The Heart of Middle School Meanness
It doesn’t matter where you live, what type of school system you are in, or who your kids’ friends are, there is no fool proof way of avoiding middle school meanness. That is not to say the meanness doesn’t start before middle school, nor does it necessarily end before high school (or even stop in adulthood for that matter). But by and large the drama, the cattiness, the dismissiveness, the name-calling, the online bullying, the rejecting, and the outright hateful words and mean behavior start to blow up big-time around middle school.
We are left wondering why these kids who used to be so “good,” kids who should “know better,” are behaving so terribly. And how do we handle it? Whether our kid feels like the victim, whether they’re caught in the middle, simply a by-stander, or they’re the one misbehaving (we are fooling ourselves if we think our kids won’t ever be this one!) – parenting through the drama and meanness is hard.
External factors (like family, environment, friend groups and situations, etc.) may contribute, but they are not the primary problem in middle school meanness. The problem is our kids’ hearts, and our hearts too (it’s a universal human heart problem). Therefore, we must deal with the heart to properly address the problem.
If we only deal with the outer behavior, we will never effectively change what’s really going on.
To get to the heart we must chisel down beneath the behavior, to see what’s driving it. Again, external factors can influence, but we all act according to our will. And whether we or our children are Christians does not preclude us/them from our natural bent toward sin. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). By the grace of God only do any of us have the contrary influence of the Spirit.
We have sin-sick hearts. All of us.
When we understand our true diagnosis as an across-the-board condition, we can start from a place of compassion with and for our own kids, and for others acting in their sin and brokenness. When our child knows this is our condition, too – that we are in the same sin-ridden boat – they will be much more softened to receive our probing questions, helping them get to the root of their behavior.
The root (or the heart) is the driving force behind what and why any of us do what we do. So whatever is ruling our hearts (whatever we worship or whatever means the most to us) will be the influential tug that determines our words and deeds, our motives and hidden agendas.
If Jesus is at the center of my heart, my words and action will reflect Him. The problem arises, even for the most well-intentioned believer, when something other than Jesus becomes more valuable to us. Whatever it is (and it can be anything) – a person, an object, a desire – that we seek to find “life” in apart from God is the false god, the ruling idol of our heart.
By “life” I mean whatever we try to find an identity in. So for our middle schoolers (and again, us), false gods are found in appearance, acceptance, affirmation, significance, popularity, love. This means whatever it takes to get what they think they must have, they will do. Their ruling idol – in the classroom, the lunchroom, on the stage, the field, and social media – will determine why they do what they do.
Now it makes sense why a thirteen-year-old girl would make a snide comment to another girl if she feels jealous or insecure, if she doesn’t know her worth. In a twisted way, she feels better by making someone else feel worse. Take a kid who is starved for attention and love at home – now it makes sense why he craves attention from other people, even in negative ways. He is looking to know his worth; to know he is accepted and secure.
Ultimately, only God can fill us. Only God can make us whole. Only God is big enough to fill the hole in our soul that drives us to turn to false gods.
So when we talk to our kids about mean behavior and don’t get into idolatry, we neglect to help them learn to discern the true nature of their dissatisfied hearts – to see the depth of their sin, and their great need for a loving Savior.
But when we dig deeper with our kids, and they begin to grasp the extent and frequency of god-replacements popping up in their hearts, we shepherd them to want to obey out of worship for the One who rescued them from the depth of their sin. In having these hard and complicated discussions about the reality of the human heart, we raise kids who have compassion on others who are similarly ruled by false gods, but don’t know the full acceptance, love, and worth they have in Jesus.