Do We Infantilize Teenagers When We Call Them "Kids"?

Kara Powell | Oct 4, 2011

This past weekends Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention in San Diego had a lot of highlights for me: fantastic speakers, great seminars, fascinating conversations over meals and in the hotel hallways.

One of the more provocative statements for me was Dr. Robert Epsteins encouragement at a Big Room Session to stop calling teenagers kids. As as a scholar, teacher, and the author of Teen 2.0, Dr. Epstein is deeply concerned about how our culture minimizes the competencies and responsibilities for teenagers. He asked the 2,000 leaders gathered in San Diego to come up with a different phrase for teenagers than kids. He said something to the effect of (my paraphrase): Kids are goats before they hit puberty. After goats hit puberty, we dont call them kids anymore; we call them goats. We need to stop calling humans who have hit puberty the term that is equated with the pre-pubescent form of a goat.

Ive been calling teenagers kids for a while. Why? Because they told me to.

In the mid-1990s as I was doing youth ministry, I avoided the term kids. I thought it was too young of a term for a teenager, so I called them students. Then I asked them which term they preferred and they actually wanted me to call them kids. They thought students sounded too school-ish.

So for about 15 years, Ive been calling young people kids.

But Robert Epstein has me wondering. And in the 72 hours since I heard his presentation, Ive found myself avoiding the term kids, and even correcting myself when I use it.

What do you think? What do your students think? Im going to ask some of the students in our youth ministry about this this week.

These are exactly the sorts of questions well be looking at during the Extended Adolescence Symposium in Atlanta hosted by the Youth Cartel on November 21, 2011. Dr. Epstein will be there, as will Dr. Jeffrey Arnett, the well-known scholar who coined the term “emerging adult”. Together, well be looking at the extension of adolescence, and whether or not its inevitable, as well as whether or not its helpful or hurtful in our families and churches. Ill be moderating what is sure to be a provocative discussion (especially given that Dr. Epstein and Dr. Arnett dont see eye to eye on certain issues) and would love to have you join us. The Symposium is right after the next National Youth Workers Convention so you can do both with only one plane ticket.

Thanks for all you do for kids/young people/teenagers/students!

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.

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