Parenting middle schoolers can be challenging. Middle schoolers are beginning to look at lot like adults and yet they still don’t act completely like adults. They are smart, getting good with words, jokes, and beginning to really understand important and difficult topics. And they are a typically hungry to learn, to be included in adult conversations, and they often want to participate more and more in decision making.
There are also immaturities and follies and sin.
But here’s the thing to remember: there are also immaturities, follies, and sin in their parents. And nevertheless, those parents are entrusted with the teaching and training and discipline of those young people. Pretty scary. But it’s also really exciting if God will give us the eyes of faith to see what He is doing in this moment.
One of the places parents can go wrong is when we do not have a clear understanding of what constitutes clear and explicit sin and disobedience on the one hand and immaturity and sloppiness on the other.
So for example, a son may be trying to correct a younger sibling but it may come out very condescending or maybe even mocking. But maybe that son really was trying to help his younger sibling. That isn’t disobedience or blatant sin. It might have been sloppy on all sorts of counts, but that attempt at correction was actually an attempt at obedience. He should love his siblings and care for them and correct them. And this attempt at obedience should be distinguished from the middle school boy who is simply terrorizing his younger sibling. That would be sin and disobedience. Sin must be addressed and dealt with directly, but immaturity and sloppiness needs encouragement.
If parents aren’t careful they can actually squash attempts at obedience when what the middle schooler needed was a quick and cheerful encouragement to try it again or suggest different words to use. This is cheering them on and building them up. But parents are sinners, and we are tempted to lose heart or despair or be overly perfectionistic or just plain impatient or ungracious, especially when both scenarios can be happening at various points in the same day. One moment a daughter might be honestly trying to help her mother by offering an alternative theory or plan for something, but maybe it comes out sounding disrespectful, and then an hour later, a bad attitude might come out. The former needs encouragement, the latter needs measured correction. Keeping these two categories straight in your mind can clear away a whole host of unnecessary complications and hurt feelings.
And always remember that it is entirely possible to respond to immaturity with immaturity, or respond to sin with sin. Adult immaturity/sin may look more grown up than middle school immaturity/sin, but it’s still immaturity/sin for all that. And as I noted above, parents are tempted to sin frequently by panicking, despairing, or fearing. It may be that our middle schooler really and truly sinned. It really was a bad attitude or a disrespectful tone. But that is no excuse for you to sin by being frustrated, panicking, despairing, or imagining your visits to the state penitentiary in a few years. Remember, your middle schooler is smart enough to know when you are frazzled, when you are frustrated, when you are distressed, and in most cases, that really is distressing to them. But remember, one of the terrifying things about being a parent is that you never get to not be teaching. That was a double negative so let me say it again positively: you are always teaching. So if your middle schooler has responded with sinful or immature emotion or drama to some situation, the first priority in your mind should be to make sure that your own words and emotions are being governed by the Spirit.
Because our children are beginning to look and act like adults in some ways, it can be tempting to expect them to understand and be fluent in all sorts of adult assumptions and signals and protocols. But remember they are still 13. They are still getting used to using words, expressing differences of opinion, correcting others, using different tones of voice or facial expressions, or telling jokes. But they have only been in this world for 13 years. This isn’t an excuse for sinful behavior or rudeness at all, and of course there are any number of things they should know about words, jokes, and facial expressions after 13 years in this world, and on the whole, I do believe parents should have very high expectations for their children. But sometimes Christian parents can be the worst at having high expectations and so little grace to go with them. But we should have high expectations and be exceedingly patient and gracious. We should have high expectations and grace to match it. Because this is how God the Father is with each of us.
“As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13 ESV).