1904 | Massachusetts

Coming to Maturity

G. Stanley Hall charts the birth of the teenager.

Adolescence is a new birth, for the higher and more completely human traits are now born. The annual rate of growth in height, weight, and strength is increased and often doubled, and even more. Important functions previously nonexistent arise.

Some linger long in the childish stage and advance late or slowly, while others push on with a sudden outburst of impulsion to early maturity. Bones and muscles lead all other tissues, as if they vied with each other, and there is frequent flabbiness or tension as one or the other leads. Nature arms youth for conflict with all the resources at her command—speed, power of shoulder, biceps, back, leg, jaw—strengthens and enlarges skull, thorax, hips, makes man aggressive, and prepares woman’s frame for maternity. The momentum of heredity often seems insufficient to enable the child to achieve this great revolution and come to complete maturity, so that every step of the upward way is strewn with wreckage of body, mind, and morals. There is not only arrest but perversion at every stage, and hoodlumism, juvenile crime, and secret vice seem not only increasing, but develop in earlier years in every civilized land. Modern life is hard, and in many respects increasingly so, on youth. Home, school, church, fail to recognize its nature and needs and, perhaps most of all, its perils. The cohesions between the elements of personality are loosened by the disparities of both somatic and psychic development, and if there is arrest at any stage or in any part before the higher unity is achieved, there is almost sure to be degeneration and reunion on a lower level than before.

Color photograph of two young girls holding a key up to a locked door.

Outside the Forbidden Bedroom, from the series Sparrow Lane, by Holly Andres, 2008. Chromogenic dye coupler print. © Holly Andres, courtesy of Robert Mann Gallery, New York.

The functions of every sense undergo reconstruction, and their relations to other psychic functions change, and new sensations, some of them very intense, arise, and new associations in the sense sphere are formed. The voice changes, vascular instability, blushing, and flushing are increased. Sex asserts its mastery in field after field, and works its havoc in the form of secret vice, debauch, disease, and enfeebled heredity, cadences the soul to both its normal and abnormal rhythms, and sends many thousand youth a year to quacks, because neither parents, teachers, preachers, nor physicians know how to deal with its problems. Thus the foundations of domestic, social, and religious life are oftenest undermined. Between religion and love, God and nature have wrought an indissoluble bond so that neither can attain normality without that of the other. Secondary sexual qualities are shown to have an ever-widening range, and parenthood to mean more with every upward step of development. The youth craves more knowledge of body and mind, which can help against besetting temptations, aid in the choice of a profession, and if his intellect is normal he does not vex his soul overmuch about the logical character of the universe or the ultimate sanction of either truth or virtue. He is more objective than subjective, and only if his lust to know nature and life is starved does his mind trouble him by ingrowing. There are new repulsions felt toward home and school, and truancy and runaways abound. The social instincts undergo sudden unfoldment, and the new life of love awakens. It is the age of sentiment and of religion, of rapid fluctuation of mood, and the world seems strange and new. Interest in adult life and in vocations develops. Youth awakes to a new world and understands neither it nor himself. The whole future of life depends on how the new powers now given suddenly and in profusion are husbanded and directed. Character and personality are taking form, but everything is plastic. Self-feeling and ambition are increased, and every trait and faculty is liable to exaggeration and excess. It is all a marvelous new birth, and those who believe that nothing is so worthy of love, reverence, and service as the body and soul of youth, may well review themselves and the civilization in which we live to see how far it satisfies this supreme test.

Black and white photograph of psychologist G. Stanley Hall.

G. Stanley Hall

From Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion. Studying under William James at Harvard University in the 1870s and receiving from the school the first PhD in psychology awarded in the U.S., Hall became the National Education Association’s first president of the child-study department in 1894. While serving as the president of Clark University in 1909, he invited Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to deliver lectures at the school’s twentieth anniversary and gave both men honorary degrees.