The voices in the hall grew louder and louder as the conversation became more heated. Sitting in the living room, Dad thought, Oh no. Here we go again!
Finally, Suzie said, “Mom, you don’t understand! You just don’t understand! Nobody understands!”
Dad heard the door slam, and he knew that the discussion between parent and teenager was over.
Left standing in the hall, Mom thought, That’s just a cop-out.
But Suzie was right. Mom did not understand. Neither did Dad.
Suzie’s teachers and minister did not understand either. Of course, Suzie herself did not understand. Hardly anyone in our culture understands adolescence.
If he would pull the dictionary from the bookcase, Dad would read that an adolescent is “a boy or girl from puberty to adulthood.” He might think, There’s the problem. Even though she looks like a woman, she’s still a girl.
Would Dad understand then? No! Unfortunately, even the dictionary would add to his confusion. Do you understand? Probably not. This scene could play in any one of thousands of homes, perhaps in yours. Even if you have checked the dictionary, you probably do not understand. Much has changed during the last century or two. The dictionary tells you the current meaning of adolescence, but it does not tell you the rest of the story. Since the definition includes puberty and adulthood, you need to know more about both.
What and When Is Puberty?
Today we think of puberty as the time when people are first able to have children. The dictionary tells us that, but it also tells us that the word puberty comes from a Latin word meaning “adult.” That is, among the Romans and throughout history, puberty was the beginning of adulthood itself, not the beginning of a stage between childhood and adulthood.
Not only has the meaning of puberty changed, but so has its age. Men may not always realize when they start producing sperm, but women can hardly help noticing their first menstrual period, which is closely related to when they start producing eggs. Although writers have mentioned the beginning of menstruation for more than 2000 years, scientists have studied it carefully only during the last 200 years. They have found that puberty now occurs much earlier than it did a century or two ago.
Before 1850 the average woman first menstruated at about sixteen years of age. Dr. Grace Wyshak and Dr. Rose Frisch at the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Center for Population Studies reviewed more than 200 studies including more than 200,000 women between 1795 and 1981 (“Evidence for a Secular Trend in Age of Menarche,” The New England Journal of Medicine, April 29, 1982, pp. 1033-1035). Not a single one of the sixty-five studies done before 1880 found an average age below fourteen and a half. Many were seventeen or more. By 1950 however, the average was down to about twelve and a half or thirteen.
Puberty in men is not as obvious and has not been studied as much. However, when Bach was choirmaster at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig more than 200 years ago, boys often sang soprano until they were seventeen. Tenors and basses were men whose voices had already changed. Altos were those whose voices were changing. In 1744, Bach had ten altos, the youngest was fifteen and the oldest nineteen. Men’s voices changed at about seventeen years of age then, but at about thirteen or fourteen now (J.M. Tanner, A History of the Study of Human Growth, Cambridge University Press). This change takes place at about the age of puberty.
All of this means that people today experience puberty about three or four years earlier than they did only a century or two ago. Figure 1 shows how this change has taken place. The decrease in age during the last two hundred years is a summary of more than two hundred studies. The stable age before that is an estimate