As I stood in the middle of my youth building and looked around, I saw a buzz of activity surrounding me on all sides.
Kids were shouting, playing an uproarious game of tag, dunking basketballs, tossing volleyballs, making paper airplanes and doing cartwheels.
Then I spotted it: a few boys were wrestling in one corner of the room.
I watched as they tackled each other to the ground, rolling around and laughing and wildly making faces at each other.
As I stood there, bemused, I had an internal debate with myself. One half of me argued that the kids needed to blow off some steam—and they were all doing so at that very moment, and having fun safely. The other half of me wondered if they had crossed the line—were they too rambunctious? Was I being too easygoing, as their teacher? Should I assert myself as a strict disciplinarian and regain control?
In the years I’ve worked with youth—and especially middle schoolers—I’ve discovered that this debate is not a one-time occurrence. The question we tackle on a daily basis as youth leaders is this: just how much should we let kids get away with?
I suspect that, frankly, every youth leader seriously wrestles with this. And each one of us probably has a different take on it.
On one hand, kids need a firm hand, clear structure and consequences for bad behavior. Without boundaries, civilization goes haywire. The same goes for any collection of individuals anywhere, especially when it comes to children. Think about it—would students show up to class on time with completed homework if they didn’t have someone enforcing a little necessary authority in their lives? Definitely not!
In the same manner, your youth won’t get much out of your time together if you let them get away with murder. And even if they don’t actually break that ol’ Fifth Commandment, enough disruption can derail your entire lesson or activity…even if no blood has been shed.
Of course, on the other hand, the old cliché is true: kids need to be kids. We’re dealing with youth at a unique time in their lives, as they are teetering between childhood and adulthood. With changing bodies, voices, identities, interests and abilities, it’s an overwhelming time for young teens. Sometimes the best thing we can do is let them unwind in a safe and healthy manner—even when it seems like pure unnecessary chaos to our adult minds
I went straight to the source of expertise on this issue, asking a bunch of eighth grade students at my church for their opinions. Several of them admitted that they intentionally buck against a leader who’s too strict, confessing to me, “I purposely try to get under a teacher’s skin if I don’t like him,” and, “if no students like you, they will purposely try to make you react to things.”
The youth I talked to were unanimous in their answers, all agreeing that an effective leader is one who isn’t too harsh but knows when to get down to business. As one girl wisely put it, “I don’t respect a teacher who is too strict, and I also don’t respect one who lets us do whatever we want. What I respect most is someone who lets us have fun without allowing us to go crazy.”
On the other hand, as one of my youth stated bluntly, “If you hate having fun, can’t stand kids and have no patience, why are you even a teacher at all?”
That fine line exists between letting kids enjoy themselves and making them apply themselves. Between feeling comfortable and being challenged. Between fun and danger. It’s a very real thing.
So the question remains: just how much do you let kids get away with?
Let’s be practical about it, as youth leaders. Developmentally, for middle school students, it’s realistic to expect a student to focus hard for a solid fifteen minutes. That means switching up your teaching style—using discussion, movie clips, physical activities, music and visual aids to maximize their attention spans.
One helpful tactic I’ve often employed has been to actually tell kids how long I need them to focus. For instance, if we have ten minutes left of a Bible study, I’ll share this with them and encourage them that there is indeed an end in sight. This helps break up the mental monotony for them, and gives them hope that a change of pace that’s on the horizon.
Middle schoolers will continually vacillate between focused energy and laid-back relaxation, and that’s something we need to keep in mind as we work with them. Don’t worry when your students are keenly enraptured with something, and a few minutes later are totally distracted by someone’s colorful shoelaces—it’s normal for this age.
What does that mean for us? It means we can ease up, as their leaders. We can let teens goof around a bit, when the time is right. And guess what? Our youth will appreciate us all the more if we’re not strict all the time.
Students agree wholeheartedly, saying that they are more likely to trust adults who aren’t always stern with them. As one eighth grader told me, “I’m way more likely to go to a leader with an issue going on in my life when they’re more relaxed. I like to know I can talk honestly to them without them freaking out.”
Of course, when kids’ behavior crosses the line into bullying, teasing, endangering others or making others uncomfortable, then the appropriate actions need to be taken. That has crossed a line. As one of my students pointed out, “When you can’t teach us anything anymore, that’s when you probably need to step in and take control of us.
As a youth leader, you’ll probably face this question of how far is too far every single time you deal with kids. But don’t worry, it’s what we’re all dealing with together. There’s no magical one-size-fits-all answer to this issue, since it changes with every group and every situation you encounter.
When in doubt, here’s another way to think about it: how would Jesus treat our youth group if He were in charge?
Somehow, I can’t picture Jesus with a continually stern face, yelling at kids to sit down and study their Bibles silently for hours on end. I can’t envision the same Savior who said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28), talking to teenagers with a constantly angry authority in His tone, reprimanding them for having fun with each other.
Thankfully, there’s great news for all of us as Christians. We’re continually redeemed from our mistakes by our loving Savior—even when those mistakes include screwing up, ineffectively managing kids, letting youth groups spiral out of control, being too harsh and strict, and missing opportunities to positively influence.
You can’t get it right all of the time. But that’s why you, too, need forgiveness. And that’s precisely the gift we all receive in Christ Jesus.
And guess what? That’s a message that even the rowdiest wrestler or goofiest troublemaker needs to hear over and over again.