Social Issues

the supposed myth of teenaged adolescence


I’ve talked a lot about the fundamentalist cult I was raised in, but something I don’t very frequently talk about here is my experience with the conservative religious homeschooling movement. For many people, the conservative religious homeschooling movement was what sucked their families into fundamentalist and cult-ish mental frameworks, but that’s not what happened for my family. My mother started homeschooling me because my kindergarten teacher held a séance in class, and the DoD school was the only educational option besides homeschooling. By the time we moved back Stateside and had more options, my mother realized that homeschooling was allowing me to excel academically in ways that other options wouldn’t– academically, that remained true through high school and college, although academic success came with its own drawbacks.

However, homeschooling was an integral part of the cult (those who didn’t homeschool received horrible condemnation), and the ideologies we embraced are consistent with a more mainstream homeschooling experience. Even for families that didn’t have children, or didn’t homeschool, the ideologies of the movement found its way into everyday interactions.

One of the popular elements of the conservative religious homeschooling movement that appeared in the church-cult was the belief that “teenage adolescence” is a modern societal construct and is a completely unnecessary stage. I can remember all the arguments for this vividly– how men and women married extremely young; in “fact,” women in early America very frequently married as soon as they got their periods at twelve or thirteen (this is false: the average age of marriage for a Puritan woman was 23, as young as 20 in South Carolina). Indentured servitude and apprenticeship were exalted as prime examples for how young men ought to behave– by learning a trade as young as 10 or 12 (and we were supposed to ignore the exploitative and abusive nature of child labor).

While teenage adolescence and the “delayed adolescence” seem to be results of our modern age, the concept that because it hasn’t been in practice since the Medieval ages makes it unhealthy . . .  bothers me, for what I hope are obvious reasons.

Being a teenager, for me, was a difficult experience. I was not an “adult,” so I was therefore not permitted to interact with or engage with adults except as an inferior child, so the other option was to interact with children– but as an adult. In my environment, this forced me to sit at the “children’s table” during social gatherings, acting as a monitor or babysitter, but neither was I permitted to act as a child in other settings. I was expected to behave as an adult, was given the responsibilities of an adult, but was not allowed to have any privileges of an adult. I was not permitted to go anywhere on my own, without my parents having explicit knowledge of exactly where I was going and when I was returning. The only time I was not with my parents I was being closely monitored by other parents.

I was not allowed to exercise the ability of making my own decisions about what I would wear (all clothing had to be tried on and approved by my father immediately following its purchase), how I would style my hair, if I could wear make-up, or when I would go to bed (I had a “bed time” of 9 o’clock until I was 16, and 10 o’clock until 18). I was not allowed to have a private space– my bedroom door was to remain open at all times, and I was discouraged from being in my room for extended periods. I could not “disappear” to my room when upset or hurt– it was considered a cowardly withdrawal, and I was forced to immediately control and dismiss my hurt feelings and interact with my family as if nothing had ever happened. There were many moments that I would curl into the fetal position on my bed and desperately wish that I could just get in my car and drive for an hour or two without explaining where I’d be going or when I’d be back.

Perhaps one of the most demeaning elements of my teenage experience was a nickname I earned during one of the few times I was allowed to interact with adults. We were playing cards, Phase 10, I think, and I did something that seemed “uppity” or arrogant to the adults at the table. I don’t remember what it was, but, the response of one of the adults at the table, a woman I admired greatly, was to call me “sub-adult.”

Unfortunately, this nick-name made the rounds among the other adults at church, and it continued to haunt me well into my twenties. The people who used it probably did so unthinkingly, and they had no idea how much it stung, how much it hurt, and how I had to fight back tears every time I heard it. It was used to remind me of my place– I was not an adult, but neither was I child, and neither was I allowed any of the attitudes, practices, relationships, or experiences of a teenager.

To me, being called “sub-adult” represented absolute failure because my success as an individual was measured by how “adult” I could be. I was well-behaved when I acted how an adult was expected to act. I was articulate because I could talk like an adult. I was responsible because I could shoulder the burdens of an adult. I was “good” in as much as I behaved as neither adult nor child nor teenager. I could not have angsty, emotional moments because that was what a “teenager” would do. I could not disagree with any adult, because that was perceived as “teenage rebellion.” “Teenagers” were the ones who thought they “knew better,” but they were obviously wrong. “Teenagers” made destructive decisions. Teenagers had crushes. Teenagers argued. Teenagers talked back. Teenagers disagreed. Teenagers wore outlandish clothes. Teenagers didn’t practice discernment. Teenagers were naïve. Teenagers were heedless, directionless, purposeless. Teenagers thought they were capable of being autonomous and independent. Being a “teenager” equaled being incomplete and unhealthy.

