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Over the weekend, I realized something a little scary: at 13, 14, 17 and just turned 19, half of our kids are teenagers. Most adults shudder at the thought of managing a bunch of kids in that age group. Maybe it’s because we still remember the trouble we caused and the “attitudes” we sported. Actually, it’s kind of funny to see what the onset of adolescence does to a child’s parents. It looks a lot like “shock and awe.” Many discover that the children they once found so cute and easy to love, are suddenly not all that likable. They are bigger, hairier, smellier, louder, and a lot less happy than they were at 10 or 11. It’s almost impossible to remember that adorable little 3 year old who looked into your eyes with such trust and dependence, especially when you hardly ever even see the eyes of your sullen 15 year old!
Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve never actually disliked teens. That’s because they’re at a place in their lives where childish questions and rock solid black and white answers are no longer enough. They are unsure of who they are, and even less certain of who they want to be. Teens thirst for reality and for authenticity. They bring a healthy dose of skepticism to the table, along with the uncompromising demand for honesty and a zero tolerance for anything they think is a put on. A teenager can smell a fake a mile away.
I love teenagers because they are engaged in a dynamic time of self-discovery and self-definition. (What I don’t like is the self-absorption that seems to go along with that.) Adolescence is the transitional season between childhood and adulthood. According to the theory of human development put forth by Erik Erikson, the primary task of adolescence is identity. Whether they know it consciously or not, teens are looking for direction, for examples to follow, goals to reach, and values to uphold. You can tell teenagers that they should do anything, even the most radical and demanding things. In fact, the harder it is, the more they are inspired to try it.
Those who do not emerge from those years with a basic idea of who they are, however, cannot hope to move forward in their lives with much authenticity. Put simply, you can’t be true to yourself if you’re confused about just who that “self” is. Growing tall doesn’t necessarily mean growing up. But we live in a dressing room culture where people are encouraged to try on different selves or versions of self to see what fits, what looks good, what serves one’s objectives well. It’s all about packaging, and less about what’s inside the package. If you listen when you’re out and around, you are likely to hear even children talk about how nice a box or bottle looks. Is it any wonder that psychologists tell us that today’s adolescence has stretched to the age of 28!
The mystery of being human is that we are embodied spirits. That is, each one of us is not only body and mind, but soul as well. Every aspect of who we are grows and (hopefully!) matures. But while a lot of attention is paid to physical, intellectual, and psycho-social growth, the care and development of souls is frequently ignored. That has, I think, resulted in a large number of spiritual adolescents, and a relatively small number of mature souls.
If Catholics really don’t know their identity in Christ Jesus through baptism, how can they ever live that identity out in their daily lives? If they are stuck without genuine and personal answers to the first two questions in the Baltimore Catechism, how will they ever get to the riches--and the meat -- of our faith? If they don’t know that it is God who made them and that he made them to know, love and serve him in this world and be happy with him in the next, how will they ever fulfill that high calling? Erikson’s model suggests that without a solid identity, intimacy, fruitfulness, and integrity are not only unlikely, but perhaps impossible. So how do we bring spiritual adolescents into something deeper?
I think we can help people become spiritually mature the same way we assist teenagers to reach adulthood. That is, by example. We need to trail blaze beyond adolescence ourselves and talk about it. We ought to share our experience, and admit our failed attempts without blinking. We should keep reaching for the goals of Christian life without lowering the bar. And we ought to let people know that there is a whole lot more to the spiritual life than what they -- or we -- have already experienced.
But after all that, we need to listen to our brothers’ and sisters’ struggles with the compassion that comes from remembering our own. We can challenge them to do what is hard and meaningful, but we should offer to do those hard things right along with them. We need to encourage them to be true to themselves. And more than anything else, perhaps, we should pray for them. Adolescence is one of those things that has the power to enhance one’s prayer life. Teenagers do, in fact, not only drive their parents nuts, they drive us to our knees. As many could attest, prayer may well be the single most effective thing we can do. For all those of any age who have not yet reached spiritual maturity, let us ask God to intervene where only he can, in the depths of the human heart.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.