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When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child. But now that I have become a man, I've put an end to childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11)
It's spectacular that in the most famous passage on love in the Bible, Paul digresses for just a moment to give us a spot-on description of what it's like to be a preteen. In this stage, kids aren't just growing — they're growing up. And that means saying goodbye to the activities, toys, ideas, and sometimes friends that they depended on when they were younger. It means changing their focus from the present to the future, sometimes with anxiety and sometimes with excitement. It means putting an end to childish things.
Doesn't this very next verse sound an awful lot like preadolescence?
Now all we can see of God is like a cloudy picture in a mirror. Later we will see God face to face. We don't know everything, but then we will, just as God completely understands us. (1 Corinthians 13:12, CEV)
Paul describes this transitional time beautifully with phrases like:
Cloudy picture in a mirror
We don't know everything
God completely understands us
How perfect is that? New life stages do feel cloudy, whether we're getting a driver's license, starting a new job, moving to a new home, or watching a loved one die. Seeing life through the blurry haze of change feels uncomfortable because we have to admit over and over that we don't know what's next.
But smile — there's good news. God completely understands. God knows us from top to bottom. God has experienced everything we ever have or will and more. While the kids we lead step from childhood into adolescence, God is fully present to calm their fears (and ours, if we allow it).
Anyone who had young children in 2013 saw the movie Frozen — possibly multiple times. My favorite character in this blockbuster, Olaf the loving snowman, finds himself at one point separated into three sections and stuck to a wall of snow while being pursued by an ice monster. Olaf vows to help his friends escape by causing a distraction — except that his feet and torso jump down and run off with his friends, and his head face-plants into the snowy ground while he mutters, "This just got a whole lot harder."
When I think about becoming a preteen — or leading a bunch of preteens — that scene sums up my feelings with scary accuracy. We want to protect and guide the children entrusted to us, but we sometimes feel as helpless as a lone snowman's head on the ground. Part of the reason adolescence is so scary is that it's full of changes that are beyond our control, and these changes affect preteens for years to come.
It was during my preteen years that I determined for the first time that I was not pretty. One day in fifth grade, I studied my face and hair in the bathroom mirror, and I didn't like what I saw. Boring hair color, out-of-control perm, fat cheeks, and that one snaggletooth filled the mirror. I left the bathroom dejectedly, and those conclusions are hard to shake, even today.
Being a preteen means experiencing a whole world of thoughts and events for the first time, but definitely not the last. Even as an adult, I sometimes replay that critical inner monologue when I look in the mirror, or worse, see myself tagged in an online photo. (I'm so relieved I did not have to deal with social media as a middle-schooler.)
Preteen years last forever
Preteen years encompass grades four, five, and six, and during these years kids undergo breathtaking changes in hormones, bodies, attitudes, and capabilities. If you're objecting right now because you know that every year of childhood includes major change, I get it. We adults are always exclaiming about how fast time is flying by and how quickly the kids in our lives are changing. So why is this one age-range from fourth through sixth grade so important?
Here's why: the new thoughts and experiences that preteens face are lasting. These changes can give permanent definition to their lives.
Furthermore, the things we ask for in preadolescence are much more powerful than the things we wanted as children. Preteens don't just beg their parents for something from the toy aisle in the superstore; they beg for their own phone or tablet or laptop, complete with Internet connection to the universe. Preteens don't simply want any old Sunday school room as long as it has toys in it; they want a room with a Wii and comfy seating and as much distance as possible from the nursery. They are capable of more, regardless of whether or not they are ready for more. Choosing which privileges to grant to a preteen is a wizard-level skill to us muggle leaders, and the experiences that those privileges provide can have life-altering effects on these kids.
Social scientists tell us that adolescence begins at age eleven and lasts until age twenty, and those years encompass a process that nobody claims is easy. Eleven to twenty! Children dedicate nine years to coming to terms with new bodies, awakened sexuality, and hormones. Once you have wrapped your head around all that, consider that adults who live and work with adolescents experience a parallel personal revolution. Just as a preteen is learning new ways of thinking and feeling, their leaders now encounter new decisions and doubts. Despite its challenges, this phase provides a unique and short-lived opportunity to begin a transition to a whole and Spirit-filled adulthood.
Nothing is familiar
Do you remember what it was like to be ten? I recall a general sense of confusion as a preteen because everything felt like trial and error — with errors that seemed to far outweigh the trial. My most prominent memory from the age of ten was when my parents took me away for a special birthday weekend, which was actually a huge ruse to trick me into an enlightening conversation about sex. They held me hostage in our hotel room and forced me to look at diagrams of the human body in books with titles like How Babies Are Made or Don't Worry, You're Normal! It was puzzling.