I had a childhood– a healthy, amazing childhood. My parents were, and are, amazing parents– I love them, and have a good relationship with them today. The problem is that by the time I was a teenager, we’d been in the fundamentalist cult for four years, and we had collectively bought into this idea that “being a teenager” was somehow a sub-standard way of approach to those years between twelve and twenty. I was immeasurably proud of my status in this environment– I can’t tell you how many times I parroted the line that “I already knew that my parents know more than me,” or that I’d never had a “rebellious phase.” I could take care of myself– I did all my own schoolwork with practically no supervision by highschool, I could cook, I could clean, I was amazingly dedicated to practicing piano, all with little or no pressure from my parents. But, somehow, perversely, I was also proud of the fact that I was inferior to adults and knew my place, and knew better than to question those who God had placed in authority above me. I respected the “hoary head.”

The biggest problem with all of this is that because I never practiced any sort of rebellion whatsoever, I was actively discouraging myself from developing my own thoughts and opinions about things. Oh, I would have told you that my beliefs were my own, that I knew what I believed for myself, but I would have been lying. I didn’t have individuality or autonomy. I listened to the music my parents listened to, or the music expressly approved by them. I watched the movies they watched. I held the political opinions they did. I argued what they argued. I didn’t have access to any of these things as myself, but as a “sub-adult” version of my parents.

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  • Oh my goodness, I can relate to this article. I was homeschooled, and my mother always talked about we were going to be “young adults” and not “teenagers.” Of course, so when I became a teenager, I felt like I had to be an adult and not show any of my emotions or inner turmoil or questionings. I still had those things, of course, so I did everything secretly. This damaged me a lot because I internalized everything. Heartbreak and depression and rebellion and everything.
    Now, I really loved homeschooling. It helped me become the free-spirited, critical thinker, artistic person I am today (partly b/c we had an amazing homeschool group in high school that had amazing kids and we all just loved each other and really encouraged each other to be who we were).
    I also love my parents.
    However, that mentality that you had to be “good” and “adult” all the time really did damage me in high school. I was 23 when I truly started voicing my opinions and telling the truth to my parents and finding a true identity outside of those strange expectations. I’m 25 and only now truly embracing who I am. My younger siblings (I was the oldest, so of course, I bore the brunt of the mistakes) are a lot freer and rebelled and questioned my parents a lot more openly in high school, and I think they’re more healthy because of it.

  • We didn’t ‘do’ teenagersin my family either. 25 married w/ two kids and I am going through the forming of my own opinions and discovering who I am. And it’s messy. Sometimes fun and sometimes scary. Kinda hard. Emotionally very hard and my parents are… Not proud.

    My kids will be allowed to be teenagers. I hope not to have a ton of fights with them, but not through holding on so right they can’t grow any way I don’t like, but instead through allowing and helping them to grow.

  • I have wondered about homeschooling, mostly because I had such a poor teenaged experience in public schools. There was bullying, drugs, and obsession with appearances. I developed an eating disorder there. But it’s good to know the deficits of homeschooling too.

    • Homeschooling isn’t automatically a solution to the problems that can occur public school, that’s true. The conservative religious homeschooling Movement has a boat load of problems, and it’s difficult to avoid because they tend to be deeply entrenched in the homeschool groups and such, but you can. Homeschooling, like every other educational option, should be considered based on its merits for a particular child and parent set. Sometimes parents can homeschool one of their children but not another. It all depends. Homeschooling itself is neutral- it’s how we approach it that matters, and what we’re expecting it to do for ourselves and our children.

    • That was my experience with high school as well, most of public school after 5th grade actually. One of the reasons I continued to homeschool my children through high school. Though going to public high school, just taking classes at 1, or at the local community college, were options we gave our children. It was their education we were after. But I was fortunate, we only were on the outskirts of the religious homeschoolers. And the old AOL homeschool boards gave ample opportunity to get ideas & find friendships from non religious homeschoolers, unschoolers, the whole gamut.
      SO if you have those concerns as a parent, you can homeschool- just pick your *group* wisely.

      • It can’t be underestimated how important the group you’re a part of is. Finding one that encourages and maintains diversity can be difficult, but I believe it’s necessary in order to have a healthy homeschooling experience.

  • Having controlling parents is not synonymous with homeschooling. I went to public school, but I had very strict (non-Christian) parents. I had my opinions, but I did not (even as an adult) necessarily express them all because I respected my parents. I was not going to change their mind, so why cause a confrontation unless it was REALLY important?

    For example, I might believe in global warming and perhaps my father did not. I could have a whole list of scientific facts to back me up, but well….you know…..he’s my dad.

    I had to be home by 11:00 pm even after I went away to college if I was at home. Silly? I thought so, but I did it out of respect. I watched what my parents watched because they were the adults and they paid for the television. I didn’t mind most of the time because it was family time. I had to wash dishes while they watched television (I still resent that, but it didn’t ruin me – grin). When you live in your parent’s house, even if you are publicly schooled, you tend to believe what your parents believe until you get to college.

