Young Teens and Exploration

the explorer archetype, commonly found in history texts
Have you ever noticed how young teens want to try everything? Sure, some are shy, and won’t try something that exposes them too much. And young teens approaching the middle teen years (like, 8th graders) sometimes get less and less willing to try new things. But most young teens are game for anything. If they’re into sports, it’s usually not just one sport – they try two or three or four. Ask for a volunteer for a crowdbreaker, and there are hands all over the room (very different than a room full of high school students).

Have you ever stopped to think about the reasons for this? Or even more important, have you ever stopped to think about the implications of this?

Years ago, a psychologist named Stephen Glenn suggested a helpful little developmental chart. He said that babies, birth to four years old, are in a stage of exploration – they want to sample everything. Little kids, roughly five years old to eight years old, move into a big-time stage of testing. They’re unknowingly trying to learn the boundaries and “rules” of their world, and test everything. Pre-teens, about nine years old to eleven years old, move into a stage of concluding. Ask any ten year-old a question about the world, and, if they understand the question (and often, even if they don’t understand the question), they’ll have a fairly confident explanation of how things work.

Then, along comes puberty, and wipes the slate clean again. All the conclusions of the pre-teen years are either wiped out or ripe for destruction. And the whole cycle repeats itself again.

Eleven to about thirteen years old become years of exploration again. Roughly fourteen through seventeen year-olds slip into testing once again. And the years beyond eighteen slip on to years of concluding.

A side note: when Glenn proposed this (with slight variations in the ages), adolescence was commonly understood as a five or six year process, from about 12 or 13, to about 18. But developmental psychologists and youth workers alike have now realized that adolescence has extended to an almost 20 year journey, from about 10 or 11 years old through (on average) the entire 20something years. I haven’t seen research on this, but my hunch is that a third cycle of this process has developed in the “emerging adult” years. I’d guess that about 18 – 20 are years of exploring all over again; that about 20 – 24 are about testing all over again; and past that become a whole new season of drawing conclusions about life. This is, I believe, one of the reasons we see more similarities – developmentally – between middle school kids and college age young adults than we do between either of those groups and their high school age counterparts.

Back to young teens. They are in a massive season of exploration! They want to take in as many experiences as possible to fill up their “possibility tank”. From that “tank”, they’ll eventually start to move into the adolescent task of individuation, figuring out who they are (identity) and how they fit in (belonging) and how they’re different from others (autonomy).

This provides such a rich opportunity and responsibility for those of us who are called to do ministry with young teens! Do you see it? If we are part of providing them with a rich diet of experiencing God, of learning to connect with Jesus on their own (not only through a dependence on us), and experiencing a process of spiritual growth and formation that includes processing doubts and moving on to new beliefs, we can greatly influence the faith they’ll hold onto and live into for a lifetime!

So don’t be disheartened when your young teens try things and don’t stick with them. Don’t consider this kind of fickle temporary commitment to be a sign of immaturity. It’s actually maturity (if maturity is defined as “behavior that is appropriate for that particular age”). And even more so, it’s a red carpet of invitation from your young teens to engage them in spiritual practices and experiences that could become part of who they are for the rest of their lives! Wow. What an honor. What a privilege!

(btw: if you want to hang out with a tribe of people who ‘get’ this–and love this–check out the middle school ministry campference!)

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