The Invention of Adolescence

Parents facing the problems of their teens’ adolescence often think these problems have been around for thousands of years. This is not true, however: the phenomenon of adolescence has occurred only during the last century.

According to Donald Joy, adolescence did not, and does not, exist in preliterate, agrarian societies. Adolescence occurs in industrial, technological societies where the age of economic independence and marriage has been delayed past the age of puberty. The age of puberty—the stage of maturation in which a person becomes capable of sexual reproduction—is lower in industrial, technological societies. We need not look at different cultures to see this; we can observe the emergence of adolescence during the last century of our American culture.

Adolescence is defined here as the period between puberty and full adulthood. Adults are expected to support themselves, are held legally responsible for their actions, and are permitted to be married. During most of the last three thousand years of human history many cultures have considered persons in their early teens as adults (see chart). The age of puberty is thought to have taken place in the late teens during this era. There was thus no period of adolescence, because teens were considered to be adults before or at the time of puberty. It is only since the Industrial Revolution that puberty has occurred before teens were considered to be adults. Consider the factors illustrated in the chart.

The Age At Which People Were Considered Adults

We need first to know at what ages people were able to work to support themselves and were held responsible for their actions. Until recently, this age has been 12 or 13. Hebrew boys go through bar mitzvah at age 13 and read a part of the Torah in the synagogue as their first religious act as adults. From about age six or seven, Roman boys were the constant companions of their fathers on the farm, military field, or in the forum. They learned in the school of life. During the Middle Ages, German youths were freed from their father’s authority when they were able to bear arms, about 12 to 15 years of age. Among Anglo-Saxons, boys were made freemen, responsible for their own behavior, at the completion of their twelfth year.

Many of the workers at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution were children. In fact, manufacturers sought machines that could be operated in part by children 5 to 10 years of age. Child labor was approved; frequently whole families were employed in industry. As child labor was abused, however, states began to pass laws to prohibit teen-agers from being economically independent and socially responsible. One set of laws relates to compulsory education: most children must remain in school until about 16 years of age. They might as well stay in school, because another set of laws prohibits many types of work before age 16 (16 states), or age 18 (26 states). In some cases, though teen-agers may mow their own lawns at home, they may not work on a job that requires them to run the same lawn mower.

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Even if such laws did not exist, work has become more complex; more preparation is needed. One cannot enter many occupations without a high school diploma (18 years of age), a college degree (22 years of age), or graduate degrees (24–26 years of age). A male 12 years of age in a primitive culture may know about gathering wild grains and fruits and be an expert at spearing fish, so that he is ready to support a family. However, a similar male in our culture who wants to be a doctor or lawyer cannot support a family even when twice as old. We simply do not allow people to be adults until about age 18. At that time they can work, vote, drink (in some states), and be tried as adults in a court of law.

The Age At Which Marriage Occurred

As can be seen from the chart, the minimum legal age for marriage has, until recently, been 12 to 14 years of age. In older cultures girls could be married earlier than boys, reflecting differences in the rate of maturation. The minimum legal age for marriage among the ancient Hebrews was at the end of the twelfth year for girls and at the end of the thirteenth year for boys. The Talmud states that persons were expected to be married by age 18. If not married by age 20, some considered their singleness a sign that the wrath of God was upon them. A father could contract for the marriage of his daughter long before the age of puberty. If the girl refused to carry out the contract when she reached legal age, the contract was null and void. Few girls refused; most of them were submissive and realized that marriage meant security and social position.

Roman girls also were often betrothed during their childhood. The parents would consider wealth and family connections and make arrangements in a businesslike way through marriage brokers. Husbands were actively sought when Roman girls reached their thirteenth year; girls not married by age 19 were considered “old maids.” In these early cultures the choice of a marriage partner was considered too serious a decision to be made by a teen-ager in an emotional state, and so such decisions were made by the parents and nearly always accepted by the children.

