Marriage and Family: The Evolution of the Teenager

Ιf you instinctively “turn off” when you read the word “evolution,” please give me a few minutes to clarify. I am not suggesting that teenagers have evolved from some primordial soup or from the most irrational of beasts. There is something far different that is inherent in the title of this article.

If you were to look at a dictionary printed prior to WW2, you would not find the word “teenager” listed. You would find “teenage,” but not the noun “teenager.” Pardon a diversion into sociology, but it is crucial to understand some of what has happened in western society. If we were to go back prior to 1900, the majority of people in the USA and Canada lived on farms, well over 75% of us. This meant that father and mother were either home or available all day. Children went to a small school, often with multiple ages and grades in the same room. There were only two classifications for everyone: child or adult. And believe it or not, children wanted to grow up to be like their parents!

Then came the industrial revolution and the move toward urbanization. Today, it is likely that less than 5% of people live on farms, and even in these communities things have changed. Father is now off to work, and in many instances, mother as well. Family time is much more limited. With the move to the city, large schools were necessary, and children were placed in classes with their peers. I am not debating the value of this for education. But among those in their teenage years, a subculture developed. Marketing experts were quick to recognize the potential of hawking their merchandise to a subculture, and the “teenager” became an entity (note the recent movement to market to “tweens” as an example). With the introduction of the automobile, malls and other venues, teenagers assumed a new independence from parents. As with every other subculture, peer pressure entered, and teens had to conform to others who set the trends in the group. This is really a rapid and very distilled summary of a huge change in western culture, a change which continues to “evolve.”

While the following description does not apply to all teenagers, it does reflect what is present in a majority of western society: an independent, confrontational, peer-pressured entity. Teen years do not have to be turbulent and difficult. Many families have been blessed as a result of the combination of wise parenting and the grace of God. But even when there has been skillful “shepherding of the heart,” there is no guarantee of trouble-free teen years.

If God in His grace has saved your teenager, you have a working advantage. But whether dealing with a saved or unsaved child, it is vital to keep a number of issues in mind.

All teenagers are under tremendous peer pressure, to the clothes they wear, the friends they have, the places they go, if they are dating, and a myriad other things to which most of us, as adults, are oblivious. All this pressure comes upon them at the most vulnerable period of life, that time when personal identity is developing and, with it, a desire for acceptance. Solomon’s first piece of advice to his son dealt with the matter of withstanding peer pressure (Pro 1:10-19). Parents need to begin addressing and fortifying against this long before the teenage years arrive.

Both the educational system and their friends will challenge beliefs. Every generation feels as though it is the first to discover truth which an older generation failed to grasp. The result will be that as beliefs are challenged, doubts and questions may arise. The questions may be of the most basic form: How do you know there is a God? How can you believe a book that is thousands of years old? Or they may be related to gender issues, sexuality, marriage and lifestyles. Children need to be fortified in youth to be able to handle these challenges to their worldview and faith.

At this point someone is already running to Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child …” While I am not so certain that this is the actual interpretation of the verse, I think the principle can be borne out by other Scriptures that filling the minds of our children with the Word of God at an early age is vital. Time should be spent reading the Word of God together as a family. Do not use these occasions to preach to your children; rather use them to ground them in the principles of the Word of God. These embrace the character of God, the reasons for accepting the Scriptures as God’s Word, and the basic truth of the Scriptures. Give the Spirit of God fertile soil in which to do His work (2Ti 3:15,16).

Be prepared, as well, to be challenged by your teenager. The challenge may come softly, as an honest and fair question. It may, however, come as a confrontation which may cause you to think that your teen has thrown off all you have endeavored to teach her. The manner in which you respond to this is critical. If you are dismissive or abusive, you have lost the field of battle. If, on the other hand, you recognize the question as something vitally important to your child and seek to answer it patiently and wisely, you may score points. And if you do not know the answer immediately as to how they made room for dinosaurs in the ark, an honest “I don’t know, but I will find out and get back in a few days” may well enhance your child’s respect for you. If you have modeled your convictions through many years with your family, and if your life has been consistent, this itself will carry great weight with them.

Along with the struggle for identity and a belief system, this is the time of life when a person faces the challenge of independence. If your teenager is saved by God’s grace, creating within him the awareness that God has a plan for his life and that he can move with confidence in Him is a tremendous asset (Pro 3:5-10).

Allow me to add one final comment to this abbreviated treatise: please be very gracious with other parents and the struggles they may encounter with their families. The children they are raising are not the ones God has given you to raise. If you have more than one child, you know how different temperaments can be, and that within one family. You are not encountering what they are dealing with in their family. Rather than criticizing or lording it over those who are battling through the teenage years, pray earnestly for them (Gal 6:2; 1Th 5:11), and thank God for any blessing you have enjoyed with your family.