Understanding preteen development is critical to understanding their spiritual growth.
Preteens. They’re silly, goofy, and obnoxious. They can’t sit still and seldom pay attention. They love screaming and doing anything that involves getting messy. And that’s just scratching the surface of their awesomeness. So what’s the best way to help teach these amazing kids about God? Let’s start by looking at what’s happening to them developmentally.
Preteen development can be summed up in one word: change. As preteens enter early adolescence, they experience incredible change. They change physically, emotionally, socially, and even-are you ready for this?-intellectually. That’s right! These crazy beings of highly explosive energy and terribly short attention spans are actually gaining the capacity to be more intelligent. In his book Developmentally Appropriate: Middle Level Schools, M. Lee Manning says, “During early adolescence, youth typically progress from concrete logical operations and problem solving to acquiring the ability to develop and test hypotheses, analyze and synthesize data, grapple with complex concepts, and think reflectively.”
This intellectual increase has a direct effect on something else that’s changing: their faith. As preteens gain the ability to analyze, hypothesize, and reflect, they ask deeper questions about God, the Bible, and Jesus. Rather than blindly accepting their parents’ and ministers’ answers, they yearn to understand faith for themselves. In other words, they take their first steps from faith dependence (relying on what others tell them to believe) to faith ownership.
As they take those first steps, we can expect preteens to learn and grow differently than they did as first, second, and third graders. No longer are they happy to take what we tell them at face value, simply swallowing what we feed them. Instead, they want to experience, test, and interact with that faith on their own. And it’s up to us to “let go” and allow them do so.
Preteens need our direction and influence. Rather than simply teaching preteens by providing the right information, we support them by allowing them to learn for themselves. Rather than telling preteens how their faith affects their life, we create environments and resources where they can discover it. Instead of giving them all the answers about God, Jesus, the Bible, and the rest of life, we invite them to grapple with their questions and even offer answers. Instead of telling them what they should do, we create opportunities to discover what God calls them to do.
Preteens truly are a special age, unlike any other. Yes, they can be crazy, overwhelming, and even exhausting at times. But to watch a preteen, for the first time on his or her own, truly comprehend who Jesus is and what he’s done for us is unlike any other ministry experience. So who cares if we get a little messy in the process? cm
Patrick Snow works as the director of SuperStart!, a national touring weekend event for preteens. Through SuperStart! Patrick teaches and speaks to over 9,000 preteens each year. Patrick is the author of Leading Preteens and co-founder of fourfivesix.org.