Last time, we discussed what can lead us to have a false sense of maturity about our middle schooler. Now, we’ll examine 3 dangers of this and 4 keys to avoiding it.
Parents, adults, and students become blind to weaknesses – Dr. Gary Chapman has this great insight in his book The Five Love Languages:
The one who is “in-love” is not genuinely interested in fostering the personal growth of the other person. The in-love experience does not focus on our own growth nor on the growth and development of the other person. Rather, it gives us the sense that we have arrived and that we do not need further growth. Certainly our beloved does not need to grow, because [they] are perfect (34).
When our middle schoolers possess character traits, exhibit behavior, and make choices that demonstrate great maturity, those should be celebrated and encouraged – that will directly impact their desire to continue in that behavior! However, applying Chapman’s point to adolescents, when an adolescent’s best qualities are over-emphasized and become the selling point by which adults always describe them, both the adult and the teenager can become blind to areas of immaturity, therefore, never giving attention to those areas. This is so easy to do, but can do long-term damage to an adolescent becoming a well-rounded adult. Author and child-psychologist Mark Gregston tells the story of one time hiring a 20-something girl for his ministry based on her impressive resume and sharp interview. However, it was quickly revealed in the work-place that she was socially immature, bucked at authority, and had a poor work ethic. Later, he found out that while her resume was true, it was also completely assembled and typed out by her father. In fact, the father had also written most of her college essays. So, as an adult encountering the real world, her specific areas of maturity were no match for her severe lack in others and she was soon fired.
This doesn’t mean that an adolescent’s strong moments are always tampered with words like, “Well, you’re good at that, but you still need to work on X;” which would quickly lead to a sense of frustration that they’re never good enough. It simply means that we shouldn’t allow strengths to blind us to areas that still need growth.
Parents, adults, and adolescents can become judgmental of others that do not exhibit the same areas of maturity – I’ve seen this is youth groups many times – students who avoid or shun other students because of their perceived or actual lack of maturity. This leads to these students who do possess greater maturity to be viewed as arrogant, mean, or cliquish, which is a shame because they can and should be the ones leading, serving, and setting the example for those students who do need to mature. Sadly, one can often tell this sense of pride or superiority is often fueled by parents continuously telling their child, in one way or another, “You’re better than those kids.”
The maturation process can be pushed faster than is appropriate and healthy – I will be the first to say that our modern culture expects too little of young people, downplays their capabilities, and celebrates extended years of carefree, irresponsible living. Teenagers, even middle school level ones, need to know they can be and do more than that! However, when we get lured into a false sense of maturity about our middle schooler, over time we tend to lay on them expectations or responsibilities for which they are not ready. There should not be an absence of expectations, but rather age-appropriate and well-thought out expectations; otherwise, we may inadvertently set a kid up for failure. Obviously, there are lots of trial and error scenarios where we see what students can and cannot handle and then we adjust, which is good. But, if not watchful, adolescents, whether we intend to or not, can begin to believe they are expected to be perfect because their maturity in one area caused us to expect them to exhibit that same level of maturity in all areas. Wiseman explains that some parents unintentionally send the message to their teenagers that while “other kids” may have struggles, they are expected to be above such problems. She interview two teenage boys about this experience and here is how they responded:
“That basically describes my life. If you make a mistake, it’s hard to move on from that”
“My parents say, ‘How could you do that? I thought you were better than that.” (135-136)
The reality is that even the most responsible, most mature adolescents are going to make mistakes. Gregston explains in several of his writings that teenagers need to have space to try and fail without fear of judgment and condemnation, otherwise they will either come to believe all love and value must be earned or they will completely rebel against all expectations since they can’t ever do well enough. He quotes a student he counseled who had rebelled against his parents expectations of his life: “My parents try to control everything in my life. Everything I do right is under their control. So the only way I can show any sort of control in my life is to do some not-so-good things that are beyond their control. I’d rather do wrong and be in control than do right and not be in control.” Gregston is quick to point out that none of the expectations on their list were bad or in excess, they were just presented in way that communicated to their son “you must be perfect” and “we’re controlling everything about you to make sure that happens” (119). The bottom line – the ability to be mature in one area does not mean an adolescent is capable of exercising the same level of maturity in another, and pushing them too far too fast can force them to rebel against all attempts to mature.
So, what are some key things to keep in mind to avoid being trapped by a false sense of security? Here are four simple things that will help create a healthy perspective, foster a good plan, and train a wacky middle school to become and well-rounded young adult:
Key #1 – Celebrate maturity – Celebrating the areas of maturity you see in the middle schoolers in your life reinforces for them that such behavior is good and desirable, and they’ll aim to keep that up.
Key #2 – Allow room for mistakes – We must accept that middle schoolers will make mistakes and allow them space to do so. As they are given new opportunities and responsibilities to test their ability (aka – maturity), they will have mind-blowing successes and head-scratching blunders. Just remember, that’s normal, and help them learn from those blunders in a productive way. Mistakes that are just honest, innocent blunders due to inexperience should be met with training, compassion, and discussion. Mistakes that involve breaking rules or even laws should be met with consistent, pre-laid out consequences that you’ve communicated ahead of time, as well as, again, compassion, discussion, and training. As Gregston repeats many times, make sure the consequences of any wrong doing do not communicate a lack of love or loss of relationship with you.
Key #3 – Be realistic about the maturity process – Realize that nearly every middle school kid is going to be more mature than many of their peers in some areas and less mature than many of their peers in others – and be ok with that. Just have to keep the big picture in mind. Oestreicher and Rubin describe the middle school maturation process this way:
“It’s not as clean as ‘two steps forward and one step back.’ Sometimes middle schoolers take one step forward and two steps back. But just as often, they’ll take one step forward and then quickly take one step back. And once in a while they’ll take two steps forward and no steps back. There’s no predicting this at a micro level, and the whole process of moving from childhood [to adulthood] can only be seen from a helicopter view” (172).
Key #4 – Remember immaturities are normal and will pass – All the student examples I’ve mentioned that were mature in one area but not in others were perfectly normal adolescents. At the middle school level, those areas of immaturity weren’t severe weaknesses or intentional rebellion, they just hadn’t grown up in that area yet. So don’t be discouraged when that kid you thought was so mature does something really bone-headed; they’re just a middle schooler and they’ll grow out of it as you coach them along. We must love and accept them as they are while training and modeling for them how to change. By high school, many of the more juvenile immaturities should have passed on, and the difference between severe immaturities and normal, coming-of-age immaturities becomes more easily distinguishable.
The growing up process is a slow, painful, adventurous, and exciting journey. Maturity is the goal, and there will be many moments where young adolescents will burst out with great moments and habits. Just remember to keep those in perspective, to not allow yourself or the middle schoolers in your life to be lured into a false sense of maturity. Rather, celebrate and capitalize on those areas of their lives as you help train their whole person for healthy, prosperous teenage and adult years.