“We don’t ‘do’ teenagers”

As I approached puberty, my parents told me that “we’re not going to do that whole teenager thing.” They said that this whole idea of teenage angst and rebellion is a modern social construct, and that the word “teenager” was less than a hundred years old. Children, they asserted, were supposed to move straight from childhood to adulthood, no questions asked, no angst or rebellion permitted, no being teenagers allowed.

This is actually fairly common in the world of Christian Patriarchy. All the typical things that teenagers do – dating, going out with friends, having disagreements with their parents – are seen as bad things.

Dating means giving away pieces of your heart, sacrificing your physical purity, and practicing for divorce.  Hanging out with friends means gossiping, being bad influences with each other, and not serving your family at home. Having disagreements with your parents means having a wicked, rebellious heart and walking away from God. The word “teenager” becomes almost a bad word. My parents told us that rather than “teenagers,” we were “young ladies” and “young men.”

And with that, my parents wrote off the whole “teenager” thing entirely. From age eleven or twelve on, I was expected to be an adult: to act like an adult, to do my part like an adult, and to think like an adult. Angst was not permitted. Anger was not permitted. Complaining, even about the chore load, was not permitted. We were supposed to be happy and cheerful and helpful, and fit without complaining into a perfect family picture like the one to the right.

The truth is, I was never allowed to be a teenager. I never dated. I never hung out at the mall. I almost never spent time alone with my friends (when we were together, we were generally watching our younger siblings). I never experimented with my clothing or hair. I never questioned my parents or their beliefs or disagreed with them in the slightest. I never did anything normal teenagers did. Instead, I cooked and cleaned and raised my siblings, and in my spare time I set up my dollhouse, curled my hair to look like girls in centuries-old pictures, sewed doll clothes and old fashioned clothing (including dresses with stays in them), perfected my pies, and gathered wild herbs.

Now it’s true that the word teenager is less than a hundred years old, and it’s true that our current modern conception of the teenager is new. But the reality is, in our society today, being a teenager is not simply about gossip and boys and a lack of responsibility, it’s about figuring out who you are as an entity separate from your family and their beliefs. Because I was never allowed to be a teenager, I never differentiated myself from my parents at all. I never learned who I was. I was never allowed to.

While I do wish I had been allowed to be a teenager in external trappings – clothes, dating, hanging out at the mall – what I really regret about not being allowed to be a teenager is not the material trappings but rather not ever separating myself and my identity from those of my parents. I wish I had been allowed to be different from them, and encouraged to find my own interests and beliefs. I wish I hadn’t been so enmeshed in my parents’ lives and identities as to lose myself completely.

Yet in some sense, I didn’t skip being a teenager, I simply delayed it. I spent my adolescence living in a state of half childhood, half adulthood, with the lack of freedom and the trusting beliefs of a child but the responsibilities and expectations of an adult. When I hit my early twenties, I finally began differentiating myself from my parents and their views, figuring out what I believed and wanted to be for myself, and my parents didn’t take too kindly to this. The result was a full scale rebellion as my parents locked down.

My parents were completely taken aback. This was not part of the playbook. They thought they had transitioned me directly from childhood and adulthood, and had honestly accepted their beliefs as mine. After all, I had always marched after them with abandon, placing one foot in front of the other and never looking back. What they could not see was that my beliefs then were those of a child. I echoed my parents’ opinions without ever having questioned them. I simply took what they told me at face value and believed it. I yearned to please my parents, and becoming their echo chamber was one way I could do this. My parents encouraged us to study apologetics and read the Bible for ourselves, but while studying our beliefs was encouraged, asking real questions or expressing doubt was not.

The truth is, my parents never gave me a chance to think things through for myself and become my own person.

I’m going to let my daughter be a teenager. I’m going to encourage her to explore and experiment and figure out who she is and what she believes. I’m going to give her room to become her own person. Because, quite simply, that is what it means to grow up.

