Long time middle school pastors and parents of teenagers Scott Rubin and Mark Oestreicher share this humorous story in their book “Middle School Ministry”:
Marcie was 12 years old and in 7th grade. She was ahead of the curve in her physical development. She could have easily passed for a 16-year-old-girl. She was pretty, and she knew how to work that. Marcie had perfectly styled hair that wasn’t one bit teenybopper, and had fingernails that all the women in our ministry were jealous of. Marcie was also relationally mature, and she was comfortable and at ease in adult conversation. Adult leaders liked being around Marcie because she made them feel comfortable, almost as though they were chatting with a peer.
Pretty much everything about Marcie made her seem mature beyond her years – except Marcie was still totally into Barbie dolls… and this wasn’t the semi-acceptable Barbie affection of an adult collector;… Marcie loved her Barbie dolls as childhood playthings. She’d regularly bring a Barbie or two on overnight trips with the youth group, and they could be found resting on her pillow during nonsleeping hours. Some kids teased her about this, but Marcie wasn’t emotionally perceptive enough to realize it was teasing… she regularly mistook their play-along mocking as genuine interest in her dolls.
Oestreicher and Rubin also call attention to the reality that puberty takes place over multiple years, at varying rates, and presents itself in different ways in different kids. One 13 year old boy may be shaving and towering over his mother while another is short, skinny, and still knee deep in Legos. One 14 year old girl may look like a college girl on the outside while another is mistaken for a 5th grader. The point is proven both by research and simple observation that some kids mature faster in some areas rather than others. Not only is there difference kid to kid, and but within each adolescent, different aspects of their person develop at various rates. Marcie, in the above story, is not a lone case but rather an example (albeit a more glaringly obvious example) of the truth about almost every middle schooler: Appearance of maturity in one area does not equal maturity in all areas.
If you are around middle schoolers and the adults in their lives very long, you will inevitably hear these words, “John is just more mature than other boys his age” or “Jane is just way beyond where other girls are right now.” I believe that these individuals first and foremost are motivated by love and excitement– they are supposed to celebrate the best in their student and rightly so. They see signs that their young teenager can and is becoming more adult-like in their character and behavior. Nor do I deny that some aspect of their student probably is beyond that of their peers.
However, a major pitfall we can wander into is a false sense of maturity. This happens when adults or adolescents perceive something that sets them apart from their peers and label it “more mature,” and then allow this to lead to a subconscious, wholesale belief in that teenager’s overall maturity. Often without realizing, they assume a perspective that being one, or even five, steps ahead of their peers in one area automatically makes them far ahead in every area.
Now, most parents and adults realize that just because a middle schooler kid is tall, smart, beautiful, or spiritual doesn’t mean they have arrived. But, it is very easy to be lulled into a false sense of maturity if we don’t watch carefully, and it is ultimately not fair to the child or their peers. Here are several factors that can lead to a false sense of maturity about young adolescents:
- Advanced physical maturity – We have all seen those 12 to 14 year kids who look like anything but kids. They are tall, well-developed, have facial or body hair, and have already experienced some voice change. They may be shaving, looking down at mom or dad, or catching the eye of peers much older than they are. When juxtaposition with a little short kid the same age, they appear in every way to be a young adult, and thus assumed to be smarter, more street-wise, and more advanced. We see this more often with girls, but with boys as well, when a coach, teacher, or parents treats this more mature “looking” individual with more enthusiasm than others. On a student mission trip I led a few years ago, there was a young lady who was as sharp as they come when it came to adult interaction, humor, and trendy fashion. Everything about this girl at the first few interactions gave the clear impression of maturity. But, a few days on the mission field exposed a major weakness – she was a “mean girl.” She clearly drew lines between the godlier, prettier girls and the not-so-much girls. She was very immature and selfish socially amongst peers. As a middle school basketball coach, I witnessed many 13 and 14 year old boys who were very advanced athletically (they were the size and build of many grown men in know) making foolish, dangerous life choices. They were making choices they weren’t ready to handle because the adults in their lives had falsely concluded that maturity in physical appearance and ability equated to maturity in decision making and behavior, and therefore did not intervene to help them grow in those areas.
