The challenge of providing challenges

I recently finished reading Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old. This 2009 book by a pair of psychologists, Joseph Allen and Claudia Worrel Allen, explains how well-intentioned parents and teachers have deprived teenagers of real-world challenges those students need and crave.

At the same time I was reading Escaping the Endless Adolescence, I was reading the 1922 bestselling novel Maria Chapdelain by Louis Hémon.  The fictional account vividly illustrates the point the Allens make that historically the teen years were a time when children worked alongside adults, learned adult roles, and moved within a matter of months into functioning as adults.

"Cabin in forest"

The novel is set among the immigrant pioneers to the rugged forests of Quebec and is based on the Hémon’s own experiences in the area in the first decade of the twentieth century.

In the novel, Maria by age 15  is indispensable to her family. She helps with  housework, cooking, child care, and laundry and is almost entirely responsible for the weekly baking for a large household.

Maria’s slightly older  brothers work off the farm most of the year. The household could not survive without the income they bring home or the labor they contribute when they are home.

When her mother dies suddenly, Maria could marry a young man and move to the comfort of a Boston home. Instead decides to marry an older neighboring farmer who bores her and bring up her younger siblings.

The pattern of adolescent development shown in the novel has been the norm for adolescents for centuries. Only since the early twentieth century have Western cultures,  particularly American culture,  isolated adolescents into teen-only groups and relegated them to spending well over a decade as nonproductive hangers-on at the exact time they are demanding  independence, skills mastery,  and work that challenges them.

The Allens’ research and clinical reaches much the same conclusions that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his associates documented in Becoming Adult. I discussed those findings about  what happens in schools and about school enjoyment previously.

While I’m not in favor of returning to pioneer-age workdays for teenagers, I am in favor of providing teens with opportunities to work alongside adults, to contribute to their communities, and to develop and apply real skills.

Providing those opportunities for teens today will require both schools and their communities to work at making them happen. Some posts on this blog that explore ways schools and communities can collaborate to nurture teens’ development into adults (while not incidentally providing both school and community benefits:

Photo credit: “Cabin in forest” by pdufour

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