Looking around the room, I see many familiar faces. I see the athlete all the girls will love in a few years, though now he’s a little shy and prefers to run with his hair flying in the wind. Next to him is his awkward, overweight, and rather nerdy friend, loyal to a fault and trying to keep up. Across the room are several other boys, the popular crowd: fun and good looking, sought out by others. And, of course, there are others as well: the boy who looks like puberty is still years away, and the other one whose body is well into the process but whose mind may never catch up.
And there are the girls. On my left is the power group: the tall, attractive girls who look several years older than any other kid in the room, though they’re not. Confident and insecure at the same time. A few seats to my right are several smaller and rather awkward girls, the ones who haven’t yet grown out of the slight layer of “baby fat” that still pads their young bodies. Scattered around the room are a few others who don’t quite have a niche of their own yet. All of them clearly wrestling with what it means to be caught between child and woman.
I know these kids. And I know them well. But I’ve never been here before.
This week, my family and I are in Slovakia helping with a middle school summer camp. The students are all from central Slovakia, though their ethnic background also includes some Czech, French, German, Austrian, Russian, and there’s one boy that I’m pretty sure is Roma (gypsy). But, despite being from a different country with a unique culture and language, they’re still middle schoolers.
I’ve worked with middle schoolers from several different cultures. And, although my experience so far is limited to “western” cultures (Europe, North America, and Central America), it still seems like there’s something universal about the experience of being a human person caught in the scary “middle” of early adolescence. They’re all wrestling with the same basic issues.
1. Where Do I Fit In?
This has to be the biggest question for any middle schooler. You’re moving from the certainty of childhood, innocently believing that everyone loves you and you belong everywhere, to the anxious uncertainty of puberty. No longer a child, you’re not an adult either. Unless you’re on the older end of the spectrum, you’re not even a “teenager” yet. So what exactly are you? You’d love to be able to answer that question.
You still find much of your identity in your family, but you’re starting to develop your own sense of “self,” an awareness that you are more than just an extension of your family. So you’re reaching out to find some place to “belong” outside the family as well. But that’s not easy. Your peers aren’t sure who they are either. You’re all trying on different roles, just to see if they fit. So the social groups you form are fluid, with all the stability of spaghetti in boiling water. And that makes it very difficult to find a place to belong, a safe place to fit in.
Fumbling toward belonging. If I had to define the essence of the middle school years, that would be it. Of course, in many ways, it’s also the essence of the human experience for all of us.
2. Who Am I?
Most adults I talk to think this question comes before the last one: you figure out who you are and then you determine where you fit in. I don’t think that’s the correct order for any of us, but that clearly isn’t how it works for middle schoolers. The answer to the who question comes almost entirely from the where question. Once you’ve found a place to belong, a place where you feel at least reasonably safe, that place becomes the ground for developing your sense of identity. (And, contrary to popular opinion, a middle schooler’s family is still the primary place where that identity gets formed. Peer groups are an important part of the process, but still secondary to the family.)
But, although the where question is critical, there’s more to the who question than just that. Most of us get a lot of our identity from our bodies. Our gender, height, weight, color, attractiveness (or perceived lack thereof), all of these shape who we think we are. That’s great for children and adults whose bodies are relatively stable. But for the middle schooler, it’s something else entirely. Their bodies are in constant flux: growing, changing, and often misbehaving. And this makes it hard for the middle schooler to settle on an identity. Am I the tall one or the short one? Am I athletic or not? Am I pretty or pimply? I’ve seen kids whose identities were almost completely transformed by their developing bodies, going from the shy, little one in the corner to the powerful and popular athlete at the center of the social. In that constant state of flux, identity is a tricky thing.
3. What Do I Think?
One of the things I love most about working with middle schools students is the “middle” state of their minds. Most of them retain some of the innocent trust of the child, willing to accept what you say just because you’re the teacher. And some will stay that way for a while yet. But many are starting to stretch their mental muscles in new ways.
Because of this, middle schoolers ask the best questions. They still have the rampant curiosity of childhood, but they combine that with a growing information base and increasing mental powers. And, at the same time, they’re young enough not to be as concerned about whether their question is “acceptable.” Stir all of that together and you have the perfect conditions for amazing and unexpected questions.
And all of this is part of the process by which middle schoolers are learning to think. I’m not saying that this is when they learn to “think for themselves.” That would be a very western perspective, and no one really thinks as an isolated individual like that anyway. But they are using their own mental processes in ways that they probably haven’t before. They know what they’ve heard; now they’re trying to figure out what they think.
4. What Do I Believe?
And that moves directly into the next piece. As they begin to figure out what they think, they almost necessarily start looking more closely at what they believe.
For most middle schoolers, this doesn’t entail challenging what they believe, though it can. For many, this is just a time for understanding more deeply what they already believe. They’ll ask the difficult questions, and they’ll probably struggle with some doubt and uncertainty, but this is all part of the process of coming to understand and internalize their own faith.
A few will move in a different direction entirely, questioning, and possibly even rejecting, the faith of their childhood. But, in my experience, this isn’t terribly common until the later middle school years, and usually comes from a student trying on different social identities. In other words, in the chaos of trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in, a middle schooler may try on the “atheist” hat for a while, just to see if it fits. Sadly, the hat sticks to some.
Regardless, the middle school years are a powerful time for students to wrestle with what they believe. Done well, this can lead to a deeper and more personal faith. (That, by the way, is why I think it’s tragic that many churches pay more attention to the high school years. That’s an important time as well, but middle school is often where the real foundation gets laid.)
I’m sure there are more, but those are the four that come to mind this morning. And they’re the ones that I seem to find in middle schoolers wherever they might be.
Are Middle Schoolers the Same Everywhere?
That’s the question I used in the title of this post. And the answer is, of course not. Slovak and American middle schoolers are different in more ways than I can count. And I don’t want to downplay those differences. But today, I’m struck by the similarities.
So, looking around the room at a camp in central Slovakia, I see familiar faces. The faces of young people wrestling with who they are and where they belong in a world grown suddenly chaotic and complex. They’re the same faces that I’ve seen on other kids in other places. I don’t know why this surprises me, but it always does. I guess I keep expecting the particularities of culture to trump the universalities of humanity. But today I see something else. Today I’m reminded of our shared experience of being human…wherever we might be.