In her book, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, Sharon Daloz Parks illustrates the differing developmental needs of different age groups using a chart like the one recreated below:
Down the left hand column are listed the age cohorts she defines as significant: Children, Adolescents, Young Adults, Tested Adults, and Mature Adults. Across the top are three categories. The first is “Knowledge” indicating the way the age group understands the world and is able to intellectually process external input. This is the logic they use. The second category is “Feeling or Affect” indicating the way the age group responds emotionally and behaviorally to the outside world. This is often how they appear to those who know them. The third category, “Community” represents the type of environment that the age cohort seeks and to which it best responds. Parks suggests that the presence of these communities plays a critical role in helping the age cohort move effectively to the next developmental stage.
The book discusses the stages and their various components in a much more thorough manner (with plenty of research studies to reference) than we will here. She writes as one interested in the young adults in particular, focusing on the transitions both leading into and leading out of Young Adulthood, however her description of all generations and their various needs can be incredibly helpful to anyone working in an intergenerational context.
Over the coming weeks we will briefly introduce all three columns, however we strongly recommend the book if you have the time. Regardless, today we begin with an introduction to Parks’ models of the logic for the generations:
Children: Authority Bound/Dualistic
As children our understanding of the world is incredibly authority bound, we believe what we are told and are confused by subtlety. We believe the world to operate in a predictable and (hopefully) healthy manner.
Adolescents: Unqualified Relativism
But when we’re ready and sometimes when we’re not, something breaks that illusion and because we are still children in a way, a challenge in one place delegitimizes everything else. In this period of adolescence we realize it is all up for grabs and are largely unable to evaluate the legitimacy of various external sources in our lives. So we listen as much to our friends as we do our teachers as we do the music we listen to as we do the television we watch as we do our parents (well, maybe our parents a little less).
Young Adults: Probing Commitment
But slowly we come to understand that this “unqualified relativism” does not provide a foundation on which to build a life. So we begin to probe the input around us for values and ideas worth trusting. We experiment by trying on various ideas and ways of being within ourselves, slowly discerning what fits and what doesn’t.
Tested Adults: Tested Commitment
Eventually we find places we feel comfortable standing and commit to a systemically consistent set of ideas against which we test all that comes at us. We limit the amount of input coming at us and the sources we receive it from for efficiency’s sake and for our own comfort. Many people stop here, often as result of overstimulation and limited energy.
Mature Adult: Convictional Commitment
But some are able to push through to still another level of adulthood where we re-open ourselves to all manner of ideas and ways of being. Having established a sense of self, indpendent of “complete” understandings and closed systems, we begin to explore and open ourselves to the paradoxes all around us.
As we engage multiple generations in Christian Formation, how does the information we share, the insight we unlock, the scripture we read fall on the ears of the listener? Is it law as a child might understand it? Is it dismissed out right by teenage ears unless there exists deep relationship? Is it infinitely possible but also infinitely impossible as young adults make their lives? Do we have to navigate the structures and politics of tested adults in order to make an impact? Or is it wondrous and yet only limitedly consequential in the ears of a mature adult?
We invite your thoughts and responses. Are there other models you would like to share with the broader Life-long Christian Formation Community? Please email us or respond below.