The Cold, Unforgiving World of Geoffrey Botkin
Red Town, Blue Town
Gamergate Comes Home
When Marriage Looks Like the Only Escape
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11557037093560947882 Anne

    This is EXACTLY my family. My dad said the exact same things about being a teenager. At the time, I agreed with him (of course)…but in retrospect, came to the same conclusions about teenagers as you. Now I'm sort of in the "teenage" phase…figuring out who I am separate of my family, and I'm 24.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05927558035256871985 Rachel

    this is amazing. breaks my heart to know that there is this level of homeschoolers in this world.i was a homeschooled teenager with powerful Christian parents. i had anger and angst and boyfriends and all of that. but to know that i had friends who did not….it's awful. i don't want to be that kind of mom.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11557037093560947882 Anne

    My parents thought they did everything right…after all, I didn't leave until I was 23! Everyone would always tell them "Just wait until your kids are teenagers!" Well, that made them brainwash us enough so that we didn't know we were supposed to be anything other than robots. UGH.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17500128753102750833 Mommy McD

    Being a "teenager" was discouraged in my house, but not completely forbidden. My church preached similarly to the beliefs you state, but my parents were much more allowing (and plus I went to public school since my mom and dad both worked). But the guilt of church made me feel like I had to take over mom duties while my mom went to work and school.My dad, I think, wanted to be more like your family. He mentioned that he wished he could arrange my marriage (among other things). But he never had my mom "under control". It was seen as a huge disgrace that my mom worked and often made more money than my dad. But because neither of my parents had much to do with me during my teenage years, I was able to be myself. By 16 I stopped believing Christianity. I treasure those years of self discovery and I would be furious if they had been denied me. I'm glad you went through it, even if it was a bit later.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10771405085138024959 Lydia

    Yeah, I don't think it's possible to stop someone from "being a teenager." You can only delay it. Self-discovery is going to happen one way or another.I'm curious though–it's true that adolescence is a recent concept but it represents something very real. How DID you deal with all those raging hormones, budding sexuality, mood swings, etc.? Is it really possible to completely subvert it all? This is a pretty personal question, so don't feel like you need to answer but I am curious. :-)

  • Final Anonymous

    Yep, much as it can make me tear my hair out in this house, that teenage time is absolutely necessary toward growth, so it will happen sooner or later.And even with all the conflict and drama, it's FUN, as a parent, to watch your child develop into his own person, to grow and mature into the adult he will be. I think you may enjoy your daughter's teenage years as much as she does. ; )

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11557037093560947882 Anne

    I'm not Libby, but I'll answer you Lydia with what my family did…any attitude or emotion, you got a spanking. (Well, for the older ones…specifically me…the younger ones, they didn't worry about it so much, they would break things and get away with a "oh, you shouldn't do that". o.O )Sexuality? I was given a book that told me about periods…and the DRAWINGS of a nude male and nude female were colored over. This book was so wonderful it made tampons sound like a roll of toilet paper. o.O

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    But I didn't necessarily mean how parents deal with the issues or what they teach kids–I meant actually experiencing all the new feelings that come with adolescence. Even if I'd had parents that denied I was a teenager and I bought in, my brain and body would still have known better. Or so I would think.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Petticoat Philosopher – "I'm curious though–it's true that adolescence is a recent concept but it represents something very real. How DID you deal with all those raging hormones, budding sexuality, mood swings, etc.?"To be perfectly honest…I somehow didn't have them. I honestly never thought about sex, never felt sexually attracted to anyone. I would make up fantasies in my head, but they involved meeting, courting, marrying, having kids, etc – and I'd make up all sorts of scenarios – but never sex in any way. I don't recall having mood swings. The only thing I remember is being angry if I felt like mom and dad didn't at least listen to my suggestions or thoughts on something, and just shut me down, but I remember feeling that anger as a child too, not just as a teenager. When I started my relationship with my boyfriend, I started to have my first sexual feelings, and, gradually, sexual thoughts. When I finally opened up to my boyfriend about my lack of sexual feeling at all growing up, he thought there was something wrong with me, and we both concluded that those thoughts and feelings had been somehow repressed. We're still working on that, but I can't help but feel that my sex life is the worse for that. Now, some of my siblings had all the teenage anger and angst and one even had suicidal thoughts and sort of emo angst or something. These siblings would try to express how they felt, and just get shut down and forced back into my parents' perfect child mold. Their feelings weren't seen as legitimate, but as aberrant. At the time, I saw those siblings' feelings and actions as aberrant too, and now I wish I'd supported them more. And honestly, since leaving and rethinking, I've been able to do some of that for those still going through their teenage years at home – validating their feelings if nothing else. That said, in my family, unlike Anne's, we weren't spanked past 11 or so, so any issues we had were dealt with by my parents in other ways. Shame was a pretty common way of dealing with it, if I recall correctly.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12117442983915295489 Jesse

