The “problem” with middle school ministry (how they got it wrong…again)

In case you missed it, middle schoolers (all of them, presumably) are in the news this week.

Real Simple (which I thought was mostly about food, fashion, and repurposing canning jars and wood pallets into anything and everything you could ever need or want) recently posted this story:

“Sorry, Parents. Middle School is Scientifically the Worst (and you thought the Terrible Twos were bad).”

Spoiler alert: the article isn’t very hip on early adolescents. And I quote: “middle school is not fun for anyone” and “[every middle schooler is] a surly, exasperated pre-teen.”

Bah. Boo. Piffle. Grrr.

Then there’s this from Science Daily last week:

“Mom, You Think Babies Are Tough? Wait Until Middle School.”

This sounds a little less alarmist than the other article, but equally down on middle schoolers. How thoughtful of them.

Both articles are lay-summaries of a study out of Arizona State University titled:

“What It Feels Like to Be A Mother: Variations by Children’s Developmental Stages” (Luthar and Ciciolla, Developmental Psychology 52:1 (2016), 143-154).*

You may notice that this title doesn’t diss middle schoolers at all – doesn’t even mention them by name. That’s not to say the article is all warm and fuzzy on middle schoolers. In fact, before the study was even conducted, the authors “anticipated, first, that the middle school years would be the most challenging” for mothers. (Fathers weren’t part of this study, so there’s that to consider.)

The study – conducted between 2005 and 2010 – of 2,247 well-educated American women showed that many mothers (many of those specific mothers, anyway) do/did in fact experience some more negative things and some fewer positive things when their children were in middle school than when their children were other ages.

So, therefore, hence, ergo middle school is scientifically proven to be The Worst.

The End.

Except for, well, these (and other things) that the authors concede:

  • mothers might have experienced higher stress levels because they themselves often become busier when their children reach middle school (extra-curricular activities, more friend events, extended soccer-mom chauffeuring – that kind of thing)
  • mothers might have sensed more child negative to me attitudes – which were measured by distancing behaviors because middle school is when children start naturally displaying more independence
  • mothers might have experienced less fulfillment and lower levels of life satisfaction because of their own transition to mid-life (a time of “heightened introspection and increased awareness of mortality” due to “declines in their physical and cognitive functioning” (150) or: My Life Rots)
  • mothers might have experienced more depression and parenting overload due to “contagion of stress” in which mothers internalize and worry about their children’s ability to cope with middle school challenges (perhaps because she is reliving her own middle school experience, something mothers are notoriously good at doing)
  • &c.

All of that to say – “Middle School is Scientifically The Worst” is horribly misleading and ridiculously unhelpful and eminently unfair – to middle schoolers primarily, but also to those who care about them.

But it sure makes for a dramatically catchy headline, which the world loves. And it confirms what those of us in middle school ministry know the world thinks of us: “you are big losers” (or maybe “you are demented saints” depending on the day).

But we know better. We know that we are the big winners not because of anything we’ve done or said (don’t stumble by patting yourself on the back) but because Jesus has graciously given us an enthusiastically authentic love for the kids too many people think are unlovable and unmanageable.

Guess what: we don’t care one teeny tiny bit about dramatically catchy headlines. We care about middle schoolers – each of them and all of them.

Here might be the most important statement in the study:

“This developmental transition [early adolescence] is especially difficult because junior high schools bring decreased personal, positive relationships with teachers at a time when youth particularly need connections with supportive adults.” (150)

Spoiler alert: enter – you.

The middle school pastor. The Wyldlife leader. The involved parent. The caring aunt and uncle. The interested neighbor. The loving grandparent. The faithful small group leader.

So go ahead – go change a middle schooler’s world today by showing up, being present, celebrating them, sharing real life, and breathing Jesus all over the place.

Really. Just go do it. Now. Because the only problem with middle school ministry is that there’s not enough room in our hearts for all the love for all the kids.

