Once upon a time, there really was a moment when a girl left behind an actual, old-fashioned childhood and embarked on a well-defined period of preparation for motherhood and marriage. Now, childhood ends earlier than ever, while adulthood in the traditional senseâ€”of settling down and starting a familyâ€”begins much later, if at all. In the middle is a stretch of adolescence so extendedâ€”and so various, from teenage parenthood to perpetual studenthoodâ€”one hardly knows when coming of age should be celebrated, or why.
–from a Slate review of a book on Quinceaneras.
As an outsider, I’d say that the Quinceaneras around here are almost entirely malign. That’s because the American custom of adolescence, I’m starting to think, is also almost entirely malign. Physical adulthood and some of the license of adulthood without adult responsibility and adult respect is rattlesnake poison. You can’t come of age without coming of age.
I hope to complete and review a couple of recent books on the subject soon, one called The End of Adolescence and the other The Case Against Adolescence. See here, here, and here. From what I’ve read so far, the gist is that (1) far too often we Americans segregate teenagers into environments where they mostly interact with other teens, (2) we don’t give them enough semi-independent responsibility.
I think the Saints do better. For one, the possibility of marriage and mission, and the fact that Mormon parents still often do not provide their college kid with free rent, car, and allowance, means that the extension of adolescence well into the twenties hasn’t been as epidemic with us as with the rest of the country. To a degree we also avoid prematurely rushing our children into quasi-adulthood, with our restrictions on dating, emphasis on morality and modesty, and careful attention to the kinds of media we watch. Its just a fact that I and many other Mormon kids I knew “grew up” slower in high school than our peers did. By having an earlier real adulthood and a later childhood, we limit the period of quasi-adult adolescence.
We can probably do better. Adults work in our Young Womens and Young Mens programs but they’re still fairly segregated into narrow age ranges. I’ve seen some positive examples. A couple of local homeschooling families belong to homeschooling groups that do activities across a wide range of ages. Their teenagers, while still callow or green or whatever expression you prefer, come across as more poised and mature. I’ve also seen a pioneer reenactment dance that was about 2/5ths adults and my impression was that the youth were more relaxed and having more fun than at the normal youth dance. People were dancing with partners of all ages.
We also don’t give our teenagers much responsibility of any kind. Young men have the priesthood but their role is narrowly defined and led from outside their ranks. Young women don’t even have that minimal responsibility. (Note: I will gladly delete any comments that try to resurrect the tired old theme that young men get all these great programs and young women don’t. Save your spleen, your chance will come). I know of some positive examples. One of the homeschooling families I mention not only put their teenagers to work building their home, but they also supervised contractors and gave them instructions when the parents couldn’t be around. A family in our ward with a family business puts their teenagers to work helping to run the thing. My father-in-law, who also ran his own business, put my wife to work when she was a teen and also used her as a sounding board for decisions. Orson Scott Card, writing on the need young men have to be heroes, mentioned that one of his teenage sons found meaning and purpose in spending a lot of his free time as an internet Mormon apologist. Finally, I remember President Faust talking about a military ward that had all but one or two of its Melchizedek priesthood holders sent away on a tour of duty, whereupon a previously fractious and listless Priests quorum took up the slack and performed beautifully.
Modern neuroscience has shown that the brain doesn’t finish maturing until 19-20, and inexperience is inexperience. We can’t expect full adulthood at age 12. But we probably can do better.