Adolescence

The period of adolescence has fascinated people of all ages. Even Aristotle turned aside from his philosophical and ethical speculations to make a study of the adolescent. He realistically described a boy's voice as 'the bleating of a billy goat'. He also characterized the adolescent as being 'high-minded', but somewhat cynically put this down to lack of experience! Plato devoted much time and thought to discovering how best to bring up youth to true citizenship.

Growing-up. Adolescence means 'growing-up' and strictly speaking should apply to a child from birth to maturity. Why then do we use it for this teenage period alone? Because when we speak of the adolescent as 'growing-up', we mean that the youth is leaving behind the phase of protective childhood and is becoming independent, capable of going out to fend for himself.

Girls of this age used to be called 'flappers', a very descriptive term, for they are figuratively trying out their wings. Very often, like fledglings, both boys and girls require a gentle push off! Sometimes they push off too soon and hurt themselves.

Venturesomeness. A characteristic of 'growing-up' is a desire to be venturesome - so unlike the dependence of the child and the set ways of the adult. The adolescent seeks for new experience in life, and likes roughing it. In their camps and hiking, for example, boys and girls seek uncomfortable and difficult conditions-and then set about making themselves comfortable in them. They deliberately seek difficulties in order to overcome them.

Responsibility. The adolescent also loves responsibility. The boy likes to be given the job of packing the luggage in the car; the girl, the responsibility of getting the younger children ready for the trip. This is a natural urge and requires expression.

Relation to life. The healthy adolescent boy or girl likes to do the real things in life, to do the things that matter. He would rather be a plumber's mate and do a real job that requires doing than learn about hydrostatics sitting at a desk, without understanding what practical use they are going to be. A girl would rather look after the baby than learn about child care.

Logically we should learn about things before doing them and that is presumably why the pundits enforce this in our educational system. But it is not the natural way-nor, I venture to think, the best way. The adolescent wants to do things first for only then does he appreciate the problems involved and want to learn more about them.

They do these things better in primitive life, for there at puberty the boy joins his father in making canoes, patching huts, going out fishing or hunting, and preparing weapons of war. He is serving his apprenticeship in the actual accomplishments of life. It is not surprising that anthropologists find that the adolescents of primitive communities do not suffer from the same neurotic 'difficulties' as those of civilized life. This is not, as some assume, because they are permitted more sexual freedom, but because they are given more natural outlets for their native interests and powers and are allowed to grow up freely into a full life of responsibility in the community.

In the last century this was recognized in the apprenticeship system, which allowed the boy to go out with the master carpenter, thatcher, or ploughman, to engage in the actual work of carpentry, roof-mending, or ploughing, and so to learn his trade. It was the same in medicine, in which a budding young doctor of sixteen learnt his job by going round with the general practitioner and helping with the blood-letting and physic. In our agricultural colleges at the present time young men have to do a year's work on a farm before their theoretical training at college. The great advantage of this system is that it lets the apprentice see the practical problems before he sets to work learning how to solve them, and he can therefore take a more intelligent interest in his theoretical work. That is also why a girl should be allowed to give expression to her natural desire to look after children, and then, when she comes up against difficulties, to learn the principles of child care.

Since more knowledge of more things is now required in order to cope with the adult world, the period of growing-up to independence takes much longer than it did in a more primitive community, and the responsibility for such education, which formerly was in the hands of the parents, is now necessarily undertaken by experts at school. But that should not make us lose sight of the basic principle, namely the need and the desire of the adolescent to engage responsibly in the 'real' pursuits of life and then to learn how-to learn through responsibility, not to learn before responsibility.

(From Childhood and Adolescence, by J. A. Hadfield)