The Myth of Adolescence

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In Chapters 3 and 4 of  Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations, Alex and Brett Harris tackle the “Myth of Adolescence.”   Adolescence, they argue, is “a social category of age and behavior that would have been completely foreign to men and women not too long ago.”

The term adolescence literally means “to grow up.”   This is true in a biological sense as well as in other aspects of maturity.   We have no problem with that, or even with the word itself—you’ll notice that we still use the word teenager a lot.   The problem we have is with the modern understanding of adolescence that allows, encourages, and even trains young people to remain childish for much longer than necessary.   It holds us back from what we could do, from what God made us to do, and even from what we would want to do if we got out from under society’s low expectations.

Alex and Brett use examples from the 1700s and 1800s to illustrate how different the approach to the teenage years was just a few hundred years ago.   In contrast, they offer this quote from America in So Many Words about the word teenager.

In the first part of the twentiety century, we made a startling discovery.   There were teeangers among us!   Until then, we had thought of people in just two stages: children and adults.   And while childhood might have its tender moments, the goal of the child was to grow up as promptly as possible in order to enjoy the opportunities and shoulder the responsibilities of an adult.   The girl became the woman, the boy became the man.   It was as simple and significant as that…

But the reforms  of the early twentieth century, preventing child labor and mandating education through high school, lengthened the pre-adult years.   In earlier times, a person reaching adult size at age thirteen  or fourteen was ready to do adult work.   Now adult size was  achieved as soon as ever, but preparation for adult responsibilities lasted until age eighteen or later.

Thus the years ending in  -teen became something new and distinctive…. The teenager remade our world.   The concept is…subversive: why should any teenager  enjoying freedom submit to the authority of adults?   With the discovery of this new age, ours has been the century of the teenager ever since.

Alex and Brett encourage us to think about that last line: “Ours has been the century of the teenager ever since.”

Isn’t that exactly what has happened?   Entire industries—movie, music, fashion, fast food—and countless online services revolve around the consumer habits of, you guessed it, teens.

With all this money and attention focused on teens, the teen years are viewed as some sort of vacation.   Society doesn’t expect much of anything from young people during their teen years—except trouble.

But what if there was a better way?   What if the teen years could be reclaimed as the launching pad of a meaningful, God-glorifying life?

Proverbs 20:29 says, “The glory of young men is their strength.”   Did you catch that?   At no other time are we better positioned to decide who we will become.   Our strength—sharp minds, energetic bodies, and flexible schedules—is our glory.   We are not likely to have this same set of strengths ever again.   By choosing to use our teen years for strict training, we can choose to set direction, develop character, and build momentum for an amazing future.

The Harris brothers argue that kidults—a new breed of adolescents in their mid- to late twenties and beyond who offer convincing evidence that the modern concept of adolescence is not a biological stage, but a cultural mind-set—are the logical result of the Myth of Adolescence, which encourages teens to view adulthood as spoiling the fun of the teen years rather than viewing it as the fulfillment of the teen years.

We need to be honest with ourselves.   Is how we’re spending our time right now preparing us for what we hope to become in the future?   Are we doing things now that will equip us for the greater things God may have for us to do?   These are the fundmental questions for this season of our lives.

To that end, the Alex and Brett recommend the Five Kinds of Hard:

  1. Things that are outside your comfort zone.
  2. Things that go beyond what is expected or required.
  3. Things that are too big to accomplish alone.
  4. Things that don’t earn an immediate payoff.
  5. Things that challenge the cultural norm.

Have you read, or are you reading Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations? What did you think of Chapters 3 and 4? As a young person, how have you experienced the cultural norm of low expectations? Are you currently doing or aiming to do some “hard things”?

Next Tuesday I’ll shoot to post some thoughts on Chapters  5 and 6. Thanks for reading!


  1. Blameless And Harmless

    I read this book a while back, really an amazing book! They must have worked really hard on it.

    I really think that "being a teenager" is such a huge cop-out. It's just like the way that doctors give everybody a syndrome — so they don't have to be responsible for anything, because they have a "medical condition."

    A while ago, I worked in food service. Among other "teenager" and "young adults" in the workplace, it was easy to see how culture just accepted that teens were going to be jerks. These kids said, "No, I'm not going to clean trashcans" to their supervisor's faces. Other kids (definitely underage) take hour long breaks in the lunch room. Other kids hid in corners away from where the supervisors could see them so they could text their friends.

    Tell you one thing though — as a Christian, I quickly got a good rep. It wasn't like I was doing anything so glorious, I was going the extra mile. Not only that, I was just doing my job — they didn't even expect the kids to even work, which was sad.

    Our culture needs to push young people harder. We need to stop with the "everyone is just fine the way they are" attitude.

    • I agree our culture needs to push teens harder because nine times out of ten, the teens will rise up to meet and exceed expectations. The key is to have a really good teacher and/or mentor for the teens. However, the teens need to be proactive in seeking out a mentor or finding that good teacher who will push them to be all that they can be.

  2. As part of my college class, I get to observe/teach in a high school this semester. I absolutely love it! I am in a wonderful school. I get to see students do hard things all of the time in this school. It is quite refreshing and encouraging. The students are highly involved. My teacher in the classroom I observe is great! He runs a club called pasta for pennies and it supports the leukemia society. He constantly pushes the students to do hard things while helping people in need. It is great to see the kids wanting to do this and be involved in saving lives. The group is quite large as well.

    As far as my situation, I am currently doing one hard thing: it's called college!!! I have had a rough first part of the semester with some really challenging science classes. I have learned that I cannot do it alone, I need help from most importantly God then from my brothers and sisters in Christ who keep me on track.

  3. Thanks for posting this Jason. Eventually I'm going to have to check this book out.