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From Responsibility to Irresponsibility

By Bret Stephenson  Posted by Rob Kall (about the submitter)     Permalink
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This is the first of, hopefully, a long series of articles by Bret Stephenson, a youth worker whose book, Slaying the Dragon, is a brilliant discussion of teens today. He has a way of pulling together information about teens, politics, psychology, mythology, Jungian concepts, and statistics from a multitude of sources which casts an incredible new light on what's happening with young people in America. Rob Kall, editor,

From a developmental perspective, adolescence is the shifting from the dependency of childhood to the independence of adulthood, or from the irresponsibility of child hood to the responsibility of adulthood. In its deepest sense, adolescence is the process of going from boyhood or girlhood to manhood and womanhood, deeper aspects than mere adulthood.

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One of the major mistakes we 've made in American culture over the past century is letting go of the processes that created healthy Men and Women by creating an age-arbitrary system where adult rewards are bestowed on the youth based on age versus worthiness. This creates legal Adults, but doesn 't guarantee they are Men or Women. For the vast majority of human history, regardless of whether you 're a creationist or evolutionist, teens have been in the thick of day-to-day survival and family or community business.

Allow your mind to wander over all your experiences with not only other cultures, but even America from the early 1900 's on back. Remember movies, books, museums and other input you 've received on how life was run before what we commonly call modern times. A good example would be Little House on the Prairie. Can you imagine anywhere 80-100 years ago where all that was expected of a teenager was to sit around playing Nintendo or hanging out idly at a mall? Probably not, because until the early 1900 's most teens were deep in the details of everyday survival with their families.

Regarding all those books, movies and museums, keep in mind that the vast majority of all such input we Americans have had in our lifetime has been designed, created and manifested by mostly white males, so many of our stereotypes are skewed in that direction.

Once adolescents were big enough, they helped with farm duties, or perhaps the family business if the family had moved into the city. Or they held many of the menial jobs such as grocery deliveries or stockroom clerk, giving most if not all of their wages back to the family. Everyone was busy: even little children to the extent they could help the family survive. Teens could not have been allowed to just "kick it. "

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This is where some folks will bring up child labor laws, which actually came about to prevent smaller children from being overworked and underpaid in sweat shops, if not treated miserably. But teens can often handle the strain of adult work, particularly the older teens. Where we went wrong was in taking this responsibility away from them, slowly but surely, expecting them to mostly attend school. As America came out of World War II more white-collar than blue-collar in thinking, teens had even less to do and thus came the after-school, extracurricular activities. The most criminal thing we have done after taking their responsibility away is in holding this propensity for irresponsibility against teenagers in general.

I believe teens should work, if possible, as it helps build character and yes, responsibility. Many programs geared toward emancipating teens or giving them independent living skills continue to be delivered in a classroom format. We no longer have viable vocational training or apprenticeships. We expect all kids to go to college although only 20% of us ever graduate. Since most American public schools grade themselves on how many kids they get into college versus how many actually graduate, this implies an 80% failure rate. Locally, I 've been involved with projects that taught kids woodworking, building web pages, and teaching them culinary arts.

Other programs have taken gang kids and put them to work in their own merchandising project (, using the fascinating slogan: Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job.

Believe me, teens want to work. It feeds into their goal to become independent and autonomous, and makes them feel like part of the adult community.

In Summer 2004, it was estimated that only one third of all teens could find employment in the US. I 've been trying to launch youth employment and entrepreneurial models for a few years now, to teach them what life in the real world is rather than trying to tell them in a classroom. I can envision a number of models where not only do the youth work, but run the web site, manage the inventory, learn bookkeeping and distribution, and sell the product or service directly. Each group or clique of kids can contribute. I 've run into many people who supported this concept and just as many who believe teens are inherently broken and will destroy or corrupt anything they touch. We 're wary when they hang out on street corners, refuse to provide a teen center for them to visit, complain because they stare at a computer screen or video game all day, then build malls to attract them into shallow spending. In short, I propose we gift our teens with responsibility, and welcome them back into the club.

Bret Stephenson is an adolescent specialist who's experiences with teens from more than 100 countries and six international youth conferences has altered how he looks at and works with American teens. Utilizing archetypal, cross-cultural and universal models that have worked for millennia, he successfully works with at-risk and high-risk teens in a variety of settings. Bret is author of Slaying the Dragon: The Contemporary Struggle of Adolescent Boys-Modern Rules in an Ancient Game. More information can be found at or his nonprofit site at
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