“But Mom, I’m 14 years old!”

So I have this friend. She’s a mom with two young boys. Almost every story she tells about one of her sons ends with the exact same line, “But Mom, I’m 14 years old!” Every time she scoffs this off and goes on with another story, but there’s a part of the son’s response that sticks with me each time. Whenever she tries to tell her son what he can or can’t do, he responds by telling her his age. It’s a very specific answer turned generic by the frequency with which we hear it.

Mom: “You can’t go out and play with those kids.”
Son: “But Mom, I’m 14 years old!”

Mom: “You’re being bad. Go up to your room.”
Son: “But Mom, I’m 14 years old!”

Mom: “You didn’t do your homework, so you can’t watch tv”
Son: “But Mom, I’m 14 years old!”

These are not unlike responses we hear everyday. But when you really think about it, they make no sense at face value. It’s only when we dig deeper into what the son is trying to express that we really get what’s happening in these interactions: the son is trying to assert his identity.

Robert Epstein’s Teen 2.0 talks about the crisis involved in adolescence. Adolescence is categorized as a period of time of storm and stress that has been culturally created to exist between childhood and adulthood. Biologically, once puberty hits, our biology is telling us that we’re an adult. If we had been born 100 years ago, once puberty hit we’d be a valid member of the work force helping to support our family. Since the creation of adolescence, nature no longer controls us, society does. Lawmakers draft bills that say you can’t do [fill in the blank] until you’re 16, 18 or 21. Parents are under full authority of teens until they are 18, that is, of course, unless the adolescents emancipate themselves (an interesting term in and of itself.

Despite adolescents’ greatest attempts to assert their agency, often times this is met by increased restrictions. Often times, these restrictions only serve to exacerbate the loneliness and isolation they feel. To test this out, Epstein did a study.

He came up with 42 common teenage restrictions (sent to your room, restricted dress code etc.) and asked four different groups to measure how often these restrictions have “regularly or routinely” applied to them. These groups were non-institutionalized adults, incarcerated felons, United States Marines on active duty, and teenagers. Most of these restrictions (28 out of the 42) had to do with the limiting of social interactions through the rule of an authority figure (warden, military code, parent etc.) The results were staggering! Adults predictably scored near zero on the scale (average of 2.3 out of 42). Teens, however, significantly outscored prisoners and soldiers (26.6 for teens, 14.6 for prisoners and 10.9 for soldiers). (Epstein, 11).

“But Mom, I’m 14” is a direct response to the lack of agency and identity formation that teens feel as biological beings reaching maturity. When nature is telling you one thing, and society is telling you another, anger is probably a pretty common response.

“But Mom, I’m 14” is a cry to be taken seriously as a person with thoughts, feelings and considerations. But these restrictions that often come instead are detrimental to their self-image as persons. They yell this, not because they think we have forgotten how many years they’ve been alive, but because their very identity feels under attack. It’s time we take Epstein’s considerations seriously and look hard at how we deal with the adolescents in our schools, churches and, yes, even homes.

Cheers,
Eric

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