Teen-age Society

by Flemming Funch, 17 Nov 95

From pattern #84 from "A Pattern Language" by Christopher Alexander.

"Teenage is the time of passage between childhood and adulthood. In traditional societies, this passage is accompanied by rites which suit the psychological demands of the tradition. But in modern society the "high school" fails entirely to provide this passage."

"The most striking traditional example we know comes from an east African tribe. In order to become a man, a boy of this tribe embarks on a two year journey, which includes a series of more and more difficult tasks, and culminates in the hardest of all - to kill a lion. During his journey, families and villages all over the territory which he roams take him in, and care for him: they recognize their obligation to do so as part of his ritual. Finally, when the boy has passed through all these tasks, and killed his lion, he is accepted as a man.

"In modern society, the transition cannot be so direct or simple. For reasons too complex to discuss here, the process of transition, and the time it takes have been extended and elaborated greatly. Teenage lasts, typically, from 12 to 18; six years instead of one or two. The simple sexual transformation, the change from childhood to maturity, has given way to a much vaster, slower change, in which the self of a person emerges during a long struggle in which the person decides "what he or she is going to "be". Almost no one does what his father did before him; instead, in a world of infinite possibilities, it has to be worked out from nothing. This long process, new to the world since the industrial revolution is the process we call adolescence.


"The institution of high school has particularly borne the brunt of the adolescent problem. Just at the time when teenagers need to band together freely in groups of their own making and explore, step back from, and explore again, the adult world: its work, love, science, laws, habits, travel, play, communicatons, and governance, they get treated as if they were large children. They have no more responsibility or authority in a high school than the children in a kindergarten do. They are responsible for putting away their things, and for playing in the high school band, perhaps even for electing class leaders. But these things all happen in a kindergarten too. There is no new form of society, which is a microcosm of adult society, where they can test their growing adulthood in any serious way. And under these circumstances, the adult forces which are forming in them, lash out, and wreak terrible vengeance. Blind adults can easily, then, call this vengeance "delinquency".


"Replace the "high school" with an institution which is actually a model of adult society, in which the students take on most of the responsibility for learning and social life, with clearly defined roles and forms of discipline. Provide adult guidance, both for the learning, and the social structure of the society; but keep them as far as feasible, in the hands of the students".

What is particularly re-emphasized for me in reading this is the many damaging effects in treating adolescents as little kids.

I can particularly compare the treatment of young adults in the U.S. with the attitude to young adults in Denmark, where I myself grew up.

In the U.S. young adults are legally speaking regarded as kids until they are 18 or 21 or so. It is illegal for them to make their own choices in terms of sex, alcohol, and other things that are indeed quite central in young people's minds. To compare, the age where one is expected to be responsible concerning sex and alcohol is 15 in Denmark. And there are practically no problems with teenage pregnancies and alcohol abuse there.

I find it a very intriguing idea to allow young adults more responsibility to explore life and actually play meaningful roles. I think a lot of the problems with adolescence come from artificially stopping young people from relating in meaningful ways to their roles in society, when obviously they are by nature's hand going through phases that lead them to do just that.

- Flemming