On the Adolescent Fixation of the Modern West

Recently at the Synod on Youth, Archbishop Charles Chaput made the following observation:

Unfortunately, many “developed” countries today are actually “underdeveloped in their humanity. They’re frozen in a kind of moral adolescence; an adolescence which they’ve chosen for themselves and now seek to impose upon others.

I have written on this topic as well. What follows is largely taken from an article I first published on this blog in 2010. In it I wrote about the kind of teenage fixation that is evident in our culture.

Psychologists define fixation in the following way:

Fixation refers to a persistent focus of pleasure-seeking energies on an earlier stage of psychosexual development. A fixation occurs when an issue or conflict in a psychosexual stage remains unresolved, leaving the individual focused on this stage and unable to move onto the next.

I would like to argue that our modern culture seems to manifest many fixations that are typical of the teenage years. In fact, one way to describe our modern culture is to see it as developmentally like that of a teenager. Such a situation presents rather serious problems in terms of facing life with the necessary sobriety, seriousness, and maturity; it also means that there are many people in our culture who never grow up.

Here are some examples of what I see as a teenage mentality and a fixation on teenage issues.

Wanting all the rights but none of the responsibilities – As children begin to approach adulthood, it is not uncommon for them to declare to their parents that once they are 18 they are adults and therefore should be able to do as they please.

Adulthood does not magically happen at the age of 18. Rather, it happens as children move out, get a job, and pay their own bills. In other words, adulthood is about accepting and exercising responsibility for oneself. The teenage mentality claims the rights of adulthood (e.g., autonomy) without wanting to accept the concomitant responsibilities.

This is very often the case in our culture today. Strident claims are made regarding rights, but little is said of duties. Accepting responsibility for our actions is often cast aside by excuses that blame others: I’m not responsible because my mother dropped me on my head when I was two, or because grew up poor, or because I have ADHD. There can be legitimate explanations, but we seem to have made an art of it. Our culture has a hard time insisting that people take responsibility for their actions. Those who do suggest such things are often labeled insensitive and harsh.

Not only do many make excuses for their bad behavior but they often try to shift to focus to others, pointing out that they are worse: “Well what about him?”

Further, people increasingly expect others to provide for them what they ought to provide for themselves. Surely there are some basic needs that government and industry can and should provide, and there are those among us who truly cannot care for themselves, but the list of entitlements grows ever longer, and money seems to be no object.

All these behaviors tend to overemphasize rights while minimizing personal responsibility. I argue that this bespeaks a teenage mentality. An adult attitude recognizes the need to take responsibility for our own life, asking for help when we need, but not asking others to do for us what we can and should do for ourselves. An adult attitude also takes responsibility for the consequences of our decisions and actions, not trying to blame others.

Sexual immaturity – Teenagers experience a powerful sexual awakening and their bodies flood with hormones.

At first, they manifest a general silliness about sexuality; there is a lot of giggling and the relating of off-color jokes. Everything is thought of in terms of sex and many ordinary words and phrases are used that have secondary sexually related meanings. In short, there is a kind of obsession with sex.

Some teenagers begin to dress provocatively, “strutting their stuff.” Sadly, teenagers struggle with sexual misbehavior and some exhibit poor judgment about sexual matters. This is all the more prevalent today because we do not chaperone or oversee youth in the way we should. Neither do we teach them well about sexuality and modesty.

Today’s Western culture too often exhibits a teenage immaturity about sexuality. There is the incessant chatter about and exhibition of sex in movies, television, music, and books. There are off-color jokes. Many comedians devote much of their material to sex, speaking of it in demeaning and unedifying ways; sex seems to be one big joke.

There is great irresponsibility and poor judgment today among adults in the area sexual behavior: premarital sex, bearing children out of wedlock, abortion, adultery, and homosexual acts to name a few.

Further, many celebrate lewdness and sexual irresponsibility, often applying moral thinking more reminiscent of a college fraternity party than a truly thoughtful and responsible perspective.

A mature attitude accepts that sex is a beautiful and personal gift given to the married. It is holy and good and is an important part of life, but it is not the only thing there is. The obsession, the silliness, and the out-of-control quality exhibited in our culture bespeaks an immaturity that reminds one of untutored and uncorrected teenagers.

Aversion to Authority – As children grow into the teenage years they naturally begin to push the boundaries with parents and other authority figures.

Teenagers test limits and ask tough questions; this is not entirely bad. They are not little children any longer and increasing autonomy is often incrementally appropriate. However, teenagers also can go too far and be both disrespectful and disobedient. At times they engage in inappropriate power struggles with their parents and other elders, asserting that no one should tell them what to do. Some even go through periods of intense dislike of and contempt for their parents and any who would try to direct them.