    In my home, I was the "angry, rebellious child". Looking back, especially compared with what many of my friends did as teens, my rebellion was minimal and benign, however, my parents also believed that teenage behavior was entirely due to American culture. Sexuality was very confusing. I wasn't allowed to date(in their eyes, they gave me biblical courtship material and it was "my choice"–they were so proud). My family was very involved in the school of pop psychology from the late 80's/early 90's that blamed a plethora of problems on sexual molestation, and so I knew about just about every horrible and aberrant thing that could be done to another human being, but had no concept of healthy sexuality or how my body worked. This was especially confusing because I had thoughts and feelings that led me after leaving home to realize that I am bisexual.

  • http://foreverinhell.com Personal Failure

    I have noticed from other blogs that often those who grew up like you did end up spending a few years in their mid to late twenties acting extremely immaturely- for a person in their mid to late twenties. They act appropriately for the teenager they were never allowed to be.You can't skip developmental phases. You can delay them or suppress them, but at some point that person is going to have to do something with it. It is better for everyone if they do that at the appropriate time. A teenager acting like a teenager is excused and understood. A 28-year-old acting like a teenager isn't going to get that kind of understanding, and that's sad if they need it.

  • Lola

    @Libby Anne, just curious, is it possible that your lack of sexual thoughts/feelings is not just because of your upbringing, more of a natural tendency to not be super sexual? Like, is it a problem your siblings have had too, especially the ones that did have the mood swings and stuff? @Personal Failure, I've noticed that too, not just within the ex-fundie blogs, but within other families where kids were expected to behave as adults, a lot of times because of an absent adult or whatnot. Many of them left their parents and began to regress to a teenagesque state.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14775794907218052899 Amanda

    I can't imagine how difficult that would be. My mother was hyper-controlling (don't get me started — think Dobson) but even within all that, there was a good sense of age-appropriate behavior, and my parents understood that lots of this was just Stuff We'll Have to Deal With.My son (age 12) told me last night that he's an atheist. My response? "Okay." Child was shocked. He then said maybe he wasn't, but maybe he would be someday. And I told him that was just fine — that I don't have an investment on what he does or doesn't believe, I only have an investment in him becoming a good, kind person and whatever means he took to get there was just spiffy with me.My mother would have had a cow.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Aw, Amanda, you sound like a great mommy!

  • http://www.ayoungmomsmusings.blogspot.com Melissa@Permission to Live

    Carbon copy here. And my family was a lot like Anne's, we were punished for having emotions. Every time I had any opinion other than my parents I was told I was wrong, and if the discussion got emotional I was either punished or told I was PMSing and I needed to calm down and be more "logical". Everything was controlled, I feel like I am a teenager now! In my mid-twenties. It's very frustrating to have to go through that when you have kids of your own.

  • Chatterbox

    I can relate on 2 counts – i remember when i was first at university and people asking me stuff about why i didnt drink (alcohol) and was a virgin despite obviously being madly in love with my boyfriend who i had been with for over a year – and in response spouting all this stuff – christian jargon and truisms and it kinda struck me, that really, i didnt have a clue what i was talking about and was just repeating what i had been taught by my mum and church.Secondly i also had a delayed adolescence mine probably started around age 20 and lasted quite a number of years – i had a lot of catching up to do – i think of them as the golden years, absolute freedom, party party party – would love to go back and do it again! – lasted till my first son was born when i was 29 (and married!) :0) That time was very healing. I always feel more immature than people my age – even now at 35 with 3 kids – i feel like i missed out on those teenage years and am still playing catch up!I wasnt brought up with christian patriachy (my dad died when i was 6) but evangelical/fundamentalist christian with a very controlling mother – i wasnt allowed my own opinions either, was told what to wear, etc etc…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10353346026765317698 College At Thirty

    Okay, the internets ate my very well, thought-out and researched facts on this subject. Let's just say that teenaged rebellion is very well recorded in the annals of history, it's just not called teenaged rebellion. It's called growing up.

