middle school culture, part 3

i have a new book releasing in december for parents, called Understanding Your Young Teen: Practical Wisdom for Parents. the book is a significant rewrite of some of my chapters from the book scott rubin and i co-authored a couple years ago, called Middle School Ministry. In this series, i’m excerpting portions of one of the chapters, called “White-Hot Temporary (Early Adolescent Culture)”.

my first post in this series covered a culture of information, and a culture of immediacy. the second post in the series included a disposable culture, and a culture of consumerism.


An Intense but Temporary Culture
In the chapter on middle school relational change (chapter 6), I wrote that young teen girl friendships are often surprisingly intense yet also tend to be short-lived. To some degree this is also true of middle school culture in general.

Some of this is developmental. In their effort to sample and discover, young teens often immerse themselves into their interests, affinity groups, or value systems. They try these on as if they’re the last ones they’ll ever try on, as if they’re going to give their lives to this new direction.

My daughter, Liesl, who’s now 16, has always been an all-or-nothing kid–and this was especially true during her young teen years. When she was into art (taking art classes and such), she was convinced she’d spend the rest of her life doing it. When she decided she wanted to be a skateboarder, she adopted everything of that subculture (including music, clothing, and many other seemingly unrelated variables) in a “this is who I am” manner. Liesl has gone through a dozen or more identity makeovers, and has only in the last year or so started to settle into some less-temporary identity wrappings.

We adults tend to either try things on more tentatively or immerse ourselves in things we will stick with for a long time. Not so, usually, with young teens. I titled this chapter “White-Hot Temporary” for this reason: Young teens give themselves wholeheartedly to the interest, relationship, choice, value system, or belief that’s in their faces, but they also easily discard it for the next sampling exercise. This is a cultural issue, in addition to being a developmental issue, because it’s what they observe all around them in other young teens.
It’s considered normal.

We adults might ask, “Why don’t you ever stick with anything long enough to really know if it’s you?” But their peers sure aren’t saying that to them.

A Networked Culture
Obviously, this is a huge shift in young teen culture. The fact that most young teens (sure, not all of them) have cell phones that instantly connect them with parents and friends is a whole new world of instant, networked connectivity. Text messages, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking tools have created a middle school culture that exists in bits and bytes.

This is a fascinating shift. While relationships are as important as ever, these relationships are more dependent than ever (seriously, more than ever–in all of history) on the written word. Friendships are no longer primarily dependent on physical proximity, audible vocalization, and listening. Friendships and social networks of middle schoolers are more dependent on networks played out over transmitted data.

As such, the “Who’s in your network?” question of identity and affinity is more than a cell phone company marketing tag. Most young teens consider online and text communications to be both the foundations and the buttresses of their relational cathedrals.

A quick example: My daughter has a formerly very close friend who lives only about a mile away from us, but no longer attends her school. He has a cell phone, but it’s almost always out of minutes (since he has a very limited prepaid plan). So she can rarely reach him by cell phone or text message. He doesn’t use Facebook (which Liesl does). So even though he lives in reasonable proximity to Liesl, she’s finding she has no real means of sustaining the friendship. She has other friends who no longer attend the same school she does, but she still considers them to be very close friends because they constantly–daily–connect via text
messaging and Facebook (and the occasional phone call).


up next, in the last post in this series: a driven yet sedentary culture.

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