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.

7 thoughts on “the 12 year-old loser”

  1. I will even be more rosy eyed than that. I may have agreed even a few days back, but having just served a day at Unison Gospel Mission in Fort Worth, and having heard some of the testimony of people who lived the “loser lifestyle” for 30 or 40 years.. getting their act together.. I am not sure that there is a time limit or expiration date to when someone can wake up, come to themselves and make a prodigal son style return to grace, and a whole new set of right relationships.

  2. There certainly is no such thing as a 12-year-old loser. And I would argue there is no such thing as a 17-year-old loser, either. A kid at 12 or 17 has had very little to no control over what resources are available to his or her social development. Adolescents play out the roles that are available to them, and a kid with inadequate resources has experienced very few options from which to choose.

    One sentence that has helped me gain some perspective on the otherwise quirky to inexplicable actions of adolescents is, “It makes sense to *them*.” (This has helped me deal with a lot of adults, too.) Adolescents (and adults) are trying to get their needs met–they just don’t always know the socially appropriate ways or even the basically effective ways to do so.

    I hope this school teacher and this 12-year-old kid both get some help to figure out better tools to be in relationship with each other. Wow, could the entire world benefit from doing the same!!

  3. Great story, Marko. Going to use it on Sunday in my sermon on the outcasts. This whole thing makes me think of the Five Iron Frenzy song, “Sucker-Punch.” Great song and big reason I love doing ministry.

    I don’t think we should ever think of someone as loser, no matter what their age. Yes, we all can make seriously loser-esque decisions and can take actions that perpetuate that lifestyle. We might even have made such consistently low-life, loser decisions that it makes us look like all we are is that kind of a person. But that’s not necessarily who we are, nor who we were created to be. Simply saying that someone is a “loser” implies that they exist to be that, that they have no worth because of actions of decisions poorly made or that don’t live up to OUR expectations. But I don’t think that’s how God see it. I think He sees the person first and the decisions second. Look at how Christ interacted with people, they were people to Him, not losers and non-losers, and all were going to amount to something if they would just choose to embrace who God made them to be and the salvation He has for them. I am just as guilty of thinking of someone as a loser, but people who are losers by nature, just don’t exists. We make loser decisions, but we aren’t losers.

    Anyways… that’s my thought.

  4. thanks for this post mark. as a youthworker and a parent of a 12 year old – we’ve been hitting a rough patch with our tween [nothing big in light of all of the worlds problems…] and this was a post i needed to read this morning.

  5. Absolutely KILLER post . . . one of your best in a while. Part of me gets frustrated at how an educator can see a student through such a filter. The commitment to teaching and the image he/she harbors just don’t go.

    But yes, your thoughts on the heart of this youth worker are dead on. I have always struggled with teaching younger teens. I have always taught and disciples senior high students. This fall I will commit to a group of 7th graders . . . commit to the 6 year journey of discipling them for the next 6 years. I am pumped, but a little nervous about the challenges of this age group. This post helps encourage me, bro! Thanks, as always, for sharing.

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