A recent conversation I had with a suburban nanny brought to light an alarming trend in teen culture. While the child is too young to clearly articulate his inner turmoil, his nanny described in him a deep sense of isolation and estrangement in addition to anger and resentment toward his parents and situation. Beyond the primary element of her job, which involves driving the child to various artistic, academic, and athletic pursuits after school, the nanny characterized her job as similar to working with an orphan.
Now, I am not describing a child who is a victim of desperate poverty, a deadly epidemic, or a violent war and has found refuge in an orphanage. I am telling the narrative of a suburban American pre-teen who has access to every conceivable material want and life opportunity. Recent research in the social psychology of American teens identifies this child’s anguish, not as an exceptional circumstance, but as more of a norm.
Researchers have committed much study to the trend of abandonment in teen culture. The literature has identified an intense sense of disconnection and isolation among teens in their family and community systems. While researchers consider high-rates of divorce and general family dysfunction as contributing factors, the primary variable among teens with symptoms of abandonment is over-programming and performance-based lifestyles.
David Elkind of Tufts University has dedicated over two decades to following this trend in parenting. Elkind notes that most parents focus on the competence of their child as a performer in the market place as their central mission; the primary role as a parent becomes one of strategic development. During the course of his research on this issue, Elkind documents an intensification of the problem as over-programming increases.
While Elkind describes youth who have been formed in this manner as the “hurried child,” Chap Clark, in his book Hurt, affirms this trend but chooses to use the term “the abandoned child.” He writes, “We have evolved to the point where we believe driving is support, being active is love, and providing any and every opportunity is selfless nurture … Even with the best of intentions, the way we raise, train, and even parent our children today exhibits attitudes and behaviors that are simply subtle forms of parental abandonment.“ Elkind’s terminology focuses more on the means of parenting (over-programming) and Clark’s descriptor elucidates the results (isolation).
Certainly people can evaluate accurately this issue from various angles (psychology, sociology, education, etc.). From a theological position, this parenting style reflects the natural result of life lived intensely under the law. When I mention law in this context, I do not refer to the moral code but to a pattern of life focused on living up to standards through personal performance and effort. A standard of false righteousness- child competence – exists in the culture, and adults employ whatever necessary means (math tutors, batting coaches, personal trainers, academic camps, intense schedules, etc.) to maximize their child’s performance that they may satisfy the expectations. The standard may manifest itself in language such as, “I want my child to have every opportunity,” or “I want more for my children,” but producing “successful” children constitutes the core hope. This mentality practically plays out in twelve year olds bouncing from early morning swim practice to school to piano to Boy Scouts to homework to bed as a normalized routine.
Scripture tells us that a life defined by the law yields alienation from God and man, as one sinks into a lonely, self-absorbed pursuit of perfection. In contrast, the Gospel of grace draws one out of alienation and into fellowship with God and neighbor. In the Gospel the onus of perfection shifts to Christ, and one is freed to enjoy relationship with God and others.
Understanding the pervasiveness of this trend among American teens compels those ministering to youth (parents, youth pastors, teachers, et al.) to recognize the law-driven nature of the culture and to offer the freedom of the Gospel. In addition to this, discussion of spiritual adoption may have more relevance in this context than any other element of salvation. The Father’s role in salvation as the one who adopts justified sinners as sons and daughters resonates with students struggling with a sense of abandonment. The idea of a Perfect Parent who offers free love and constant presence and who calls for rest, rather than effort, provides a sense of relief for students who often live under pressure.
Adoption calls individuals out of isolation and into God’s Kingdom and family. As John says in 1 John 1:2-3,
The life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
This adopting love, made manifest through Christ, not only brings people into union with God but also into the fellowship of the saints.
Certainly all benefits of salvation have relevance to all generations in all contexts. At the same time, in the context of American teen culture, emphasis on the Father adopting sinners and delivering the isolated into a fellowship provides great hope to a generation of estranged teens.
Cameron Cole serves as the chairman of Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry, which will host its conference, themed Adopted: The Beauty of Grace, at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama on August 9-11. The conference will focus on the Gospel of grace and message of adoption to a generation of alienated teenagers. Those interested can learn more at www.rootedconference.com and can follow the Rooted blog at www.therootedblog.blogspot.com.
 Chap Clark, Hurt (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 46-47.