Missionaries Ought to Know About Adolescence
by Dr. Ronald Koteskey
download this as a pdf file
a teenager, but never an adolescent. So was Moses. So was Paul. So was George
Washington. If you are working among non-Western people, that may be the case
with them as well. If you are working in developing countries, you may have
noticed that teenagers in the larger cities are adolescents, but those in the
rural villages are not. Why is there this difference? What is adolescence? What
does the Bible say about it? Should adolescents be treated as adults? What are
the major problems of adolescence? How can those problems be prevented? Let’s
consider some of these questions.
What is adolescence?
Today adolescence is the
time of life between puberty and adulthood. That seems simple enough, but it is
much more complicated than it appears at first glance because of changes during
the last 200 years.
- Puberty. Puberty originally meant,
"of ripe age, adult." That is what it still means in many tribes
where children go through rites of passage as teenagers to become full
adults in their culture. However, in Western nations the age of sexual
maturity has decreased by three or four years, but people do not become
adults culturally at that time. Today puberty means only sexual maturity.
- Adulthood. People used to become
adults in their early teens, such as Jewish children going through bat or
bar mitzvah at 12 or 13. It is not clear when people become adults today
in Western countries. They begin paying adult prices in restaurants and
theatres at 12, driving at 16, graduating and voting at 18, and buying
liquor at 21. We have gone from the bar mitzvah to the bar as the final
step to adulthood.
- Adolescence is the time of life after
puberty but before adulthood; it did not exist much before the twentieth
century and still exists only in Western (or Westernizing) countries.
Culture. More than anyone
else, missionaries should recognize the influence of culture. According to one
Rabbi in the Talmud, a good man was one who "leads his children in the
right path, and marries them just before they attain puberty." In pioneer America, "a marriage that sometimes united a boy of 16 to a girl of 14 was an occasion
of merriment that brought out the whole fort." For 3000 years the minimum
legal age of marriage in the Jewish, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and American cultures
(as in most other cultures) was 12 for women and 14 for men. Not everyone married
at those ages, but they were adults and could marry if they wanted to, just as
people at 18 years of age can today.
What does the Bible
say about Adolescence?
Nothing. It had not been
invented yet in the Hebrew, Greek, or Roman cultures. In Bible times people
were babies, children, grown-ups, men and women, but not adolescents. Look at
some scripture passages.
"Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘take this baby and nurse him
for me…When the child grew older…One day after Moses had grown
up…" (Exodus, 2:9-11, NIV)
"When I was a child, I talked like a child, I reasoned like a child.
When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me" (1
Corinthians 13:11, NIV).
Should we treat
adolescents like adults?
You probably think,
"Teenagers are so irresponsible, certainly they cannot be expected to act
like adults." Yet teenagers were treated as adults for thousands of years
in most cultures, and they did fine. God trusted the care of his son into the
hands of Mary, a teenager. Of course, the difference in Western cultures today
is that we do not expect adult behavior from teenagers, and we do not prepare
children to act like adults when they pass through puberty. People tend to
behave as expected, so when we expect childish behavior from teens, we get it.
Most adolescents today cannot be treated as adults because they have never
learned to be responsible. Although they have developed adult capacities
physically, mentally, and morally, our culture has not prepared them to be
adults, as cultures did for thousands of years. Yes, we should treat
adolescents as adults; we just need to prepare them to act responsibly.
Preparing children and expecting adult behavior from adolescents prevents many
What are the major
problems of adolescence?
When difficulties occur
during the teen years, they often center around our invention of adolescence,
and they occur in three major areas: identity, sexuality, and work.
- Identity. Adolescents have problems
knowing who they are because we have not yet created a cultural identity
for adolescents. They are neither children nor adults. In addition to the
loss of family identity by such things as divorce and remarriage, MKs may
live much of their lives thousands of miles from their extended families,
seeing them only rarely. In addition to the loss of community identity
caused by urbanization and bussing, MKs may live in a different
"home" each time they come to their "home" country.
And in addition to the loss of religious identity due to denominations and
independent churches, MKs may be confused by national religions.
- Sexuality. The very definition of
adolescence means that teenagers are not able to express their sexuality
in a marriage relationship. They cannot legally be married (without
parental consent) for about the first six years of their sexual maturity
and cannot financially afford to for about the first ten years.
Unfortunately, this is during the young men’s time of greatest sexual
desire. Of course, we know that most teenagers in Western cultures are not
sexually inactive. MKs may grow up in host cultures that are even more
sexually permissive than their "home" country as well as in
missionary subcultures that are less sexually permissive. This may result
in even more difficulty dealing with their sexuality during adolescence.
- Work. Teenagers worked for
thousands of years, but full-time work that pays enough to live on was
legally prohibited for most people before the age of 18 with the invention
of adolescence. Since they could not work, our culture passed laws that
adolescents must go to school, although many teens now work part-time. MKs
often have even more limited opportunities to work, earn money, and learn
how to spend it than teens in sending countries.
Can adolescence be
Western culture may
someday find that it cannot support adolescence, and gradually decrease it.
However, for the present time, we have to live in this culture with
adolescence. The only "cure" for adolescence now is to grow older and
become an adult.
Can adolescence problems
Problems in adolescence
can at least be greatly decreased. The major way to help those going through
adolescence is to treat them as adults. Expect responsible behavior from them
and teach them to be adults. Parents can take many specific actions to help
with all three major problem areas. Here are a few examples.
Identity. Help teens develop an identity:
Have family nights, family outings, family traditions, family jokes,
family devotions, family scrapbooks and videos. Study the family history.
- Mission community. Participate in
school activities, church activities, dinners, retreats, outings, etc.
with others in the mission. Have a positive attitude about it.
community. When in the home country, participate in scouts, 4-H, PTO,
block parties, etc. Subscribe to the local paper and read about the local
Adolescents should participate as adults in the choir, ushering, teaching,
leading Bible study, participating in board meetings, leading small
Sexuality. Talk with teens about sex.
about sexuality and adolescence so that the adolescents will realize the
problem is with Western culture, not with them as individuals. Begin doing
this when they are children.
what the Bible has to say about the various types of sexual activity in
which adolescents engage, and look at all the positive things the Bible
has to say about sex.
interacting with the opposite sex in acceptable ways. Dating is a time of
becoming friends and developing commitment, not becoming sexual partners.
- Make a
commitment during the early teen years about what the teen will do and
will not do in terms of sexual behavior (hold hands, embrace, pet,
premarital sex, etc.)
teens about finances.
given a job to do to help around the house and grounds, without pay.
work extra jobs to earn their own money to spend as they see fit, to learn
how to manage money.
teens the money you would use to buy their own necessities (clothing,
toiletries, etc.) as their weekly or monthly pay, just as you are paid. It
is then their responsibility to manage that money so they will have new
clothes for school. If they do not have it, let them wear their old ones.
Although there will almost certainly be times of conflict,
in general adolescence can be a time of growth for both parents and teenagers.
Member Care Consultant