This is usually the case for my extremely compassionate fifth-grader as God made her with a deep well of empathy for others. As she’s growing into greater independence, she’s trying to live out the calling Christ has placed upon her to be a Kingdom worker by using that gift of compassion in as many ways as possible.
That’s what every Christian parent should want for their child – to see them living out their faith in obedient and amazing ways for the King. But preteens are preteens, and sometimes preteens take things too far, as they literally haven’t developed the piece of their brain that serves as a “wisdom filter” (you can read more about preteen brain development here, here, or here.)
For my daughter the moment in question happened because of her cell phone. She’s 11 years old, and though I wanted to hold out until age 12 to give her a phone, it became difficult – she’s involved in many extracurricular activities and in too many other places away from me. I knew that giving her a phone would be the ultimate test of her self-discipline. It opens up a whole world of temptation – from texting things with friends that she shouldn’t be texting, to using social media that she shouldn’t be using, to listening to music that she shouldn’t be listening to, to watching videos on YouTube that she shouldn’t be watching, and especially to interacting with people she shouldn’t be interacting with – notably, BOYS!
Can I get an amen dads!?!
When I gave her the phone, we had a long conversation about the rules of the phone – one of which was that there was NOTHING off-limits to me as her father in regard to the phone. I can look at it and the things she’s using it for at any time, which I did randomly the other night. And when I did I found that she’d been messaging with a boy … and he had been cursing at her … and she had added him to her list of contacts …
I had a moment of “Dad panic,” and then quickly squashed that and tried to put the interactions with the boy into context. I read more messages with her friends and quickly realized that she had begun talking to the boy as a way of helping out one of her best friends. If you don’t know this about preteens yet, take special note: there is A LOT of drama.
My daughter found herself caught in the middle of all that drama. Her friend was upset that her “boyfriend” wouldn’t respond to her, and she asked my daughter to reach out to him on her phone. She of course knew this was wrong, but she wanted to help her friend. She also was faced with a moment of caving into peer pressure or standing up for what she knew was right.
You already know by now that she failed. She caved to the peer pressure and then got caught in a rabbit-hole of messages with a boy, who eventually started cursing at her. And she knew it was wrong because she tried to delete the messages and hide them from me.
As I contemplated how to discipline her, I considered what I know about preteens and how to best guide them toward an obedient life with Christ. After working with preteens for 20 years, and researching this age group extensively, I’ve come to learn some consistent truths about them. For the first times in their lives they’re owning their faith. It’s not just a head-knowledge of the Bible anymore, but an active faith that is sometimes tentative and sometimes over-eager. My daughter’s intentions were good and were acted upon through the natural compassion that God has blessed her with. But the decision-making was flawed.
This experience reminded me of three very important truths for leading preteens:
1. Preteens need to experiment. My friend Patrick Snow – who is the senior director of CIY’s preteen event SuperStart – authored the book on “Leading Preteens.” In his book he talks about the “laboratory” that we should provide to preteens when it comes to experimenting with their faith. Preteens need a safe and guided space in which to stretch their legs, so to speak, and put into practice the lessons they’ve learned about God. We cannot and should not hold them back from trying to live out their faith, but we need to provide ways for them to experiment … and often, experiments fail. I knew when I gave my daughter her phone that there was a high likelihood she’d make a bad decision. In fact, I’m glad this happened because it gave me the opportunity to guide her. Failure gives us the chance to have teachable moments with our preteens, and when they fail we have to let them try again.
2. Preteens need guidance. Patrick gives an illustration of a child first learning how to ride a bike. They start with training wheels. Eventually you take the training wheels off, but you run along behind and hold the seat so that they can keep their balance. That progresses to running along beside them as they keep their own balance. And then eventually they master the art of riding a bike and you let them go … only to bandage their knees when they crash and burn every once in a while. That’s an apt metaphor for leading preteens. They need to ride the bike, but they need guidance ... After I confronted my daughter about her disobedience with the phone, she was a bundle of tears. And in all of her 11-year-old uncertainty, she looked at me through tear-filled lashes and said, “I want a hug, but I don’t know if it’s OK.” I of course wrapped her up in my arms and held her tight and told her, “I love you so much and nothing will ever change that. Learn from this mistake and try to do better next time.” I know she’ll crash and burn again sometime in the future, and I’ll bandage her again, but I’m not going to keep her from trying again. I’ll guide as long as necessary for her to become a master.
3. Preteens need responsibility in God’s Kingdom. At the beginning of every new school year, when I address the new preteens in our group, I always say the same thing I’ve said for the past 20 years: “You guys are old enough to start serving in the church. So we’re going to start asking you to step up and volunteer for things.” It’s my way of pushing them to realize that they are called to have responsibilities in God’s Kingdom. That could be anything from praying for the group, to serving communion, to leading actions on stage during times of worship. There are all kinds of ways that preteens can take on increasing responsibilities within the church, and by doing so they learn that they are valuable members of the body of Christ – something they’ll carry with them the rest of their lives. But those responsibilities need to be age-intentional. Patrick says it like this: “When you’re being age-intentional with them, they realize you know who they are. When you treat them too young – or even too old – it triggers in their minds that you don’t know them and that translates into a disconnection. I think age-intentionality helps a preteen know that their youth leader cares about them. Also, when we’re learning something new, it always makes more sense when it’s in our world – in our language.”
So how did I employ those three truths in this moment with my daughter? I first gave her the opportunity to tell me herself if there was anything on her phone that she needed to tell me about. She at first tried to play it off as if nothing was wrong, but when I reminded her of the rules – specifically that I could look on that phone any time I wanted to – she immediately melted into tears. When I asked why she deleted the messages, she admitted it was because she was trying to hide it from me and was worried about getting in trouble. That gave me the opportunity to guide. I told her being honest with me was always going to be the best option, and that lying to me would end up in a bigger punishment than if she just was brave and told me the truth up front. I then walked her through some scenarios in which the situation might happen again. I didn’t shut her down – in fact I emphasized that there would be more moments like this in the future.
I then reminded her how much I love her, and how proud I am to have a daughter with such a deep well of compassion. I encouraged her that her instinct to help her friend was a good one, and I equipped her with ideas to do so in wiser ways in the future. Experimentation, guidance and responsibility – three key ingredients to leading preteens to be Kingdom workers.
Chris Roberts is the communications director for Christ In Youth. He has been a preteen minister in the church for 20 years. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.