Keep Teenagers Weird

A couple years ago, Jan Hoffman wrote a piece for The New York Times on the disparity in quality of life between adults who were “cool kids” in middle and high school, and the adults who spent those same years in obscurity or unpopularity. “Cool at 13, Adrift at 23” cited a study which reported on a group of American kids from age 13 all the way to age 23. Among other things, the study discovered that the kids who enjoyed popularity and social ease in their early teens were significantly more troubled and at risk by the time they reached early adulthood than their less admired peers.

An excerpt from Hoffman:

A constellation of three popularity-seeking behaviors characterized pseudomaturity, Dr. Allen and his colleagues found. These young teenagers sought out friends who were physically attractive; their romances were more numerous, emotionally intense and sexually exploring than those of their peers; and they dabbled in minor delinquency — skipping school, sneaking into movies, vandalism.

As they turned 23, the study found that when compared to their socially slower-moving middle-school peers, they had a 45 percent greater rate of problems resulting from alcohol and marijuana use and a 40 percent higher level of actual use of those substances. They also had a 22 percent greater rate of adult criminal behavior, from theft to assaults.

Why is this? Why do the “cool kids” of middle and high school struggle once they leave their social circles? The sociologists responsible for the study suggest an intriguing answer: the superfluousness of popularity prevents these teens from developing actual relational skills and inner maturity. They’re so busy trying to be liked that they don’t cultivate a self-identity or the ability to be at ease by themselves. By 17 or 18, the relationships and cliques that made them admired have evaporated, and, no longer able to define themselves in that way, they can only persist in the “pseudomature” behaviors that eventually become habit.

Shortly after reading Hoffman’s piece, I told my wife Emily about it.  Several of Emily’s popular classmates in middle and high school have borne children out of wedlock. Others have struggled with unemployment, substance abuse and even suicide.  Of course, everyone will have personal struggles, regardless of what the teenage years bring; but my wife has noticed that, like the study demonstrates, those friends who had lower profiles in school have tended to fare much better in life outside school.

The pressure in adolescence to be liked is often all-consuming. I’m constantly reminded of Jake Halpern’s “fame survey,” part of the research he did for his 2007 book Fame Junkies. Halpern polled over 600 American teenagers with questions that measured desire for popularity and fame against other life ambitions. The results of Halpern’s study are sobering: Teenage girls were more likely to choose fame over intelligence and both boys and girls said they would rather be a personal assistant to a celebrity than a university president, a Senator, or a major CEO. Of course, it doesn’t come as a shock that teenagers want to be admired. But if Hoffman’s study is reliable, then we have a better idea of how crippling that desire can become for many teens.

In thinking about this from the perspective of the church,  one thing seems clear: It is a fatal mistake to shape ministry to youths that looks like popular culture. An extremely helpful guide in this for me has been professor James K.A. Smith’s work on Christian education and personal formation. The problem, according to Dr. Smith, is that an overriding emphasis on forming a Christian worldview is actually built on a non-Christian assumption, namely, that humans are primarily cognitive and rational beings as opposed to primarily desiring and emotive ones. Rather than focus on instilling the right kinds of information in Christian students, Dr. Smith says that Christian education should be concerned with the kind of people that emerge from it, concerned with having the right desires and emotions.

 Why do youth ministers often struggle to get the students in their care to understand how the promises of the Gospel override the fleeting pleasures of fame and popularity in this world? How is it that students with impressive knowledge of the Bible and even faithful attendance to the church’s programming are nonetheless more deeply moved at the images and (to borrow Dr. Smith’s terminology) liturgy of popular culture than they are at Christian life and discipleship?

Perhaps one answer is that the desire to be loved by strangers is ultimately stronger than the desire to get the answers right at Bible study group. In fact, the loudness and busyness of most evangelical student ministry programming might actually be reinforcing the very worldly liturgies its trying to contest. Listen to what Hoffman writes near the end of her piece:

Dr. Allen suggested that while they were chasing popularity, they were missing a critical developmental period. At the same time, other young teenagers were learning about soldering same-gender friendships while engaged in drama-free activities like watching a movie at home together on a Friday night, eating ice cream. Parents should support that behavior and not fret that their young teenagers aren’t “popular,” he said.

“To be truly mature as an early adolescent means you’re able to be a good, loyal friend, supportive, hardworking and responsible,” Dr. Allen said. “But that doesn’t get a lot of airplay on Monday morning in a ninth-grade homeroom.”

In other words, it is the formation of quiet virtues and the cultivation of meaning that create a mature person. How many of our Christian student ministries are built on personal formation rather than membership in a Christianized clique?

Perhaps our evangelical student ministries can reach more deeply in the souls of students by promising more than the right answers with the right people. Perhaps the formation of teens in our churches should start out by reassuring them that God made everybody weird and that is OK. Perhaps rather than promising a great summer retreat or a fun filled calendar of programming, youth ministers could promise relationships and covenant bonds that don’t wilt as the years go by. Perhaps we could offer community rooted in the gospel as a retreat from the cruel meritocracy of pop culture.

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