In the early 1600s, Shakespeare had one of his characters say: “I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the anciently, stealing, fighting.1”
This traditional view that adolescence is the worst part of life is unfortunately deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Parents are defeated and helpless when confronted with their teenage children. They say “We do not recognize our sweet child any more”. Teachers entering classrooms feel like a gladiator stepping in an arena. And more importantly youth and pre-youth feel they are not understood and experience thoughts of darkness and despair because their personal and social aspirations for justice, their high ideals cannot find expression.
Adolescence is indeed a time of great physical change in the body and in the brain. Neuroscience shows that puberty is a time where the brain which until then had been sprouting new neural connections at an amazing rate, starts pruning them and reorganising itself for a more efficient function. As a result, it is true that junior youth see new capacities arise and ability to question and understand the world around them, but also feel, experience, experiment, innovate and take risks; capacities which need to find a conjoined application to grow and consolidate.
As the body grows, the emotional palette refines, the value system emerges with the capacity to build reasoning: this stage does not necessarily have to be accompanied by growing pains if we understand that it must be accompanied by opportunities for a gradual implementation of these new connecting capacities, which include all of these different aspects instead of compartmentalizing them. This holistic approach is crucial, especially during the early years of adolescence. It is during this time that fundamental personal and collective values will be formulated in the mind of an individual, who is struggling to let go of the simplistic views of his childhood. Junior youth (12-15 years old) and youth (15-24 years old) have a lot to say and contribute, and treating them like children or troublemakers would be missing an opportunity to help them forge their authentic self and to lay down the foundations of adulthood.
Developing the autonomy of pre-youth and youth and helping them to channel their creative energies towards the advancement of civilization, is an endeavour in which any parent, educator, and other caring adults can participate. There is no miracle recipe. The question is not whether to let go, or be stricter, or to oscillate between the two, nor is it thinking “kids will be kids”. Rather it is time for action and to focus our energies on leaving our stale beliefs behind, and creating a climate of ongoing dialogue and respectful consideration so that we all can learn. As a parent, it's time to put into practice all the patience and compassion you developed during those long, sleepless nights of infancy. Our extended families and friends can provide support to create a space of growth opportunities for pre-youth and youth. Thus, as we develop an understanding of the specific needs and capabilities of adolescents, we can organically develop a new culture, supported by an educational process rooted in our recognition of the nobility of the human being.