So, too, our culture today struggles with the issue of authority. One of the geniuses of the American system of government is the balance of power. There is also the notion that elected officials should be held accountable. So, there is such a thing as healthy and vigorous debate and a proper limiting of the power of authority. However, some of the negative attitudes toward legitimate authority—not just government officials, but police, supervisors at work, and community leaders—seem a bit immature. Whispering behind their backs, dragging of feet, making ugly comments, and outright disrespecting authority figures all seem to be a bit teenage.

One might argue that it has always been this way, but there seems to have been a major uptick in this sort of behavior starting in the 1960s. Rock music helped to usher in overly negative attitudes about authority and that thinking has become widespread in our culture today.

An adult attitude respects the place of authority and the need for it. It does not fear authority but rather speaks sincerely, truthfully, and respectfully to those who have it.

The “It’s not fair!” Mentality – One of the most common cries of children and teenagers is that something isn’t fair; it is usually plaintive and self-serving.

When someone claims that something isn’t fair, it usually means he didn’t get what he wanted while someone else did. Basically, this cry show that it’s all about me.

Truth be told, life is not fair. Both my brothers were smarter than I was. Neither of them seemed to have to study much and they still got A’s while I had to struggle mightily just to pull down B’s and C’s—not fair! However, I had other gifts they did not. The bottom line is that each of us is dealt a set of cards and those are the ones we have to play. No one has the same cards.

In our culture today, this plaintive cry about a lack of fairness goes up frequently. The most troublesome version of it comes in relation to moral and doctrinal issues. The Church is often excoriated for her positions in ways like this: “Are you saying gays can’t get married? That’s not fair!” “Are you saying women can’t be ordained? That’s not fair!” “Are you saying that people who are dying can’t end their lives by euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide but rather must accept suffering? That’s not fair!” “Are you saying a woman has to carry her child to term and can’t abort? That’s not fair, especially considering that the man can usually just walk away.”

Again, notice that most of these claims of unfairness are rather egocentric: Something isn’t fair because I can’t do what I want.

An adult attitude accepts that life is not always fair. An adult attitude does fight against true injustice; not all of life’s inequities should be tolerated. However, a mature attitude distinguishes between matter of true justice and merely getting what one wants. The battle for true justice usually involves the needs of others not just personal or egocentric concerns.

So, I offer you this analysis. I do not say that everyone is equally afflicted with this mentality, but the big picture looks fairly adolescent to me. Recognizing it is the first step to correcting the tendency.

… until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Eph 4:13-16).

This brief video shows the usual sitcom scenario: parents (especially fathers) are stupid and kids are smart and that it’s OK for them to be sassy, and disrespectful. After all it’s a teenage world.

6 Replies to “On the Adolescent Fixation of the Modern West”

  1. I want to add another element to it. Once I hit 40 years of age I realized that being born in the U.S. has many advantages that most other countries do not have and am grateful for them. If one just pays scant attention to the media and news they paint an entirely different picture: it’s unfair, unjust, unequal, and exploitive. Obviously, a view diametrically opposed to mine. Maybe if I was more highly educated I could understand their points of view, but for now I don’t.

    1. I’m pretty sure over-education has led us to this stage in our societal development. We have far too many people with advanced degrees but don’t have the requisite IQ to harness such knowledge.

      To go back to the teenage example, how many of us would hand the keys of a brand new Porsche to a kid who just got his learners permit and told them to do what they want?

      It’s as ridiculous as what we now face with our media, be it social or otherwise. We have people with knowledge and voice, but no clue how to use it, hence the constant train wreck we seem to be living through.

      1. I agree, most graduate students are “nourished” by their advisors, who need to be aware that their students need to be guided to be mature human beings as well. Unfortunately this is not an easy task as this is a very touchy subject.

        However, considering that in “The Spiritual Direction of Saint Claude de la Colombière”, St. Claude tells us that half an hour a month would be sufficient to receive such direction, maybe if graduate students advisors AND their advisees think of implementing such advise, the problem at hand can be solved.

    2. I remember a line from a seminary professor: “gentlemen, we have educated ourselves beyond our own level of ignorance.”

  2. I agree with Archbishop Chaput and the fellow in the video. Parents who can train their children to respect others as well as themselves will produce children who will get along in society. Just remember, there is nothing wrong with saying No to one’s child.[Or jsut say, what part of the word “no” don’t you understand?]

  3. I think this article has it correctly yet still misses the point. I submit that the problem is one of parents enabling their children rather than face the pain they experience that comes from their children’s anger. In short, it is a parent’s job to suffer the anger of their children. If my life is filled with the addict’s avoidance of discomfort and pain, I will do whatever I can to avoid their wrath. The cross of parents is the temporary rejection by their children as their guide and discipline; will parents take up their crosses?

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