    I think it is important that kids know they DON’T have to believe the same thing as you (which is where Christian Fundamentalists often fail their kids), but even if you allow this freedom, you will find your children miming something you’ve said and it will make you stop dead in your tracks.

    Just something to consider.

    • I agree with you that controlling parents isn’t automatically connected with “homeschooling.” However, in the conservative religious homeschooling movement, independent thinking, individuality, and autonomy are treated as something to be stomped out of existence in the age group referred to exclusively as “young adult.”

      Having respect for your parents and not wanting to get into a fight is very different than not being allowed to disagree with them. In the conservative religious homeschooling movement, frequently any type of disagreement is perceived as “rebellion” and therefore sin and a punishable offense.

      And yes, all children mimic, parrot, and in other ways become like their parents; however, the difference lies that in the conservative religious homeschooling movement, this type of behavior is demanded and required. The stated goal of the conservative religious homeschooling movement (by its leaders, in its promotional materials and rhetoric) is to create miniature ideological replicas of their parents instead of free-thinking autonomous adults.

  • I am thankful that I had a lot of freedom as a teen. I think I would have gone crazy without being able to hole up in my room, or even just take a long walk by myself without always checking in first.

    The one area that I do see a parallel with my experience is in the defining of normal teenage stuff as “rebellion.” This became more of an issue after we joined ATIA in my senior year of high school. The related problem is that by seeing everything through the lens of “God’s Way” as defined by ATIA, your cult, or whatever brand of ultraconservative Christianity applies to the particular family, the transition to autonomous adulthood is more difficult. Parents have a very hard time accepting any differences of opinion or practice as anything other than rebellion – even by married adults with children. Not all of us were able to make that transition with the relationships with our parents undamaged.

    • I am having struggles in this area myself. I have a fairly good relationship with my parents, but it can be difficult at times, because they are surprised that I sometimes hold an opinion they didn’t teach me, and when I disagree with them it it dismissed as youthful ignorance or a “phase,” and I’ll eventually learn to see it their way. It can be frustrating.

      • forgedimagination,

        Who taught your parents what they were “supposed” to think? Or were they first generation thinking the way they do? Just curious.

        • My parents had largely absent parents during their teenaged years, so I suppose you could think of them in terms of “first generation,” but my parents were indoctrinated into believing by the cult we were in that this was “the only godly way to raise children.” It was in the books we read, like those from the Pearls (No Greater Joy, To Train up a Child)… our church-cult didn’t have Sunday school for teens, or any form of “youth group,” which were both vilified. They were told deliberately exaggerated horror stories about “teenagers” and what giving them their “freedom” could do.

  • I was homeschooled, in a similar culture. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard homeschool kids simply repeat the dogma they have heard from their parents without giving it any additional thought. I think many kids who didn’t experience teenage rebellion just go through it in their 20s instead. It still happens but it’s delayed and then it’s almost worse because there’s often a crisis of faith associated with the rebellion but parents aren’t around anymore to help guide their children through it. So many kids I knew who were homeschooled in a legalistic program have now completely walked away from God.

  • thatguybll

    I’m reading this in a room full of teenagers. They are revising the stories they are writing for my class, and thus I have little to do today. I am reading some work submitted by other students, and wanted to take a break from picking apart their grammar. Two thoughts:
    1. teenagers just are not adults or kids. If you can’t grasp that, maybe you should transfer custody to someone else for a few years. They should be struggling to transition into adulthood. it’s generally messy. It’s also necessary
    2. “all clothing had to be tried on and approved by my father immediately following its purchase” can be interpreted to mean that your father felt it necessary to try on all of your new clothes to decide what was appropriate. Please please please tell me this is a part of fundamentalist culture I was unaware of. I want to believe all the joyless authoritarians I know feel they must try on everything their daughters buy and decide if it is acceptable

    • Ooh, boy that cracked me up. Yay for misplaced modifiers and the hilarity that ensues.

  • OMG we had to keep our doors open too. And we had no locks on our bedrooms. And my mother was mean to me. That made me feel so unsafe. Oddly recently my dad volunteerly apologized for never putting locks on our bedrooms.

  • MyOwnPerson

    I love reading your blog! I was also homeschooled and not allowed to be a teenager. I’ll second the statement that a lot of former authoritarian homeschooleds have to go through the teenage years in their twenties. Not fun.

  • Rowena

    Oh man, this hits home.
    The thing about pretending to skip adolescence….that transition and those emotions have to occur at some point. My friends and I share the observation that we fundy kids experienced our teen years in our twenties. While most of us made it through without ruining our lives, the stakes are higher and the pain is worse at that age. I wish very much that I had been a teenager when I WAS a teenager.

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  • April

    My church called me ¨The child adult¨ while I was there. It was based on my happy go lucky personality, my ability to forget my age and play with children and teens of any age. I cringed whenever I heard it. Still haunts me… ugh.

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