From Elementary to High School
One of the most challenging times in a child’s life is that awkward stage between elementary and high school. All at once, they’re too old for the things they’ve always loved, while at the same time, they’re too young for all the things they think they’re supposed to be interested in. Their bodies are changing. Their friends are changing. The social ladder becomes ever more confusing. But navigating these waters is something of a rite of passage that everyone must go through.
How do we, as parents, ministers, and disciple-makers, help them come out on the other side with their faith and character intact? We know we can’t hold their hands through it. That runs counter to the entire endeavor. We know that the idea is to give them just the right amount of independence and trust so that they can begin this journey through adolescence into eventual adulthood.
We know that scripture commands us to “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)
But how do we do that in this particular phase of our kids’ lives?
During these years, elements of their identity and worldview can really take root and become their own. As those whom God has placed in their lives to steer and support them, how do we approach this with intentionality? How do we help “kids” make that step to becoming “students” in the church and home?
Here are four simple tips I found helpful as a pastor and a parent.
1. Pursue continuity in the church.
While this point applies most directly to those serving in ministry, we can all help with it. In the American church, we have unintentionally created three silos. One for kids (birth through elementary), one for students (middle and high school), and one for adults. Often, the other areas feel completely foreign as kids make their way from one stage to the next. The students’ space is dark, loud, and intimidating, and the adults’ space is boring and nerve-wracking for energetic kids. This makes the already difficult transition into the middle school years even harder. Instead of removing barriers, we actually add more. There are some practical ways to help with this.
- Take your kids to service with you periodically. Some churches don’t offer kids ministry for this very reason. They have a conviction that the whole family should worship together and that cordoning off the kids in a separate part of the building leaves them disconnected from the local body. This concern is warranted, but I believe there is a middle ground where kids can experience age-appropriate learning with their peers and stay connected to the larger body. One of the ways that we do this at our church is by regularly scheduling family-integrated worship Sundays. The idea behind this is that we want the kids to feel like they are part of the same body, not a different body that just happens to meet in the same building. The impact of intergenerational discipleship cannot be overstated. Christianity is a generational faith. The truths of God’s Word have always been meant to be passed down from one generation to the next. As Psalm 145:4 says, “One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.”
- Bring students to them. Something else that we have found helpful is recruiting students to be helpers in our kids classes. Not only does this assist in providing support to our teachers, but it also garners a familiarity between kids and students. When they see students in the halls or at events, they recognize them and feel like they are all part of the same family – which is precisely what they are!
- Have an assimilation plan. This can be anything from assigning “big brothers/sisters” to having a planned service over the summer where you welcome the incoming kids into the student ministry. It’s not really about having a complex strategy as much as it is simply acknowledging that the kids are moving into this phase instead of just letting it happen and hoping for the best.
2. Pursue continuity in your parental or pastoral role.
Sometimes during all these changes our kids are going through, we find ourselves beginning to change. If we’re not careful, our desire to support our kids can cause us to move out of our parental or pastoral role and into a friend role. This is usually unintentional. In seeking to relate to them, make them feel understood, and provide some kind of social stability, we fill a genuine need in a less-than-ideal way. We want them to feel a sense of acceptance and think we can swoop in and provide that. Sometimes this even flows in the opposite direction. Instead of moving into a friend role so that our child will feel accepted, we move into that role because we crave acceptance from our child. In either case, this hurts more than it helps. Our kids do need to feel understood. We do need to find new ways to relate to them as they grow. But our role doesn’t change. A teammate can never lead as effectively as a coach. And a coach cannot lead effectively when he pretends to be a teammate. As our kids grow, they need stability. They need continuity. When the world around them is a full-blown social and emotional storm, pastors and parents must be anchors for them.
3. Buy a smaller house.
This is a bit of an exaggeration, but honestly, it would significantly change some families for the better. During this time of transition for our kids, we want to let them incrementally grow in their independence. But sometimes, we mistake withdrawal for independence. Kids learning to become more independent is not synonymous with kids pulling away from us relationally. Often, we react to this drift by planning more family activities. Family activities are fine, but they are no replacement for living as a family. The small things that came so naturally when they were younger – eating together, sitting in the living room watching movies together, running to the grocery store to pick something up together, playing basketball in the driveway together – these things need to be protected. Once they start to slip away, it’s tough to get them back. Keeping continuity in your role and the rhythms of family life will give your kids an emotional and social home base to retreat to.
4. Have the hard conversations, and don't make it weird.
Even the most protected kids are being bombarded with messages and ideologies that seek to shipwreck their faith and rob their innocence. It’s not a matter of if they will be confronted with the godless cultural topics of our day, but when. When it comes to issues like gender, sexuality, abortion, and the like, your kids need to hear the truth from you before they hear the lies from the world. It’s much better to put the world on the defensive than the other way around. Have the hard conversations. The best way to do this is to just be honest and use age-appropriate language. Teach them what God’s Word says and teach them what they’ll hear from competing worldviews. Don’t let them be caught off guard. Set the Word of God up as the standard by which they are to judge every other idea. Having these conversations on the front end will help them to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5b).
This stage of life for kids is hard enough already. We need to be careful that we don’t make it any harder for them. They need continuity. They need consistency. They need stability. We must make our church gatherings feel like a spiritual family reunion every week, and we need to be careful that we don’t just stick them at the kids’ table while we have grown-up time. We need to make sure that our homes feel like home. Protect the steady, organic rhythms of family life, and don’t mistake relational withdrawal for healthy independence. We can help our kids navigate this season in our churches and our homes. All it takes is a little intentionality and a lot of continuity.
"Teach your kids what God’s Word says and teach them what they’ll hear from competing worldviews. Don’t let them be caught off guard. Set the Word of God up as the standard by which they are to judge every other idea."
Nick Judd is the Kids Pastor at The Journey Church in Lebanon, TN. He is also the co-host of the "Everyday Apologetics" podcast. Nick is passionate about growing people in their knowledge of the Word of God and in their ability to defend it in the midst of a culture fighting against truth.
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