Monday, June 28, 2010

Book Review: Escaping the Endless Adolescence, Part II

Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow OldEscaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old by Joseph Allen and Claudia Worrell Allen

I wrote about Part I here and am now ready to move into Part II. We'll assume for the  moment that you are convinced Dr. and Dr. Allen are correct in describing the problem of adolescence and the reasons for it. (I tend to agree, in case you can't tell.) In Part II, they provide a few suggestions for parents and teachers as we help teenagers negotiate the journey from child to adult.
Progress will require attending to some different signposts than those we've been used to following, though. Instead of asking, "What will keep our teens out of trouble?" "What will make them happy?" or "What will get them into college?" we need to switch our focus to a different set of queries: "How can we introduce realistic elements of adulthood into their worlds?" "What activities best provide real feedback about their efforts and skill?" and "Which other adults can we recruit to help pass our values on to them?" In short, we need to switch our focus from activities that reflect living happily as a teenager to activities that let our young people actually use their energy, connect with adults, and make choices that matter in order to begin moving successfully into adulthood.
The first step, according to the authors, is helping adolescents find work that matters. They're not suggesting required volunteerism, but really getting teens involved in something they enjoy or find challenging in which they can see how their presence and actions make a difference to other people (or at least, one other person).
The problem is that much volunteer work that teens do actually matters little to anyone. The teens know it and gain little benefit from going through the motions of meeting quotas for volunteer hours. It's not only useless, but discouraging and demoralizing for teens to show up to volunteer where they mainly stand around feeling in the way or doing busywork...We can structure teens' work in ways that do or do not foster development toward independent adulthood--and the difference this makes is huge.
Similar caveats apply to sending teens out for a paying job. Many jobs open to teenagers now place them in a position to be earning what seems to be a great deal of money (but would not be able to provide a living if they weren't dependent on their parents) and surrounded by other teenagers, many of whom do not have the kind of work ethic we'd like to see in our children.
While jobs for teens used to involve demanding work supervised by adults, today's "McJobs" often involve mindless, noncareer-oriented labor, supervised primarily by older adolescents. Teens aren't given any responsibility to think independently, to decide how to handle tasks, or to meet challenges. Indeed from an employer's perspective, the ideal teen work setting is one designed to run well even when populated and directed by uninspired teens.
The authors sum up the chapter:
[W]e want our teens to be doing work that matters to someone, entails real challenges, involves interacting with adults who care about the work, and comes with reasonable (not excessive) financial compensations.
In the sixth chapter, "Finding the Inner Adult," the authors recommend looking for a way to allow young people to follow through on their ideas and dreams, whatever may be possible.
For finding the inner adult is not some gimmick for tracking teens into behaving as we might want. Rather, it is a way of taking teens' deepest motivations and allowing and encouraging these motivations (and teens' budding adulthood) to come forth...The idea is that if we directly oppose teens' energies, we're bound to fail. If we simply try to tamp them down, we'll at best create low-energy, apathetic teens. But if we flip these energies back in the direction they were originally designed to go--toward making an impact on the world--we can use teens' own drives to move them more rapidly toward maturity.
This idea makes perfect sense to me, even for the little ones we have. Though we're by no means unschoolers, I think it makes sense to let First Son follow his instincts if he had an idea for a crazy project (within reason, of course). The authors talk a lot in the book about providing "scaffolding," the assistance adolescents need to accomplish new tasks or learn new skills. They're applying the idea as first described by Lev Vygotsky (and which is used a lot with younger children). Here they mean providing "proper guidance, limits, safety nets, and supports" which would differ depending on the task set before the teen.
The recognizing that adolescents want to grow up. Once we recognize this, and let teens know we recognize it, we stop being seen as adversaries and start to appear more as allies.
One of the interesting suggestions in this chapter is to use skill development rather than age when determining when to provide new experiences or responsibilities. Here again I can see ways to incorporate this suggestion even with little ones. It would be easy to tell First Daughter she had to wait for kindergarten to really start school (and I am a "late starter advocate" most of the time), but she adored math lessons last year. Kansas Dad and I are also considering starting an allowance for her as well. She has certainly learned a great deal more about the value of money than First Son had at her age. (I have to admit, this would also ease some of our current hassles when First Son wants to make a purchase with his allowance and she has no money. It's been wonderful to tell him we're not going to buy something he wants, but he can if he wants to spend his own money, but that doesn't work as well when she doesn't have her own money.)

In chapter seven, "Hardwired to Connect," the authors talk about how adolescents maintain relationships with adults: they don't. It's basically up to adults to reach out over and over again. According to the authors, teens have a lot on their plates in learning how to relate to other people their own age, which makes sense when you think about how those other kids don't really know how to relate to anyone either. So they depend on adults to do all the work on those relationships, especially with parents. It was an interested chapter, and probably makes a lot of sense, but I found a bit less here that was applicable with the preschool and early elementary crowd. Those kids want to do everything with us!

That brings us halfway through Part II and I think I'd better stop. This post is getting a bit out of control already.


  1. Every now and then comes a moment when one comes across words worth reading. That moment came when I came across your blog "escaping the endless adolescence" I became absorbed in the commentary to the point of ordering the book. Even though my youngest child is 38 years old, I remain interested in the philosophy and viewpoints geared toward guiding the young to successful and fulfilling adulthood. I have even featured the book with a link to this blog from my own which is dedicated to all things Amazon. If you would care to see it please visit:

  2. Hi KM!

    This post reminds me a little of Wendell Berry. I remember reading one of his anti-feminist essays, and one of his points was that, though he thought that women should work at home (and MEN right along with them!), all work should have dignity. Some of the aspects of dignity he mentioned were things like contributing economically to the home in a tangible way (this includes saving money by doing it yourself), and also the work mattering, in that it was something others needed or wanted to be done.

    One of the prayers I have had for our family over the years is that we will find small business opportunities that I can do with the children (or my husband, if that works out), so that they can experience real work with real dignity. I was blessed to have REAL jobs starting when I was quite young, and I hope my children are able to have that also.

  3. Brandy, I'm sure those aspects of Wendell Berry's writing were in Kansas Dad's minds when we discussed moving to the country and raising a lot of our own food. We envision a future time when First Son will be out caring for a steer or two we'll butcher for the whole family's meat for the year. That's seriously putting food on the table.

    I've also been thinking more about how we can provide these kinds of opportunities by really living within a community. So many families have offered to bring us a meal when the baby is born and they will be such a blessing. There are small (and large) things we can do for each other that make a real difference during times of hardship (or just certain times of life).

    The model of stewardship (time, talent and treasure) of our church also helps this model. Our parish is working together throughout this summer on all sorts of projects, many of them the kinds of things teenagers could do. They would be working alongside other adults of the parish and would see the fruits of their labor every time we went to church.

    Now if only I could get them to pick up their toys without complaint.


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