Everything for a preteen is unfamiliar. Think of your first week at a new job or your first blind date, and imagine having those helpless, lonely feelings without any prior experience to lean on, and that's pretty much what it's like to be a preteen every day. It's no wonder they try to assert power every two seconds. They're desperate to feel some control!
The concept of the imaginary audience is absolutely key to understanding how to talk and listen to preteens. These growing kids are eternally in performance mode. For preteens, there is an unseen audience everywhere they go, even when they're in the privacy of their own bedrooms. This imaginary crowd is extremely judgy, and its opinions are based upon the perceived appearance and behavior of peers. When a fifth-grader wears sweats and her hair in a knot on her head to church, you may not be impressed. But you do need to realize that she did not choose that style just because it's comfortable and easy, but because she is playing out a script written by the other peers in her head. This is why preteens flip out when their choices or needs are questioned. They are terrified of getting a poor review from an extremely nitpicky inner crowd.
Preteens, much like adults, confine themselves to what is called a "cultural script" for what they believe is supposed to happen, based upon what their peers are saying or doing. For example, if two of a ten-year-old's peers get smartphones on their birthdays, he will not just expect one as well, he will feel unmoored and lost without one. He longs to follow his script.
But even when preteens put forth their best efforts to please the audience in their heads, it never seems to work. This unforgiving audience continually says to them, "You're not enough," and preteens often take that critique to its logical conclusion: they will never find love. It's shocking for me as an adult to believe that ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year-olds already care about love, but study after study has shown that they do.
So when your preteens rail against your instructions, don't be offended. Their complaints are not attacks on you; they are indicators of fear. You have just caused them to go off-script, and they don't know what their imaginary audience will think about that. It might help to acknowledge to the preteens you lead, "Listen, you guys are super cool and super smart. But the time we spend together isn't about you and isn't about me. It's about God, honestly. Our focus is on God and what God might want to say to us today."
The power of friends
It's a little bewildering to think about how early our kids begin to live for love until we remember that God did design us for community, and one-on-one relationships are the most intimate form of fellowship. But when we are in fourth grade, our concept of intimacy and love is refracted through the lens of our peer relationships, which are not often a great guide for life-giving relationships. It's during this time that kids begin to form friendships for psychological reasons. They choose friends independently, based upon feelings of true kinship and commonalities rather than convenience or their parents' urging.
Influence in friendships often flows only one way. Kids with tendencies toward aggression, disrespect, or disregard for others often influence kids who are generally compassionate and kind. This is one reason why helping our kids navigate friendship is so important.
One night during our church's choral ministry for kids, a leader brought me two sixth-grade boys. They were good, sweet kids with nothing to do that night, so of course they caused trouble. They sneaked into the youth room and stole Popsicles from the fridge, then popped their heads into every rehearsal room just long enough to distract the little kids and bolted away. True delinquents, if I ever saw any.
It took about two seconds to identify which of these ruffians was the instigator and which was the accomplice. I launched into a speech about how they were in violation of the church's insurance policy and Safe Sanctuaries guidelines, how I would inform their parents if there were any further infractions, and how I was going to escort them to Fellowship Hall to assist with the second-grade handbell session, all while failing to hide a smile at their antics. The thing that stuck with me after this pseudo-disciplinary exchange was that it was clear the accomplice boy was uncomfortable even pretending to get into trouble, while the instigator was eating it up. Even though he never would have played pranks at church on his own and doing so was uncomfortable for him, the accomplice didn't speak up to stop his friend. That's typical. The instigators are the influencers.
There are some gender differences in the ways that preteens navigate this phase, and those differences likely will unsettle you as they do me. Between ages nine to age twenty, the testosterone level in boys increases by eighteen times! Testosterone is responsible for the development of male sexual characteristics, and it also influences feelings of risk-taking, aggression, and dominance. Great googly-moogly — no wonder adolescent boys make dumb choices. Their brains are on hormone overload, which can be exhilarating and overwhelming all at once.
Remember the cultural scripts I mentioned earlier? Those scripts often assign roles to boys based on their physical development. Our culture wants boys to mature quickly, to look and act like grown men as soon aspossible. Boys who are taller, bigger, stronger, and heavier than average are well-liked. Peers and adults perceive them to be confident and to possess leadership potential.
