Sitting on the Fence: The Overlapping Transition

Posted: August 9, 2010 in Uncategorized

I played a lot of baseball as a kid. Inevitably from time to time someone would hit the ball over a fence into a neighbor’s yard, and I would always volunteer to go get it. Why? For some reason, I loved climbing fences. I felt it was a worthy challenge for a kid like me, and I’d always look for an opportunity to climb a fence higher than the last one I climbed. It was always a struggle at first – looking for good places to put my feet, using little cracks to wedge my hand into, protecting myself from the occasionally sharp-tipped fence. Eventually I would manage to get most of my body on top of the fence, and what a feeling that was! Being so high up I was teetering on the edge of excitement and danger, as any wrong move could leave me falling to the ground and drastically hurting myself. A good move and a good jump would lead me successfully to my desired location on the other side of the fence; a bad move and a bad jump would lead me back to mom’s medicine cabinet looking for bandages. The awkward feeling of balancing on the fence was a necessary step to completing my objective in retrieving the ball. At one point half of my body would be on the side with the ball, and the other half of my body would still be on the side I came from.

Now think back to your years in middle school… Did it ever feel like you were teetering on the edge of excitement and potential danger as you traveled through puberty? Did you ever feel as vulnerable as you might feel while balancing on the top of a fence? Did it ever feel like half of the time you were becoming an adult (and wanted to be treated like one) while half of the time you still felt like a child, even desiring childish games and experiences? Moving from childhood to adulthood isn’t much different than climbing a fence.

Think about it. On one side of the fence is your childhood, and you find yourself there as an 11-year-old. You know you have to get to the “other side” and adulthood; in fact, you’d like nothing more than being treated like an adult! But there’s this intimidating fence separating you from your destination. For the sake of the analogy, we’ll call this fence: PUBERTY. There’s no going around this fence. You have to climb it, as awkward as it might feel. And at one point, once you reach the top, you’ll try to balance yourself. Half of your body will be on the original side (childhood) and the other half of your body will be on the new side (adulthood). The jump from the top of the fence is a little scary, and at one point you’ll wish that someone was there at the bottom ready to catch you or at least support you as you make the leap. But you eventually have to jump and land on the new side (adulthood) and how great it will feel!

Most middle schoolers, I would say, are somewhere along this process of climbing and sitting on the fence. They have adulthood in view, but they’re not ready to jump. They’re in what middle school ministry veteran Mark Oestreicher calls the “overlapping transition.”

The reason middle school is such a blackhole of ministry for a lot of churches and parents is because not a lot of people understand this age. Are these students kids? Or do we treat them like adults? We see glimpses of both, but it’s so confusing that we often just hope to get the students through this time as quickly as possible so we can “fix” them in high school. Instead of being proactive, we become reactive. This, I believe, is a massive mistake.

We have to understand that middle schoolers are in a unique phase of life. There are moments when one of our kids will be on top of the fence, with one foot in childhood and another in adulthood. I saw this demonstrated by one of my old youth group students in Indiana. This 8th grade girl posted this as her Facebook status (preserved in its unique middle school girl style):

“Sooo excited for a romantic dinner and movie with my loving boyfriend tonight! Then later tonight GLO-IN-THE-DARK mini-golf with my bff’s. Love u gurls!”

The first sentence demonstrates her new appreciation for what feels like a committed, loving, dating relationship that she has probably learned through observation of symbolic role models (those people whom she does not know personally) and exemplary models (those people whom she does know personally). The second sentence demonstrates her desire to hold on to the child-play with her friends (her “bff’s”) that she’s enjoyed for the first 13 years of her life. She doesn’t really want to commit completely to either side of the spectrum, childhood or adulthood. She likes having one foot on either side of the fence.

There isn’t a problem here that needs fixing; rather, what this girl needs is committed older women who will walk alongside of her during this tumultuous journey of middle school. She needs godly examples who will teach her what it looks like to be a woman, but who will also give her the grace to enjoy what remains of her childhood as well. We shouldn’t try to force a student out of her childhood; how does that communicate the love of Christ? Her childhood joys were given to her by God, and so often we interpret these childhood desires as “immaturity.” When we do this, we fail to understand where our students are at developmentally.

What is needed to effectively reach middle school students in the overlapping transition? Here a couple practical ideas:

  1. Patience. We have to be able to stop ourselves from being frustrated at what looks like immaturity in our students. The fact of the matter is that one week you’ll see adult-Jane, who acts responsibily and responds intelligently to your questions, and then next week you’ll see child-Jane, who pulls her brother’s hair and mumbles responses to your questions. There will be back-and-forth changes from childhood and adulthood during early adolescence and puberty. I’m sure Jesus would smile at these changes with patience instead of being frustrated.
  2. Protection. We have to protect our students from teasing that can often be very brutal. I’d like to say that only their peers will tease them, but too often a youth worker or another adult will slip a comment in about how the student shouldn’t be playing with dolls or Lego’s still. This is highly detrimental to our positive influence on kids. Every comment made to a middle school student can either make or break their day. We must protect them from teasing, whether it comes from other students or from ourselves.
  3. Processing (and role models who will help them do so!). Many students will make decisions everyday without ever thinking twice about them. They will continue to do so throughout adolescence if we don’t intentionally help them process the decisions they make. When a student is visibly upset, use discernment and ask them to walk you through the reasons for their anger. Just this past week, I was in this exact situation. A student got really upset during a group activity and walked off frustrated. I caught up with him and asked him probing questions about why he felt the way he did. I didn’t feed him answers; I let him discover himself, in a way. We have to be willing to walk alongside students during this overlapping transition and give them examples of what it feels and looks like to be an adult.

We have to be incarnational with middle school students to understand where they are on the fence. Are they just starting the climb? Are they sitting at the top? Are they on their way down? Only relationship can give you these answers. Jesus came to our level when he became man because there was no other way for God to understand our suffering. He entered into relationship with us by becoming one of us and taught us how to truly love God as human beings. So should we follow his example as we reach out to our students!

Some questions for discussion: Have you seen the overlapping transition in one of your middle school students? Was there ever a moment when you saw your student awkwardly balancing on top of the fence between adulthood and childhood? Are there moments from your middle school years during which you struggled between being a child and being an adult? How did you handle it?

  1. Jamie says:

    I like the reminder that “There isn’t a problem here that needs fixing.” Middle School students, and really all of us, need people to join them in their journey through life. There are many people who have played a big role in my life just by living theirs in front of me.

  2. Jamie, that’s exactly right. There’s a great book called “The Be-With Factor” by Bo Boshers. His premise is very simple: we need to mentor students by letting them live life with us (i.e. “being with” them). Most learning is caught, not taught. So the question is, are they going to “catch” the integrity of committed leaders and parents? Or are they going to “catch” the MTV approach to life that encourages kids to do whatever feels good in the moment?

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