The “Problem” with Middle School Ministry
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.
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)
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.
Crystal Kirgiss, PhD, has worked with students for 30 years. She writes for YouthWalk magazine, has written for many specialty Bible editions, and is the author or coauthor of many books, including In Search of Adolescence: A New Look at an Old Idea. Crystal teaches at Purdue University where she also researches the history of adolescence.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.