This perception is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. As early maturing boys are perceived to be more responsible, they are given more responsibilities and therefore become more responsible (or at least more experienced). These boys also tend to be more stressed out than boys who mature late.
By contrast, boys who are shorter, slower, thinner, and lighter than their peers are perceived to be weak, lacking in leadership abilities, and less worthy of trust. This perception also becomes self-fulfilling, as these boys are picked last for the team by peers and by leaders.
Because our self-concept is typically based upon the real or imagined audience to our lives, we take whatever place in the world these voices assign us. A boy who happens to grow early will often tend to feel good about himself, while a boy whose growth spurt comes later usually experiences depression and low self-esteem during the years between ten to twelve. Fortunately for boys, the depression caused by slow physical maturation will usually dissipate around age thirteen or fourteen, especially once the growth spurt hits.
Leaders, we must not play into these cultural dictates. Learn to "look on the heart" like God does, not at the outward appearance. Don't comment on a boy's stature or weight, and take a long look at whether you treat any boys differently based upon their stature. If you need a group to do some heavy lifting, don't cherry-pick. Invite all the kids to help. When you catch kids in your group discussing who's the strongest or the weakest, put an end to the conversation. In your ministry, endeavor to give every kid a place and a positive identity.
Hormonal changes for preteen girls are also significant, with estrogen levels increasing by eight times during adolescence. Unlike boys, girls are supposed to develop late, according to our cultural norms. Girls whose bodies grow faster than average are viewed as weak, insecure, and unattractive. We like our girls to be smaller than the boys, with small features and long, straight hair. It's the tall basketball player plus tiny cheerleader archetype. (I realize most places idealize football players over basketball, but I'm from Kentucky.)
For those unfortunate girls who are taller than all the other girls (and boys) in their age group, the consequences to their social standing are often negative. Girls who mature faster than others report feeling depression and self-hatred, and unlike boys, girls hold on to these feelings well into adulthood. While a boy whose growth spurt comes later than normal will eventually shed his depression and regain emotional equilibrium, girls remain critical and negative about their appearance. Women often continue to experience societal pressure around their appearance well into adulthood.
For both genders
Hormonal changes get a bad rap, and I admit that they can't be ignored. However, there is a much bigger factor behind the angst and rebellion we associate with preteens and teens: cultural expectations. These are scripts we wordlessly give our children every day, which they follow to a T. Social scientists find that during middle childhood, the average kid still hangs out in gender separate groups: girls with girls and boys with boys. The only divergents who seem to achieve mixed gender friendships are the very popular and the very unpopular. Have you seen this phenomenon in your church?
Kids gravitate toward friendships with others who are their same size, not necessarily their same age. Girls and boys who mature quickly often are accepted into social groups that are much older than they are. These older friends frequently provide access to drugs, pornography, off-color humor, alcohol, and adult interests that younger children are not developmentally ready to face. Again, the new experiences provided by adolescence can have lifelong effects.
Discrepancies in kids' rates of development can bring them deep shame. This is so incredibly sad because there is nothing that could be more amoral or further from their control! Because they cannot control their developmental rate, they beg for freedom in all other areas. Rather than restricting their freedoms as much as possible, our goal should be to provide opportunities for preteens to earn it.
Leaders of preteens
"Have mercy on us all, Lord, for we know not what we do."
That is our starting point. Let's all just agree that this is where we begin a discussion about "how to minister" with these amazing and enigmatic urchins. Brace yourselves for a wonderful, humbling, fulfilling ride.
Fortunately, we have evidence which helps us understand how powerless preadolescents feel, and knowing that is the key to developing relationships with them. They are going to claw for any possible freedom they can get their hands on, from taking twenty-minute bathroom breaks to interrupting a lesson just to get attention. It's up to us as adult leaders to determine which freedoms they can handle. These choices should be made in advance and consistently enforced.
If you're working with fourth- through sixth-graders in any ministry context, there are three approaches to cultivate from the start:
1. A supportive attitude
2. The mindset of a counselor
3. A healthy sense of humor
Excerpted from "6 Secrets of Preteen Ministry"
Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press.
Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Adapt 1
Chapter 2 Empower 19
Chapter 3 Mentor 39
Chapter 4 Protect 59
Chapter 5 Include 79
Chapter 6 Implement 95
Appendix A Great Icebreakers for Preteens 110
Appendix B Sample Bible Study Outline 113
Appendix C Apprenticeship Forms 116
Suggested Reading 123