Engaging and Disciplining Middle School Boys

A while back, a friend asked me a question about leading adolescent boys. He has younger children, but he helps to lead a para-church ministry for children and youth. They were having a struggle with a certain middle school boy, who was not being outright defiant and deviant, but was definitely exhibiting undesirable characteristics (laziness, passivity, resistance to instruction, etc).

His question was along the lines of, "How do we help this boy learn to become a man? How do we guide him, without crushing him?"

My advice included five complementary guidelines:
  1. Engage the parents
  2. Communicate high standards
  3. Be gracious
  4. Give constructive work
  5. Exhibit and expect mutual respect


Engage the Parents

Since the parents are the primary, God-ordained authorities over their children, you must make every effort to engage them. Parents want the best for their children, even when they do not know what to do in a particular situation.

Talk to the parents, come to an agreement on what the core issues are, and get clarity on a plan going forward. If the boy hears one set of things from parents, and a completely different set from other leaders, he will become confused, frustrated, and defensive, and passive.

Be sure that the child knows that you are in regular communication with his parents about this matter. If at all possible, do not make the child fight a two-front war, with you on one side and the parents on the other.

For more on this, read Empowering Parents Instead of Isolating Them.

High Standards

Does the child know what the expectations are? Are they tangible?

Most adolescents struggle to properly process unclear commands such "behave better" and "be respectful." Address specific behaviors such as an unwillingness to work, tone of voice with adults, etc.

Cast a clear vision on what you hope to see in the child. Outline a plan of what you expect to see in the short- (4-8 weeks), medium- (6-12 months), and long-term (3-5 years). Young men want to be a part of something great, especially when that something great is the potential of what they can be.
"Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, But happy is he who keeps the law."  Proverbs 29:18

Be Gracious
While you should keep high expectations for young men, you must also understand that they will fail. Children are sinners, just like the parents and adults that lead them.

If all the child hears from you is how bad he is doing, he will become exasperated and lose hope. Remind him that he is a work in progress, just as you are.

I'm not saying that we should expect our children to be rebellious and failures. We can and should have hope in our gracious God and His gospel. But we need to understand that they will struggle with sinful behaviors.
"Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged."  Colossians 3:21

Constructive Work

When not given enough work to do, children easily become lazy, selfish, and disgruntled. Hard work gets the focus off ourselves, and helps us better appreciate the blessings that we do have. 

As much as possible, give constructive work to a young man. He should understand that the work is intended to make him better, or to bless others around him. Physical work is ideal, since it provides a good channel for masculine adolescent energy. However, there is also value in occasional low-energy and monotonous work.

Mutual Respect

By the time a boy reaches the preteen years, you should be transitioning out of the phase where your primary relationship is that of authority over him. This is not a simple transition, and there are no clear formulas to go through it smoothly.

However, one big requirement is that you give him respect. You must shift from authority to influence, and not treat him as you would a preschooler.

Respect him enough to engage him in dialogue, not monologue tirades. Respect him enough to not embarrass or belittle him in public. Respect him enough to let him know (in private) that you expect better out of him.

Ideally, the boy has (by this point) spent the majority of his life learning to respect you and other leaders. Now be sure to teach him how to receive and deserve respect.

When it comes to boys, they primarily need a father (and other men) to lead them through this transition. An adolescent boy needs a man to speak into his life (as Mark Driscoll points out in this leadership coaching video, Fatherly Leadership). Moms and other women have a role, but we men must step up and lead.

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**image courtesy of cliff1066tm via flickr (Norman Rockwell's "Graduation")

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