- Bursts of mature behavior – This is the fun part of middle school: those moments when they “get it.” They make a wise choice, respond right to a temptation, perform a selfless act, or interact with a non-family member adult with wit and confidence. We catch glimpses of the child becoming an adult and it is exciting! But, the other reality of middle school is that a mere hour after that shining moment, they will do something really foolish or naïve. One of those actions where we scratch our heads and think (and even say), “What on earth possessed you to do that?!” That’s the reality of the mental, social, spiritual, and emotional changes (accompanied by hormones) on young teenagers. There was one boy in our ministry who continually looked out for the tiny 6th grader or that timid girl and made sure they are included in the fun. Every time he did, I thought, “Wow, what a mature kid.” But, he also regularly got caught breaking rules or sneaking out. He was socially more mature with peers, but lacked a mature sense of responsibility and respect for authority.
- Intellectual Aptitude – Middle school is the time when kids start learning material that can rival the knowledge of adults. Whether it’s math, science, pop-culture, or humor, middle school kids are smart, some exceptionally so. And their level of intellectual maturity, especially when we compare them to elementary siblings in their house, really gives a sense of maturity.
- Spiritual Knowledge – This is a big one for us Christian parents and pastors! We see our kids recite verses, explain theology, go on a mission trip, and behave a like the good, moral Christian they are. When compared to a lot of unchurched, immoral, drug abusing, porn-using kids their age, they stand out. This outward appearance of godliness and morality, however, is often mistaken for real spiritual maturity. In his book Why Christian Kids Rebel, Dr. Tim Kimmel, family counselor and speaker noted how often he has encountered Christian school kids who are bored, unenthusiastic, and indifferent about church or youth group, but their parents, headmasters, and teachers will say it is because they are “so much beyond where the other kids from the public schools are” (117). He goes on to point out that while they may have more biblical knowledge than many of their church peers, many of those Christian public school kids have much more fire and passion for Jesus, His Word, and His Kingdom. In student ministry, I have often had a harder time getting Christian school students to engage in additional spiritual pursuits, because they or their parents say something like, “they don’t really need that.” Intellectual Bible knowledge alone does not equal spiritual maturity, and if it did, Jesus would have never had cause to call out the Pharisees.
- Creating Our Own Measurements of Maturity – This one, I think, is the most common. We fall into the trap of creating our own definitions of what is mature and what is not. New York Times bestselling author Rosalind Wiseman in her book Masterminds & Wingmen, talks about how often many boys are viewed as behind or less mature simply because they are boys, and exhibit typical male behavior like rough-housing, pretending to shoot or blow things up, or the constant need to throw or hit something. She says that both parents (typically moms) and educators have written these boys off as immature:
While I hate saying this, it’s been my experience that these people are supportive and understanding when it comes to encouraging girls or “gentle, sensitive boys” but not so much when it comes to loud, “out there” boys. Instead, these boys are designated as troublemakers or as being deeply troubled. (141-142)
The rowdier boys are automatically labeled “immature” while any students who are not rowdy are “more mature.” That is simply not always true. I had a 6th grade boy once who was always ready to play anything sport related. He was the type that woke up like the flip of a switch and he was ready to go play some tackle football right then! The people described by Wiseman would quickly label him immature, and I would agree that he had a lot to learn about appropriate behavior in social settings. However, upon knowing him more, his ability to interact with adults and the level of sophistication in his humor was more advanced than most of those in the same 6th grade small group. But this would be overlooked by many who would only see a hyperactive boy.
We once had a parent insisting that their son was much more mature than “other boys” his age, and therefore should be allowed to room with two much older boys on a student retreat, who were his best and only friends (one being a relative). We did not allow middle schoolers and high schoolers to room together at our student events, yet they continued insisting he room with these much older boys. The longer the conversation went on, comments were made clearly revealing that their gauge of maturity came down to the fact that he wasn’t loud and rowdy like “other boys,” but no actual superlative of his own was ever given. It also begged the question that if he was so much more mature, why was he unable to exercise social skills to make new friends, which is a clear sign of maturity? We must guard against labeling ours and other kids on our own opinions of what is mature and what it not because it can lead to false conclusions about our own students as well as others.
- Confusing personality types with maturity – This is related to the previous reason and is as equally easy to do. Extraverts often view introverts as socially immature. Intellectuals may view athletes as behind. Type A’s think every Type C is immature and vice versa. We have to be careful here to make sure that we don’t mistake a personality type we prefer as more mature than a personality we don’t typically connect with. A quiet, timid 7th grade girl may just be a quiet person, which has no bearing on where she falls the maturation scale.
Next time, we’ll look at the dangers of letting a false sense of maturity linger on and some keys to helping avoid this.