*The original peer-reviewed study can be accessed through EBSCO host PsycARTICLES research database. You can find an earlier public-access version of the study here.



12 thoughts on “The “problem” with middle school ministry (how they got it wrong…again)

  1. Heather MacLaren Johnson January 28, 2016 / 11:57 am

    Excellent points, Crystal! Thanks for summarizing the studies, especially the concessions of the authors about mothers of middle school kids. Very important considerations. Our experiences of kids are confounded by our own past and present experiences. Personally, I find middle school and high school kids delightful. As a mother, I can relate to all the added stress noted in your four bullet points. However, it has been my responsibility to manage my stress and not blame my kids for their normal life stage thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Showing genuine interest in this age group by spending time with them, listening to them, and respectfully dialoguing with them fosters strong bonds these kids want and need, even if they are pushing us away at times. The push/pull of adolescence is an essential part of growing up. It’s the adult’s job to stay steady and loving, helping adolescents negotiate their often seemingly contradictory thoughts and feelings. Of course, to the extent adults have done their own growing up, the better we’ll be able to love our kids properly in this developmental stage. Bottom line, every stage of life is a delight! My experience with my own kids, though admittedly bringing higher stress, has been quite rewarding. Thanks for posting!

    • ckirgiss January 28, 2016 / 12:10 pm

      Imagine if the study questions had been something like this:
      Does your child show more initiative in making their own decisions?
      Does your child demonstrate the ability to question your motives and instructions?
      Does your child use formal thinking operations to analyze information rather than simply accepting it as fact?
      Does your child extend themselves beyond the comfortable and safe bounds of the current family buffer zone?
      Does your child push you for meaningful explanations of boundaries and expectations.

      Yeah – then middle school is the clear winner, eh?

  2. Erin January 28, 2016 / 1:12 pm

    Our church is too small for a “youth ministry” but middle school is when the kids prepare for confirmation–our pastor spends one evening a week meeting with them and discussing questions about faith and religion, and she takes them on field trips to visit our neighbors at the mosque or to take communion to shut-ins. They help with Sunday school and take turns acolyting during the service. The kids have also hosted lunches after church and invited adults in the congregation to talk about how our faith has evolved through adulthood. I was part of I’ve, and it was amazing. They are awesome kids and being treated like increasingly independent and significant participants (including having real conversations about the challenges of faith with many adults) in the life of the church means that they actually do participate in the life of the church, and hopefully it will help them stick around long after they’re confirmed.

    • ckirgiss January 28, 2016 / 3:52 pm

      If every middle schooler were treated this way…think of what could happen in the world.

  3. Sean Meade February 2, 2016 / 10:59 am

    Amen, Amen and Amen. Well said Crystal!

    • ckirgiss February 2, 2016 / 5:37 pm

      Thank you Sean. It’s not difficult to say YAY to middle schoolers if one actually spends time with them.

  4. ty2008 February 11, 2016 / 6:06 am

    While I was still a student at Greenville College, I had the pleasure of working with a Middle School Ministry. Actually it was a Middle School aged church camp where I felt the call to Ministry. While working with the group, I learned to love the Middle School age group. I definitely made it a point to spend time with the students both inside and outside of the Youth Group. I know for sure that it impacted my life, and from what I’ve seen and heard, it seems like I had a good impact on the students’ lives too. It definitely makes a world of a difference to actually be an active part of the lives of Middle School students. It seems to me that the biggest problem with Middle School Ministry isn’t all the challenges this age group faces, but that many people don’t invest personally into the lives of Middle School students.
    I’m glad to see others advocating involvement in the lives of Middle School students. This age group is truly a joy to work with.

  5. ckirgiss February 11, 2016 / 10:48 pm

    “It definitely makes a world of difference to actually be an active part of the lives of Middle School students” – amen, amen, amen.
    “This group is truly a joy to work with” – yes, yes, yes.
    Thank you.

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