What is “middle school boy culture?” It’s the unspoken norms and rules that govern what is cool, popular, and acceptable for 11- to 14-year-old boys. After 7 years of being in middle school ministry I have developed a pretty good understanding of this particular culture.
Photo courtesy of Dollar Photo Club/rimmdream
This culture values athleticism, self-confidence, independence, and extraversion, among other things. When you combine those elements it means middle school boy culture highlights boys who are outspoken, bold, talkative, funny, spazzy, and generally silly. There is nothing inherently wrong with a boy acting that way, but the problem is not all middle school boys are like that.
What goes through the mind of a 12-year-old boy? What’s important to him? What’s unimportant to him?
Photo courtesy of Dollar Photo Club/SergiyN
This is my attempt to get inside his mind. It’s a combination of my recollection from growing up and my observations from working with middle schoolers. Here’s what I think a 12-year-old boy would say if you asked him to share life lessons that are important to him:
Three years ago I was graduating from seminary and looking for a new project to pursue outside of work. My friends Josh and Danna strongly encouraged me to start this blog. I’m grateful for their initial prodding and for the encouragement that you, my readers, have provided along the way.
Here are some fun stats from the past three years at joebudish.com:
- I have made more than 200 posts, many of them coming from guest writers.
- Three of my top ten most-viewed posts are from guest writers. The #1 most-viewed post was one written by my friend Susan about parenting teenage boys. The most popular post that I wrote myself was, of all things, about blow dart wars.
- More than 20,000 different people have viewed my blog at one time or another and all those people have contributed more than 50,000 total page views.
- My blog readers are located in the US, Russia, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Canada, China, Germany, Italy, and Japan, among other countries.
- A majority of my readers are between ages 25 and 44. Roughly half are men and half are women. I don’t know how Google Analytics can track all that stuff, but it’s fun to see the data!
I can’t explain why God has given me such a deep admiration and respect for middle school boys. All I know is that middle school is a critical stage and I love helping other adults embrace such an exciting, weird, and eye-opening time in boys’ lives!
Many of us look back on our own middle school experience and say, “You couldn’t pay me enough money to go back to that stage of life!” Middle school was a rough time for a lot of adults. What I find interesting is that so many of us have negative associations with those years but we don’t remember exactly why middle school was difficult.
Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock/WavebreakMediaMicro
If that’s you, here’s a little refresher.
In my work with middle school boys I find myself repeatedly having the same conversations. It turns out they all struggle with a limited set of issues that just look slightly different for each boy based on his specific personality and specific life situation.
Every year in our middle school ministry we do a “Love Spectrum” series where we talk about love, sex, dating, and relationships for an entire month. At the end we always have a Q&A session where students can write questions and hear answers from volunteer leaders. Every year, multiple students ask “When should I start dating?”
Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock/zaikina
For clarity, when I use the word “dating” I’m referring to the middle school conception of dating, which is usually synonymous with the phrase “going out.” Middle school dating involves one boy and one girl going public with the fact that they like each other and their relationship is more than “just friends.” They may or may not communicate with each other more than normal friends and may or may not spend time together outside of school or church activities.
How would you react to either of the following scenarios involving your middle school son?
Scenario #1 (This is a story I observed first-hand): You are almost done cleaning the kitchen after dinner. The dishes have been rinsed and put in the dishwasher. The food has been put away in the refrigerator. You’ve wiped down the table and are attacking all the smudges and crumbs on the counter.
As you turn to wash your rag in the sink, your son and his friend start a Nerf war seemingly out of nowhere. In the blink of an eye, they have emerged from a back room each wielding a loaded Nerf gun and a pocket overflowing with extra darts. All you see is a blur of bodies ducking and hiding behind furniture and under the table. Occasionally you hear a yelp of delight when one of the boys gets hit.
Nerf darts are flying everywhere. They whiz by your head, land in the sink, and disappear behind pictures on the counter. To make things more chaotic, the boys are using you as a human shield while you maneuver around the center island to get the last of the crumbs.
How would you react?
Do you remember 8th grade? When I reflect on my 8th grade experience I can recount a few notable moments:
- The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened that year. We were in Mr. Bratcher’s band class when we found out and immediately turned on the TVs to watch the events unfold.
- I had my first and only foray into theater by portraying Peter, Anne Frank’s flirtatious love interest, in The Diary of Anne Frank.
- I got braces.
- I met someone who I thought would be my best friend. It turns out the friendship crashed and burned less than two years later.
- I told a girl that I thought she had big thighs.
Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock/Syda Productions
Something else happened in 8th grade that marked a shift in my social life. Things started to get waaay more complicated with my friends. This transition happens at different times for different kids but it seems to be most prevalent with 8th graders.
I recently met with a group of high school students who had gone through my middle school ministry. They’ve all gotten taller and the boys’ voices are deeper but they’re still the same wonderful people I used to know. It’s fun to see how much they’ve matured since 8th grade. I love staying in touch with former students.
Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock/yanlev
The purpose of my meeting was to grill them with questions about their middle school experience. I was curious about what they remember and what was impactful during their time in my ministry. I was hoping to get insight into how I can improve my current ministry with middle school students. Here are five of the most interesting things that they said:
I love being a middle school pastor! At this point in my life, there’s nothing else I’d rather do. I love the variety of tasks involved, I love seeing students’ energy and excitement, and I love sharing special moments with them during a critical part of their lives.
Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock/luismolinero
There is one small part of my job that I consistently dislike: Graphic design. So, you know what? I got permission to pay a graphic designer to do all that stuff for me. Graphic design issues: Done. Outsourced. Passed on to someone else. Move on. Next task.
There is, however, another BIG part of my job that I dislike even more: Transitions.Saying goodbye to students once they leave middle school for high school. Letting go.
Guess what? You can’t outsource that task.
Do you remember the first time you liked someone of the opposite gender? For me it happened at the beginning of sixth grade. There was a girl in a lot of my classes who I thought was the most perfect girl ever. She was smart, pretty, quiet, and confident. My face turned red and my heart raced whenever I got close to her. I didn’t know what to do or say, so I resorted to acting awkward and abrasive when I was around her. Long story short: It never worked out between us.
Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock/carballo
Figuring out how to relate to the opposite gender is tough! It’s one of the most complicated parts of the teenage years, and one reason why most of us never want to return to middle school. However, as adults we have the chance to help middle school boys as they begin to navigate those same tricky waters that we faced years ago.