Tag Archives: understanding your young teen

middle school culture, part 1

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)”.


A Culture of Information
We all live in a culture of information. So, in a sense, this isn’t unique to young teens. What is unique is that this reality is shaping them significantly during their early adolescent development and in ways that weren’t true prior to the last decade. What’s also unique is that today’s young teens have always lived in a culture of information.

Almost every bit of information needed (as well as excessive quantities of information that are not wanted or needed) is available with the click of a mouse and in ways that shape our worldviews. This is both about access to information and the onslaught of information. The access of information shapes middle schoolers’ culture of immediacy, their sense of entitlement, and their work ethic. On the other hand, the onslaught of information has a numbing effect. Since everything middle schoolers need to know is readily available and since they’re constantly bombarded with suggestions and data of every sort, they’re less attentive to the stuff that passes by.

A Culture of Immediacy
Think for a minute about the things you had to wait for as a middle schooler that today’s middle schoolers don’t. They can take a picture on their cameras or cell phones and see the results instantly. They hear a song on the radio, and they can instantly download it to their computers or cell phones. Want to buy something? They can jump online in seconds, browse a customized and instantly generated list of sites, get others’ input about an item via user comments, and then, if they want the item, make an instant purchase and wait a day or two at most for the item to arrive. If you’ve ever been “stuck” somewhere without your cell phone and tried to find a pay phone to make a call, then you’ve been reminded of this shift.

Sure, you and I also have access to all this immediacy. But most of us didn’t grow up with this being normative. Today’s young teens have never known a world without instant everything. Doesn’t it strike you as funny that their idea of “old time hominess” includes making bread in a computer-enabled machine that does all the work?

Here’s a great example of this shift: For us adults, email communication changed everything. We were able to send and receive written communication without writing it by hand and going through the “hassle” of using the postal system. Written communication became almost instantaneous. But no one predicted that teenagers would dispose of email as being too slow and clunky and then opt for the intensely more immediate communication pathway of text messaging. We adults saw text messaging as a utilitarian means of quick planning. Teenagers turned it into a social phenomenon.

Middle schoolers don’t have a willingness (or perhaps even the capacity) to wait for anything. Our culture has trained them to expect everything instantly. Patience is a rough one; “delayed gratification” is a foreign concept; and slowness can have a deeply profound impact on them, since it’s something they simply don’t experience in their everyday lives.


still to come: A Disposable Culture, A Culture of Consumerism, An Intense but Temporary Culture, A Networked Culture, and A Driven yet Sedentary Culture

the 12 year-old loser

heard a story and a comment some time ago that got me thinking a handful of random thoughts. first the (true) story:

a 12 year-old 7th grade kid and his parents sat in the office of a youth worker. the parents were agitated; the kid was in tears. he had, once again, gotten in trouble at his private school. it wasn’t for big things. he got in trouble for little things, like day-dreaming. in fact, the kid seemed to have that 12 year-old boy personality that is — to be honest — annoying, but common: distracted, not fully present. you know, the kid who hears a long list of important instructions, then simply asks, “what?”

well, he had done something a bit more serious this time. not serious by public school standards; but apparently more serious by this private school’s standards. he’d called the teacher — the one who seemed to have it in for him and was always sending him to the principal’s office — a bitch. he didn’t call her that to her face. he wrote it on a note that got intercepted. now the teacher was demanding the boy be expelled from the school.

here’s where the story gets interesting. the kid seemed to have genuine regret about what he’d done. the youth worker told me it didn’t seem like he was only sorry he got caught — he seemed to genuinely be experiencing remorse over writing that in a note in the first place. but when the teacher, student, parents and principal all met to consider whether or not he should be expelled, the teacher’s primary case was not the bitch note. her primary case, voiced through seething rage, was that “he is a loser. he always will be a loser.”

the youth worker told me this story just after she’d met with the parents and kid. and her comment really caught my attention. she said:

“there’s no such thing as a 12 year-old loser – they don’t exist.”

i’ve been ruminating on this for a few months, and i have a collection of partially formed thoughts:

1. i love, love, love the heart of a youth worker for whom that comment is her first response. really, that comment alone revealed more to me about the character of that youth worker than anything else in the few days i’ve spent consulting with her church.

2. i don’t think my heart is as pure as that youth worker. i have worked with 12 year-olds for about 30 years, and i love them. i’m called to them. i sincerely hope i’ll have some kind of regular connection with 12 year-olds 30 years from now (well, that would put me at 77, so maybe i should say 20 years from now!). but if i’m really honest, the reason her comment so caught my attention is because i’ve totally thought (this is hard to admit) that some 12 year-olds were losers. i might not have been as volatile as that teacher who clearly needs to retire; i might not have ever screamed it in the presence of a kids’ parents; but i’m quite sure i’ve thought it. so, an interesting thing happened when the youth worker made her off-handed comment to me: i felt convicted. that’s why it’s stuck with me. my own deficiency was revealed, even if only to me (and now, to you!).

3. in addition to the heart of a youth worker, and the hope of a youth worker, i like the developmental accuracy of the youth worker’s statement. i was thinking of this again last week (which is what brought me to write this post, finally), as i was writing “understanding your young teen” for parents (a book that will come out way too long from now). a 12 year-old isn’t a clean slate, to be sure. but being 12 implies, almost, a do-over. puberty, that fascinating god-designed…
change expeditor
conviction softener
worldview warper
possibility awakener
doubt provoker
identity reflector
…means that anything, almost, is possible. and if i’ve seen anything in 30 years of working with young teens, it surely includes the reality that a 12 year-old making “loser choices” might not, even remotely, being an adult who makes loser choices. and the most go-getter non-loser 12 year-old, might, just as easily, end up making a lifetime of self-destructive, lazy, or otherwise stupid choices.

now, the wording might be harsh, unfair, un-grace-filled, and never to be used: but by 16 or 17, it’s often more obvious what kind of choices a teenager will make for the rest of his or her life. in other words: if the youth worker had said, “there’s no such thing as a 17 year-old loser – they don’t exist”, i doubt i’d still be thinking about it. i’d merely have chalked it up to her generally sweet, rosey perspective of teenagers.

but, yeah, the 12 year-old loser — that’s a mythical creature.