Thursday, September 23, 2010

Teen 2.0 (Chapter 11)

Can young people handle responsibility?

While many of the other questions Epstein asks in Teen 2.0 might be important, this is a central question behind his argument that teens are truly young adults. Epstein is convinced that teens have the potential to be hard workers who are responsible with their time and decisions. The problem? Child labor laws and other social restrictions that don't allow teens to express their full responsible selves. When teens are relegated to working manual labor or at fast food restaurants (typically at or below minimum wage) while also being isolated from the adult world, it's no wonder they don't typically act responsibly. It's simply not expected of them.

Plus, in an economic downturn, Epstein wonders aloud if we're not afraid of the young competition in the job market. It makes me think of emerging adulthood, described by Jeffrey Arnett as a new stage of life between adolescence and adulthood. Typically post-college in age, these emerging adults are finding themselves jobless and directionless, feeling lost in the adult world. Are they somehow less responsible, or has responsibility simply never been fully granted to them?

But what about teens who are expected to be responsible? Epstein highlights teen mothers as being capable of the tremendous responsibility of parenthood. Studies reveal that young women are capable of being competent mothers, despite their youth and unfavorable circumstances. While being rather misguided, many teen moms became pregnant in order to gain the status of adulthood. In our culture, getting pregnant or going to jail are two surefire ways to "grow up" real quick.

What happens if we give teens too much responsibility? Isn't that adding unnecessary pressure and anxiety on inexperienced people who aren't ready for it yet? While we do have to check our motives and not have adult agendas for young people, giving them adequate and meaningful responsibility seems to further their growth and maturity, not stunt it. Epstein explains why:
When you're given responsibility, your behavior is now linked to consequences--mainly negative ones. If you're handed responsibility for a yard, a child or a platoon of troops, this means that from now on you're the one who will be punished if something goes wrong--if the yard isn't mowed, the child is injured or the platoon loses battles or suffers casualties...When you're "responsible," you're the one who pays the piper. (page 284)
The difficult lies in not just giving responsibility, but also giving authority to be able to carry out that responsibility. It doesn't work to delegate to young people so they take on all the consequences, yet cannot reap any benefits or have actual control of the situations their responsible for.
Responsibility without authority is not only meaningless, it's often immobilizing and frustrating, and it usually sets up a conflict situation; for one thing, you'll often be in conflict with the person holding the real authority, because he or she may be constantly questioning your judgment or overriding your decisions. (page 284)
For the American church, we need to become a community where young people are given true responsibility and leadership, viewed as full disciples of Christ capable of serving and leading alongside adults. This can't be a micro-managed responsibility or giving young people only the throwaway jobs that no one else wants. It means empowering young people to take ownership, to lead out of their gifts, to be expected to offer their best. An example from my youth ministry: we strive to have junior highers lead their peers on the worship team. They may not have the musical prowess or capabilities of someone twenty years their elder, but they are fully capable of taking on the responsibility of preparing and leading people in worship. I'm deeply blessed when I see a junior higher stepping up and leading in the church.

Where have you seen young people being responsible? How can you begin to empower the young people in your life towards responsibility?


  1. So you're saying the reason teens don't handle responsibility well is because we don't give them enough responsibility? Wow. Way to take all the responsibility for their actions away from them! :)

  2. Nolan, that's about it. When teens are never expected to take responsibility for anything, or if they're given responsibility but no authority behind it, they're being set up by adults and the culture for failure.

    Are there exceptions who simply "get" being responsible, regardless of cultural expectations? Sure. Are teens ultimately the ones responsible for their own actions? Yes. Yet I think teens have a lot more potential to hold much more responsibility than they do, but adults typically don't give them it.