societies, young people are received directly into the world of adulthood. They are given responsibilities, a place to belong, and a resulting sense of purpose.

In our society, our understanding of adolescence tends to create this period of limbo in which a young person doesn’t fit into the world of children and neither is he expected to fit into the world of adults.  This “hanging-in-the-middle-waiting-for-life-to-begin” feeling leads to a sense of aimlessness and boredom for teenagers.  It encourages a pursuit of less-than-gainful interests and creates frustration for teenagers and adults alike.

I believe that this expectation that teenagers kill some time before they become adults has come because of academic theorizing rather than from young people themselves.  The reality is that by the time a young person reaches 14, 15, or 16, he is capable of shouldering many kinds of adult responsibilities.  Jesse Stuart started teaching school a few days before he turned 17. Little Britches (Ralph Moody) took on his family’s farm before he hit puberty. By the age of 15, Fanny Crosby had written her first poems and memorized the four gospels, the Pentateuch, the book of Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and many of the Psalms.

To counteract the trend of lowering expectations for young people, I think we should actively look for ways to turn responsibilities over to them, and put them in charge of things that really matter.  This may take some courageous and creative thinking because it bucks the conventions of our day.  The upside is that the higher expectations and trust shown by adults in giving true responsibility to young people will call them to mature, increase their sense of worth, and give them greater opportunities to bless their families, churches, and communities.

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Matthew Mast

7 years ago

Amen, Kendall! I agree heartily. You are right, though, that this will require “courageous and creative thinking”–no quick fixes to this.

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