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Birth of the Teenager

Until the last century, there were no teenagers.

Romeo and Juliet weren’t teenagers. Jane Austen’s characters, and Austen herself, were never teenagers. Nor were Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, or Dickens himself. Huckleberry Finn was 13 when he had his adventures, but even he wasn’t a teenager. In fact nobody, fictional or real, was a teenager until after the turn of the 20th century.

What a difference now!

Nowadays, upon turning 13, a young person is acutely aware of entering a special phase of life: a phase with all the rights and privileges thereto pertaining, shared by neither children nor adults. It is not a phase to hurry through with the aim of becoming a grownup as quickly as possible, but one to savor for its own culture, its own fads in music, clothing, language, and attitudes.

It wasn’t young people ages 13 through 19 who first thought to make the teen ages special. It would appear, rather, that it was pedagogical and religious authorities who first used the terms teen, teen age, and teenager. They used them as they took note of the distinctive attitudes of persons ages 13 through 19, and more with worry than with approval.

Teenager itself didn’t emerge until about 1940, but that efficient collection Google Books finds early instances of teen and teen age in the Proceedings of the Thirty-Seventh Annual Session of the Minnesota Educational Association Held in Saint Paul, Minnesota December 26, 27, 28, 1899, in an article by John N. Greer, principal of Central High School in Minneapolis:

“Boys and girls in their teens! What a problem in psychology and child study is represented by these words! How little of it is written or yet understood! They are not men and women, nor yet are they children. They typify the period when hope and fancy and ambition grow apace. To them the future is grand and attractive, and to be easily conquered. Self-consciousness is just blossoming. Egotism is in luxuriant bud. The mind discriminates not between the liberty and the license of thought.

“Mental generalizations and deductions are rampant. The young mind will rush in and have that ‘perfectly at home’ feeling, where in later years it will as readily conclude that only angels dare enter.”

And later: “The teen age is the imaginative age and not much given to reason and judgment. The reins of community government are not safe in the hands of any save mature and experienced minds.”

In the same vein, a worrier writes in the journal Religious Education in 1914: “The Bible School has many problems. Among them the keenest of these is the teen-age boy. How to hold him in the Bible School is the great question that is facing pastors, superintendents and teachers on every hand.”

The Methodist Year-Book 1921 tells about Epworth School for Girls in St. Louis, “a Christian home and school for delinquent and incorrigible girls of teen age.”

From teen age to teenager was only a short jump, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that we begin to see it in print. It was then that the younger brothers and sisters of those who went off to fight World War II found themselves labeled teenagers.

From a 1942 book, The Organization and Operation of the Oklahoma High School Athletic Association, we read, for example: “The teenager is looking for thrills, and in contact sports there is a thrill on every play.”

And teenager continued to have to do with trouble. A 1943 magazine article begins: “Curfew never rings out in St. Petersburg, Fla., for no curfew law is needed to keep the teen-age girls off its teeming streets at night—teeming with thousands of handsome young servicemen in the local Army Air Force Replacement Center. No curfew law is needed for there is a legal ordinance which gives the police the power to keep the teenager off the streets unless she is accompanied by a guardian or parent, or if she is on a legitimate errand.”

The rest of the story of teenager brings it to the familiar focus of interest and concern today. In that word, we may have created a source of anxiety for parents, authorities, and the teens themselves.

But what happened to people in earlier times?

Instead of the teen age, they went from child to adult. For them the turning point came when they were adolescent, a word that has been in the English language since the 1400s. Etymologically it means, more or less, “becoming adult.”

And until the teen age was invented, that was the goal of children: to become adult as soon as possible, to escape the limitations of childhood. It’s reflected in the titles of Louisa May Alcott’s popular novels of the 19th century, Little Women and Little Men.

But what would she call them if she were writing today?

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