  • jose

    I'm amused by how they used the age of the word and the concept, as if being modern was a bad thing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    College At Thirty – You are absolutely right. Our modern conception of the process is new, but the growing up process itself, frequently accompanied with rebellion of some sort, isn't new. By the way, if you would like to write up your well thought-out and researched facts, I'd be interested in posting it as a guest post, as well as reading it for my own edification. I find this topic fascinating! Jose – Well yes, yes they do think that being modern is a bad thing. There is a glorification of how things used to be, and the older ways are always seen as better.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15172112981244682382 shadowspring
  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels Ophelia Benson

    Haven't even finished reading the post yet, but I just want to say – I find the idea that adults don't do angst or anger hilarious. Yes ok part of being a good adult means managing all that stuff in public…but it doesn't mean *not having* it. (I'm not a very good adult…)

  • Disillusioned ex-Homeschooler

    Libby, your experience eerily parallels mine.What makes me even sadder than those who, like me, experience the awkwardness of going through adolescent phases in their twenties, is those who stay in party line step long enough to marry and have several children, and then wake up one day and realize they've got the hard work of finding out who they are ahead of them. Then they have to do it while living with commitments they made before they came into their own as a person, and in the midst of the hard work of raising children.Not to say that this happens only to people who have been immersed in/brainwashed by CP and QF, but I think it happens disproportionately often in those circles. And there's much less room to find yourself in that situation than there is, say, if you've become a mainstream teen mom and have people around you who are more open to you becoming your own person.

  • Caravelle

    When it comes down to it, the transition from childhood to adulthood is teenagerhood.Thing is, adults don't put up with the nonsense children do, and they usually aren't expected to. They're understood to have their own minds and make their own decisions, and in return they're expected to know enough to make the responsible decision most of the time. I mean, if you have a friend over to your house you won't impose a curfew or force them to eat whatever you decide. You might decide together to follow some rules because you understand their purpose, but if for some reason those rules don't work for you at one point you can re-negociate. And if that doesn't happen, you get into an argument over it, as two adults who are disagreeing over something do.Teenagers are people who are starting to have the abilities, responsibilities and independence of adults but are still expected to follow childhood rules. Of course there are going to be frictions, and the more the two conflict the more friction there will be.Parents who decide not to "do" teenagers by expecting children to transition from obedient child into that very rare bird, the Adult Who Agrees With You About Everything, are really inhibiting adulthood altogether. What you end up with is an overgrown child.

  • Aemi

    Thank you for clarifying that for me, Mrs. Libby Anne. It was something I kind of knew, but had not put into words. Yes. There comes a time in a child's life when he must decide what he himself believes, and who he is as a person. As an older teenager, I am still going through that process.

  • Anonymous

    Your blog is very interesting. While a lot of us probably haven't quite gone through what you've been through, I think one thing many can relate to – is that being a teenager is being treated like a child, but expected to act like an adult. Essentially, all the restrictions of both – without any of the benefits.I've been through various foster homes, growing up – but some of them were Fundamentalist Christians. I was always the "bad kid", and I never managed to fit in – because I didn't grow up with them. I also had my own thoughts and ideas from elsewhere.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11944182376387560776 Andrea

    Major flashback! My parents said the same thing! I remember that they never even let me identify myself as a teenager. Was that an ATI teaching or from the QF movement? I forgot the entire teaching until you jogged my memory!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Andrea – I'm actually really not sure where that teaching came from. My parents never officially did ATI, though the more I've learned about ATI the more I realize some of their teachings DID filter through to us (umbrella of authority, anyone?). Maybe some early speaker (Gregg Harris or something?) was going around to homeschool conferences teaching it? It was pretty widespread among the homeschoolers I grew up around.