7 Observations about Today’s Middle School Kids…

8 11 2011

I’m still recovering from our annual confirmation retreat, which was a few weekends ago.

Yes, still recovering. I’m old. My 26-year-old self can’t pull those all-nighters like I could just a few years ago in college.

Earlier this month, I spent my beautiful fall weekend running a huge retreat for our 7th and 8th grade students, at a camp about an hour and a  half away from our church. I spent pretty much the entirety of my waking moments meticulously running through checklists, transportation arrangements, schedules, songs, props, and handouts…not to mention constantly giving direction and instruction, problem-solving on the fly, breaking up rowdy fights between 7th grade boys, hugging crying girls, speaking and teaching, checking in with leaders and musicians and tech people, shouting through a megaphone, and acting as liaison between our group and the camp staff (translation = every time a kid wanted to go shoot arrows at the archery course, I had to stand and supervise to make sure no one came home missing an eye).

It was a great weekend. I managed to get about three whole hours of sleep each night in my room of non-stop hyperactive girls, I only got hit in the face with a dodgeball twice, and only one student dared pull a prank on my water bottle.

I use this time, each retreat, to scrutinize each wave of students. I love to learn their culture, their norms, and their group’s personality, as well as what they struggle with, what they need, and what they’re growing up to be.

Here are 7 of the observations I made about this particular generation of students:

  • We are, without a doubt, seeing the impact of strictly scheduled kids who are completely immersed in technology. Kids don’t really know what to do with true free time. These kids are so used to being told what to do, every second of their day, that they don’t understand how to think on their own or structure their free time at all. They also wouldn’t stop asking about the schedule. It’s clear that they are used to keeping their own schedules and knowing what’s happening each day, and even though we told them “not to worry about the schedule”, they did.
  • I think these kids crave a release from their technological world. We don’t hear many complaints about it not allowing cell phones at our retreat anymore, whereas it was a constant complaint just a few years ago. Kids seemed all too happy to be away from the “stress of keeping up with Facebook and their texts from friends”. I just wrote an article about this at my youth ministry column at thESource, if you want to dive into this topic more here.
  • These kids are more noticeably distant from adults and older teenagers. Even our high school students, who helped out as leaders at one of these retreats for the very first time, noticed this and commented on it. Our middle school kids were polite, but distant. I wonder if this is a reaction to the fact that they are constantly ordered around by adults, with their highly structured teams, clubs, and other organizations—and deep down, maybe unknowingly resentful that these adults don’t care enough about them to force them to unplug, take downtime, and quit the activities that they can’t mentally and physically keep up with.
  • This group of students is losing the ability to read and write at the level that should be standard for their age group. Many was very rudimentary in their ability to think critically, fill out answers, and spell. I know this is the generation that is the techie generation, and it’s clear to me that using autocorrect and not learning how to write things out by hand is eroding their ability to spell, construct sentences, and even their handwriting itself. I fear for their college professors–and the future of literature.
  • Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. The old adage I’ve heard that a student has about a minute of undivided focus for each year old they are (so, about 12-14 minutes at a time for these kids) seems to be shortening. They want everything instantly, and they get antsy even if they have to wait in line for something. They lose focus in the amount of time it takes to hand something out to their group.
  • I think these kids are absolutely dying for individual attention. It’s a trademark of their age, of course, but it seems like even the smallest amount of personal, one-on-one time just completely lifts them up. One really cool thing we did this year was have all of our small group leaders pray individually with kids, while we were doing our closing worship service—so each student there was prayed for personally by an adult. Many kids were crying, even though most of the adults spent only a few moments praying with them. I wonder if this is another effect of them feeling like they are over-programmed and expected to produce results in most everything they do—that simply by having an adult love them, without expecting anything from them in return, is something they aren’t used to.
  • At one point, when I told the entire room that we had had a prayer team of 80 people (including 60 teenagers who had gone on the retreat before), praying for them by name for the entire month of October, I saw jaws drop open. I think the idea of being a part of something that’s a legacy is something that’s important to this group–which makes perfect sense, because the technology they’re so used to is so temporary that they crave something that lasts for a long time. Kids were coming up to me and telling me they were excited to get to pray for this group when they became teenagers, and many were asking me if they could come back to the retreat as teen leaders in the future. I think this wave of kids will be very interested in their personal genealogies, and will be captured by the idea of being a part of something that’s bigger than themselves.

All observations aside, I need to add one purely emotional statement that comes straight from the gut:

I love these kids and leaders.

Even with the kids’ wild dodgeball-chucking energy, and that twinkling in their eyes that indicates that they just poured a cup of sugar into my ice water, and their insistence that we stay up “just a little bit longer” to tell stories in our room late at night, and our leaders’ good-natured assistance with pranks, stealing creepy dolls out of rooms when no one is looking, and hiding candy bars in their Bibles…they make retreats like this a blast.

And now, for the first time in weeks, I can relax…and leisurely sip my sugar-free water.

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2 responses

10 11 2011
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30 03 2013
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