The heartache. The goofiness. The drama. The agony. The uncontrollable joy.
You must be working with teenagers.
As I often tell my junior high students, “There’s a reason no adult ever says they would love to go back to middle school.”
Middle schoolers, as we know, are experiencing roller coasters of emotional, physical, social and spiritual development. It’s a complicated time, and a life stage that makes many adults queasy as they recall their own childhood experiences.
In an attempt to understand our young teenagers anew–and especially those who are gearing up to enter middle school–I recently sat down with a group of fourth graders and asked them to share candidly what was on their minds. What I discovered was fascinating.
Our kids have a lot to say, if we’ll just take the time to listen.
And when I asked these nine-, ten- and eleven-year-olds to share what they actually want to say to adults, I took careful notes.
Universally, the main frustration I heard from all the incoming middle schoolers was that they wish adults understood them more. They’re at their wits’ end, feeling like adults overlook them and almost always treat them “like little kids,” even though they’re maturing quickly into young adults. As one student put it, “Don’t treat me like I’m in kindergarten. I’m much older now.”
Our kids are begging us to make an attempt to understand what it’s like to be their age. To walk in their shoes. To deal with their daily frustrations and temptations and hurts.
And trust me, they don’t expect adults to be able to understand it all. They just want us to make an attempt to listen to them.
Our youth are facing an unprecedented childhood—unbelievable exposure to technology and a big world of information is shaping them at an accelerated rate, yet that can’t change the steady (and not yet completed!) process of physical and mental development that every individual goes through.
Need me to break that down? Basically, our kids are being exposed to a very fast-paced, adult-like world while still retaining their growing brains and gangly bodies. That’s a difficult tension to balance for a student.
Unsurprisingly, every single youth I talked to had his or her own cell phone, laptop or electronic tablet—and many had all three. And believe me, they’re beyond tech-savvy. Most ten- and eleven-year-olds could probably teach adult-level computer courses. As one student told me, “I can do a lot of things that adults can do—especially technology-wise!”
The flip side, of course, is that they often don’t understand how to separate reality from online. They lack the understanding of what to say, when to say things and how to treat each other. Instead of watching a peer flinch when they say something hurtful to their face, they throw their nasty words out online and fail to see how it affects others. This is leading to stunted social development, and our kids are struggling much more than older generations at how to navigate face-to-face conversations and social situations.
Don’t believe me? Try to recall one time in the last week that a youth under the age of fifteen had a conversation with you without showing you something on their phone, iPad, or on YouTube.
I can’t. Can you?
Our incoming middle schoolers are caught in between two very different stages in their lives. They’re just starting to bridge that gap between laughing at flatulence jokes and not being able to keep a straight face or pray seriously, and wanting to discuss adult issues like deep-seated fear of failure and questions about faith, sex and the world around them.
These students wish they could tell adults that they just want to be heard. They want to have adults really listen to them, and at least try to understand them.
Another common theme I heard from these incoming middle school students was that they feel wrongly stereotyped. As one student told me, “Adults don’t know what we’re thinking, they yell at us and think we are thinking about bad things even when we’re thinking about good things.”
Other students echoed that same frustration, saying, “Please don’t stereotype us. We do enjoy doing things that other people don’t like to do—we’re not just bad all the time!” One student chipped in, sharing the example that he really likes to read—and that that’s against the teenage stereotype by itself.
These tweens want adults to know that they care. Over and over, they kept telling me how they do desire to please their parents and teachers, and how they want to be well-adjusted, high-functioning adults someday. In the words of one student, “We can become something successful without making bad decisions. We do care.”
It’s a challenging stage for these tweens, who deeply desire their own privacy and the ability to make their own decisions, but don’t yet have the maturity, life experience or developed brains to be able to handle these things they want.
As one student confided, “Adults aren’t the boss of us. They’re not us. Just let me make my own decisions and live life the way I want to.” Other students agreed, one saying, “We should be able to make our own choices, we are mature!” while another chimed in, “We’re going to replace our parents someday, come on!”
Of course, the very fact that our young teenagers are so confident in their ability to make their own choices shows how much more they need trustworthy, caring adults to continue shaping their lives…and we are in a position both to be those caring adults and point them to other caring adults (like their pastor and other leaders in the church). We must instruct them truthfully and carefully, to be intentional about connecting them to God’s Word and the means of grace. Then let them teeter out to stretch their wings, inch by inch—while still cheering for them and keeping the nest warm for them to return to.
We do well to share the message that confidence is a great trait, but overconfidence is foolish. As Proverbs 29:23 reminds us, “Pride brings a person low, but the lowly in spirit gain honor.”
It’s our duty to continue to share the importance of humility and the assurance of our true identity in Christ with our youth, over and over–which means it is something we do well to live out every day of our lives, too.
As the adults who encounter these incoming middle school students, we should seek to be a light in the murky darkness of their troubled and confusing lives. We need to hold steady, shining the love of Christ against a world that beckons them to turn away to turbulent tides.
It’s imperative that we keep an open dialogue with our youth. We need to ask questions and listen to them, even when they respond with idiotic statements and ridiculous comments.
Within even these silly words, our teens are learning how to trust us and safely share what is really on their minds with us.
Most importantly, as we listen to all the things that our youth really want to say to us, we simply need to respond with one message: the message that shares how dearly loved and redeemed they are by our Savior, Jesus Christ.