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During the Middle Ages in England parents could betroth their children as early as seven years of age. This contract could be broken until the child was 10 without any penalty, but if broken between 10 and 12 years of age, a fine was levied on the parent, and if broken after 12, both parent and child could be fined. During the Renaissance, betrothals often occurred when the girl was 3 or 4 years of age, with marriage at 12, the legal marriageable age in most of Europe. Most parents considered it a mild disgrace to have a daughter unmarried or unbetrothed by age 16 or 17.

Early marriages were also the rule in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Any boy of 14 and girl of 12 who wished could be married without their parents’ consent and at little expense. Hampstead Chapel advertised marriages for only five shillings, and by 1716 was offering marriages at no cost if the couple would have their wedding dinner in the chapel gardens.

The Puritans in America also encouraged early marriages because they believed this was the best way to avoid premarital sex. They disagreed with the Catholics who “ensnared” their children in vows of virginity. The Puritans believed that the children would “not be able to contain.” Interestingly, the Jewish Talmud agrees with the Puritans’ reason for marriage at an early age. Not to have one’s daughter married at an early age was seen as a violation of the command, “Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore” (Lev. 19:29; Sanhedrin 76a). If she does not get married, she may become unchaste; thus, she should be married as soon as possible. One rabbi noted that “he who is 20 years of age and is not married spends all his days in sin”—at least in sinful thoughts (Kiddushin 29b).

Early marriages are seldom found in our contemporary Western cultures, however. In fact, they are illegal in every state (except Utah), because individuals must be 18 or older to be married without parental consent. According to the Bureau of the Census, most marriages take place even later than this—at about 21 for girls and 23 for boys. Since the Industrial Revolution we have had a sudden increase in the age at which legal marriages can take place.

The Age Of Puberty

These changes in the legal ages at which people can work and get married would probably be of little consequence if it were not for another important change. As seen in the chart, the age of puberty has declined steadily during the last century. Unfortunately, we do not have data on the age of puberty in antiquity, but we do have data from 1840 to the present on the average age at which girls experience their first menstrual period (menarche). Data from Norway, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Great Britain, and the United States all show a remarkably consistent drop from about 17 years of age in 1840 to about 13½ years of age in 1960. It is much more difficult to specify at what age males become sexually mature, but we can assume that they, too, are achieving puberty earlier.

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Although we do not have data before 1840, we assume puberty was later than the ages at which teens could go to work and be legally married. There was thus no adolescence, no period following puberty before the teen could become a full member of adult society.

Why has the age of puberty dropped? Generally, because of the economic prosperity that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. This has meant better diets and better health care. The amount of light in our culture is a crucial factor, too. At any rate, it is significant that teens become physically mature (average age 13½ for girls) from five to seven years before they are free to marry and participate as full members of adult society. While physically they are adults (though perhaps not emotionally), they are not allowed to support themselves or to express themselves sexually in socially acceptable ways. They are also shielded from responsibility.

Results Of Adolescence

Statistically, we know that both masturbation and premarital sexual intercourse are increasing. Kinsey et al. (1948, 1953) found that 45 percent of all males and 15 percent of all females had masturbated by age 13. Hunt found that these percentages had increased to 63 and 33, respectively, when he did his studies in 1974. Kinsey’s research indicated that 71 percent of all males 33 percent of all females had had premarital sex; by Hunt’s time, the numbers were 95 and 81 percent.

These behavioral changes I attribute at least partially to adolescence. There is a period of five or more years during which it is impossible for young men and women to get married. While other factors no doubt play a part in the rising incidence of both masturbation and premarital intercourse, it seems to me that postponing marriage for legal or economic reasons is a major cause.

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What Can Be Done?

Granted the historical data and recent changes in sexual behavior, what are the implications of this analysis for parents, teens, and Christian leaders? We can’t turn the clock back to pre-industrial Revolution days; neither can we return to Old Testament culture. There are no easy solutions to the problems caused by adolescence, but I propose some things that concerned, sensitive Christians can do.

First of all, we can give sexual instruction to our children as they enter adolescence. Early in adolescence each child needs help in working out biblically acceptable patterns of sexual behavior during adolescence. Since the Bible does not deal with adolescence as such, we must apply general principles. We must help our children prepare for this period of celibacy while living in a sex-saturated culture that glorifies instant gratification.

