Teenagers: Emerging Adults Part I June 23 2016

Teenagers: Emerging Adults

In the mighty arc of maturity that human beings must travel before achieving adulthood, we lag far behind all others in the animal kingdom. It is astonishing to watch the birth, for example, of a horse. The little colt tumbles out of the womb and within hours is cleaned and standing up, taking tentative steps with its newborn legs. Think in comparison of the months it takes for a baby to master the use of its arms and legs to practice locomotion on all fours, experiment repeatedly with climbing to an upright position, practice balancing on two legs, standing independently, and then walking forward. Some little ones don’t walk until fifteen or sixteen months have gone by in their development. Eight months is a minimum, not hours!

Recent research has established that the human brain is not fully matured until the human being is twenty-five years old. Car insurance companies, whose rates plunge when a young driver turns 25 because mature judgment sets in and accidents dramatically diminish, were well ahead of our own impressions and research. In our culture we include youngsters in decision making almost as soon as the child can speak, mature thought and assessment are not a requirement! 

The young child passes through one astonishing phase after another before the eyes and hearts of caring parents and teachers: standing, walking, speaking, playing, losing baby teeth, growing second teeth, building capacities at an astonishing rate, stepping away from childhood at age twelve to determine who is really at the center of all this development. By age fourteen, full on teenager-hood sets in. For adults, this is a wonderful stage of development to enjoy as a young person travels through these final years of unfolding maturity. Teenagers are great company. They ask startling questions about life and death.  They tend to have a dry and entertaining sense of humor. They can out run any adult in most arguments. They have internal monitors of truthfulness, of which grownups will cave on permissions to do different activities, and of which grownups will consciously and accurately  “see” who they really are becoming.

This time of being a teenager is a private time. Youngsters turn inward to ponder life and their identity. One teacher called this a time when the emerging individuality of the human being is “under construction,” with a large “keep out” sign posted at the opening into the child’s soul.  Teenagers can give an impression of being confident and forward and this is to mask a kind of inner shyness that comes from a newborn sense of vulnerability. Steiner calls teenagers “flower buds waiting to open.”

Parents and teachers find new levels of their own self-control and maturity to avoid chasing the child into private domains, or blaming other adults (teachers and spouses are prime targets!) for the sense of loss felt when our child withdraws and seeks help and advice from others—not their parents or beloved teachers.  An article written long ago about twelve to fourteen-year-olds was wisely titled, “How to Get Your Young Teenager to Fire You as a Manager and Hire You Back as a Consultant.”

The young teenager experiences many overwhelming changes in a very short period of time—too many changes to feel in control, hence the feeling of vulnerability. The growth rate at puberty rivals the growth rate of newborns, a phenomenon never to be repeated again in the life span of the developing human being. Girls and boys alike fill-out and their sexual organs become more prominent. Hair grows in unlikely places. Voices wobble and crack unreliably. A girl’s voice box, on average, grows three times its original size and a boy’s grows fully seven times its original size in a time span of about 18 months! How can anyone expect to manage that?

Teenagers are, therefore, very vulnerable, as all living things are during growth spurts. There’s a wonderful book, edited by Douglas Gerwin, called Trailing Clouds of Glory: Human Sexuality and the Teaching of Youth in Waldorf SchoolsIn this book is a brief essay entitled, “The Teenager as Lobster.” The author-teacher of this essay likens the teenager to the lobster that has just abandoned its old, undersized shell to grow a new oversized shell to accommodate ongoing growth. Lobsters have to hide from predators while their new soft skin hardens, matures, and becomes the armor it’s meant to be. So it is with the private and tender teenager!

So how to parent and how to teach in this tender time of development? There are magnificent clues in the Waldorf curriculum and even in the verse said each morning from fifth grade until twelfth grade. In the first line, the students say, “I look into the world.” After the description of this beautiful world, the students say, “I look into the soul, that dwells within my being.” And so the curriculum follows these powerful statements of the teenager’s process.  The curriculum repeatedly draws the student’s attention to the marvels of the world: Anatomy, Astronomy, Geography, Physiology, Botany, Chemistry, Physics, Geometry, Algebra, Trigonometry, Surveying, and Calculus. And then the curriculum takes these external observations and applies them to the arts in a bridging between the physical substances of the earth and the internal processes of the feeling life, of the soul: sculpture, painting, woodwork, blacksmithing, stained glass design and execution, architecture, calligraphy. In support of the internal end of the bridge of being human, looking into the soul with honest comprehension, applying the understanding found in the sciences, digested through artistic work and mastery of these substances, come the humanities: Literature – Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn Percival, Faust, Dante’s Inferno, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Salinger, Doctorow; History – from Ancient India through to the Twentieth Century and the atom bomb, the great World Wars, the recent wars, the fantastic discoveries, the digital world.  Through the humanities students can determine how they feel about things, who they are as human beings, what morality is and means, and how they will behave in the world, care for others, care for the earth, and love their world.



Be sure to read Teenagers: Part II