Parenting is full of battles, and we all know there is great wisdom in choosing which battles to fight. The potential for battles increases once students enter middle school because kids are beginning to develop their own sense of self. In other words, they’re figuring out how they’re different and unique from everyone around them, including their own family. It’s a beautiful process that’s a necessary step along the path to healthy adulthood but it’s rarely a smooth transition.
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By talking with students and their parents and observing their interactions with each other, I’ve been able to obtain a good grasp of common parent-child battles.
A wise friend told me when it comes to raising kids, “a non-moral issue is a non-issue.” That’s a great litmus test for deciding whether you should fight a battle with your middle schooler.
No one wants to frustrate kids on purpose, but unfortunately the roles of “parent” and “youth worker” don’t come with a manual for how to handle every single situation with young people. I’ve observed and personally experienced frustrated middle schoolers enough to know there a handful of things adults do that commonly frustrate them.
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We all want to have positive interactions with middle schoolers. We want to encourage kids, we want to connect with them, and we want to help them. If we can reduce some of the following actions, we can experience more of the positive interactions that we all want:
Bottle flipping is all the rage in middle school culture right now. It’s pretty simple: You take a partially filled plastic bottle of water and flip it in the air. The goal is to make it complete one full rotation and then land right-side up. Or, if you’re really good, you can land the bottle upside-down on the cap, which is known as “capping.”
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At first I thought bottle flipping was just a weird nuisance that would quickly go away, but that was a few months ago. I’ve only seen more and more plastic bottles spinning through the air since then.
I have stumbled upon a surprisingly rewarding aspect of youth ministry: I’m sitting on a treasure chest of parental wisdom! I’m surrounded by lots of parents who know a lot more about raising kids than I do.
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In an effort to mine some of that treasure, every once in a while I will meet with a student’s dad to learn about the art of raising kids. At one of those meetings a dad shared a simple insight that has re-shaped how I approach confrontation with middle school boys.
I recently had an insightful conversation with a mom of two boys. At the time her boys were in middle school and college. She was reflecting on what she had learned from parenting her oldest son during high school and what she will do differently when her younger son reaches that age.
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She reminisced how high school seemed to fly by quickly with her oldest son. She was preparing herself for the same thing to happen with her younger son. I could hear the mixture of joy and sadness in her voice as she faced the reality of her boys growing older—excited to see them become men but sad knowing she won’t be as close to them once they fly from the nest.
Can you relate to this middle school parent? “I would like to discipline and correct my son without guilt, without lecturing him. Because ultimately I don’t want to fracture my relationship with him.”
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I know that kids can be idiots. They can be mean, selfish, and foolish. When you’re a parent or youth worker, you don’t get a pass when it comes to disciplining kids. It’s part of our responsibility as we guide them toward healthy adulthood.
Unfortunately we often don’t approach it in relationally constructive ways. Whether it’s due to our own past hurt, our desire for control, or a lack of positive examples, we struggle to discipline kids in a way that helps form their character AND strengthens our relationship with them.
Most middle school boys are not good at having conversations. When they do talk it is often in short spurts without much elaboration, which makes it difficult to have sustained dialogue.
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I refuse to use that as an excuse to not talk with middle school boys. When I determine a conversation has reached the “pulling teeth” stage I use a technique I call the Joe Question Game (you can name your version of the game after yourself). It catalyzes quality interaction with boys almost every time I use it in both one-on-one and group settings.
I played the trumpet in middle school band. In 8th grade I was selected to go to an all-day band festival in northern Minnesota in January. So I got up early one morning and traveled to the festival with a few band mates and my band teacher in a 15-passenger van. The day included a handful of practices and ended with a large performance around dinnertime.
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The plan was for us to get on the road and return home to our Minneapolis suburb late that evening. But as we got on the road snow started to fall, as it often does in northern Minnesota at that time of the year. The snow started to come down harder and harder. I dozed off listening to my friend’s Yanni CD on my Sony Discman. Don’t ask me why I remember that random detail.
Almost every middle school student I know struggles with cell phone boundaries. It drives me CRAZY when they pull out their phone whenever there’s ANY dead space. Pulling out a cell phone is so mindless and so easy.
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No one says anything for five seconds in a group? Pull out the phone. Getting bored with the conversation in the car? Pull out the phone. Sitting around waiting to start the small group lesson? Pull out the phone. At a concert with one of the greatest Christian bands on the planet and you think the drummer is taking too long to share the Gospel message? Pull out the phone.
Periodically a student will come to me with a random request. “Can we have a small group sleepover?” “Can we have a Nerf War?” “Can we have a lock-in at the church this summer?”
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Such requests require a time commitment from me if I say yes. Being a person who takes his commitments seriously, I try to carefully consider my response before responding in these situations.