For example, parents, pastors, and youth counselors should recognize the following factors: (1) Young people are going to face sexual frustrations not faced by people a century and more ago. (2) Adolescence is a creation of our culture, not of God, and it does not make much sense. (3) The Bible does not give direct counsel about how to handle adolescence. (4) Certain manifestations of sexual maturity are likely to occur before marriage; that is, orgasms while asleep and masturbation. (5) The Bible specifically forbids premarital intercourse, homosexual behavior, and bestiality. The Bible mentions neither orgasm during sleep nor masturbation. Some counselors say masturbation is sinful (Jay Adams); other claim it is a gift of God to be used thankfully (Charles Shedd); still others believe that sometimes it is sinful and sometimes it is not (Herbert Miles).

Second, we must help young people who have transgressed moral codes. Often they are trapped by guilt and guilt feelings by the end of their adolescence. Some of those who masturbate also have to deal with feelings of guilt or immaturity. As teens emerge from adolescence they often need counseling about how to express sexuality in marriage. This is a transition from a situation wherein sexual behavior is suppressed to one in which it is not only accepted, but expected. Sexual instruction at the end of adolescence must be tailored to meet individual needs.

Thrid, we must not simply go along with popular adolescent culture; we must expect different, more responsible behavior. While we do not want to return to child labor, we should make it possible for adolescents to work and encourage them to do so. They should be expected to do responsible work in the home and allowed to work outside the home. Juvenile delinquency needs to be treated by parents and the courts so that adolescents must live with the consequences of their misbehavior.

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Parents need to teach teens how to get along with others, how to handle money, how to manage a home, how to work, and so on. Another unfortunate by-product of the Industrial Revolution has been the tendency to turn child rearing over to women. Earlier, boys usually accompanied their fathers to the fields or shops; now they are at home with their mothers and taught primarily by women in elementary school. Many adolescent boys have an identity crisis because they have lacked a male role model.

Although most states do not allow marriage before age 18 or 21 without parental consent, it is permitted two or three years earlier with parental consent. Early marriage with parental approval is a scriptural concept, and it has been the rule rather than the exception throughout most of human history. Early marriage was part of a whole package of cultural values emphasizing commitment and fidelity. Although we cannot return to that culture, we can and should revive marital commitment and fidelity. Also, churches can make premarital pastoral counseling mandatory. Early marriages today are frequently followed by divorce because many of them are an escape from intolerable home situations.

Finally, early marriage may yet be a viable alternative to adolescent sexual promiscuity, if we do not abandon our children once they are married, but give them support without interference. In biblical times, the newly married couple became part of an extended family; they were not expected to face the world alone immediately after marriage. Today many parents stop helping their children as soon as they are married, and many young married couples, of course, soon move away from their families. If parents are not near their children, or do not have a caring relationship to them, the church can function as an extended family. Newly married couples can be paired with mature couples who can help them develop their marriages. Young people must have contact not only with couples going through similar struggles, but with those who have been through the struggles successfully and can tell them how to come out on top.

Today’s churches must face the problems of adolescence as realistically as the apostle Paul did. He encountered promiscuity in the church at Corinth and told people to get married to avoid immorality. He told them to have regular sexual relations unless both husband and wife agreed to abstain for a limited time for prayer. He told them to resume regular sexual relations so they would not be tempted (1 Cor. 7:1–7).

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He was not satisfied that this was the best solution (remaining single was best for him at that time), but at least he was not afraid to prescribe simple and direct conduct. He did not duck the issue; he took the same common sense approach that is seen in the Talmud. We read there that if a man wanted to study the Torah and get married, he should study first. But if he couldn’t get along without a wife, he should marry first and then study (Kiddushin 29b).

There is no one best counterattack to adolescence. Even the Puritans were not totally satisfied with early marriages. But either way, we have a serious contemporary social problem with important ramifications for families and churches. My plea is for church leaders, parents, youth counselors, theologians, and ethicists to stop ignoring what Western technological culture has done to teen-agers, and face the problems and develop acceptable alternatives.

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