For those of you who don’t know, I have had the honor of volunteering with Wake, Watermark’s junior high ministry for 6 years. For the last 2 years, I have been blessed to co-lead a group of seven 7th graders as they journey through life. Though middle school is often known as the worst years of your life, it has always been my favorite age of students to love on. Through the past 6 years, these ‘kiddos’ have taught me a ton about myself and about relating with others and I thought I’d share them with you.
- Treat teens and tweens with respect, but don’t treat them like adults.
This is a crazy age for anyone. Your hormones are raging, you are on the cusp of puberty, and you have the strong desire to be independent. Unfortunately, you are not the brightest crayon in the box. You’ve still got a ton to learn about life and you need direction. I think culture misunderstands this age group by either treating them like babies or treating them like 30 year olds. They are neither. They crave respect, to be valued for their opinion, and are fighting to be seen as a person. One thing I have learned is to treat junior highers with respect. Don’t baby them and encourage them to cultivate their own ideas. But I still treat my girls with caution, making sure the topics we discuss are appropriate for their age group and that they don’t go over their heads. You can talk with 7th graders about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll in a PG way. Don’t shelter them, throwing them into the lion’s den without any clue. But don’t overwhelm their minds with things we adults have issues processing. We have the responsibility to train up children in the way they should go, but we can do that without filling their minds with perverted images or by telling them it’s o.k. to experiment with what the world has to offer. Discretion is key.
- Encourage students to make their own decisions.
I am a control freak, so the hardest thing for me to do as a leader (or in life) is hold my tongue. There are so many situations when one of my girls will ask me a question and the first thing I want to do is tell them, “no, you’re wrong”. I have had to train myself to go straight to scripture, using God’s authority and not my own to steer them down the right path. If I tell my girls the right answers and leave it at that, they will never feel confident in their own decisions. They also will never know WHY something is wrong or something is right. This is such a vital age where children are figuring out why they believe and what they believe and have the opportunity to really make their faith their own. It’s scary letting them use their own judgement and it’s scary to hear they made a bad decision. However, if a child learns to do this at a young age, they will be better equipped to face an array of challenges in high school, college, and life in general.
- There is power in listening.
Sometimes, you just need to shut your trap and listen. Isn’t that true for all of us though, not just middle schoolers? We all have the innate desire to be known; to be known and to be loved for who we are. The best way to create that ‘safe place’, is listening. Middle schoolers are going through a lot more than we often give them credit for. This is the prime age for body image issues, eating disorders, bullying, depression, perfectionism.. the list goes on and on. And often times these things go unnoticed or unaddressed because students don’t talk about it. Often times it’s because there is no one there to listen or it’s because the person who is ‘listening’ just won’t stop talking. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most psychological programs and ‘cures’ are based on ‘talking therapy’. There is power is sharing and allowing someone else into the world inside your head.
- Be a friend but with authority.
No matter how old you are, everyone wants to be liked. I can understand why some parents would rather be their child’s friend than their authority figure. When I started leading my girls, I had the same insecure thoughts. “I want them to like me”, “I want them to admire me”, etc. I found out quickly that the ‘cool leader’ in our eyes is the leader that can’t control the group. I found that when I was strict AND loving, I gained something better than being liked. I gained respect. Discipline is necessary, though it sucks giving it. But when given in the child’s best interest, it works out better for all involved in the long run.
- Your students shouldn’t think you’re perfect.If your students think you are perfect, then we have a problem. No one likes sharing their issues with someone who appears perfect and has their life together. It’s intimidating. You aren’t perfect and it won’t hurt your role as a leader by sharing that. It will only help. Now, obliviously use discretion with what you share based on the age group you’re sharing with, but all in all, sharing creates a safe and secure environment where students feel they can be themselves. Also, when you have wronged them, ask for forgiveness. Sometimes we can get too frustrated and let our anger slip away from us. Don’t ignore the elephant in the room. You shouldn’t be pointing to yourself as an example of who and what to be, you should be pointing toward Christ for He is the strength in our weakness.
- Don’t fake it till you make it.
If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t make one up. I have caught myself multiple times wanting to make up some elaborate, slightly based on scripture, answer. But in the end, that only leads to confusion and loss of trust in you. It is o.k. to admit you don’t know. Heck, there are some questions my girls have asked me that a PhD in theology wouldn’t know (ask me sometime). There are two good ways to handle this situation: (1) Admit you don’t know and tell them you will research it and get back to them… and actually do it. or (2) Research it together. On many an occasion, I have pulled out my phone and looked up something on gotquestions.org in the middle of small group and read it right off the page. I think the biggest issue in this one is pride. I hate admitting I don’t know something, especially when my 7th graders asked the question. It is o.k. to not know. But it’s not o.k. to leave it at that.