Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review: "Understanding Your Young Teen" by Mark Oestreicher

The first time a parent came to me as the youth group leader to ask for parenting advice was crazy. It was crazy for a lot of reasons, but the primary reason was that I was only 19 years old and the student in question was 14. I had nothing to say, mostly because I had nothing to offer - I was trying to figure out how to respond to the Elders' request that I take my lip ring out and stop dyeing my hair green.

The reason that Marko's new book "Understanding Your Young Teen" is so important is because it goes a long way towards closing the gap in the kinds of conversations that parents and people who work with young teens have to have, both with the teens themselves and with one another. The content of the book is a training for parents (the subtitle after all is "Practical Wisdom for Parents") but applies so wonderfully to my everyday world working with middle school students and their families that I must rave about it. Here goes:

Marko begins with a tongue-in-cheek rhetorical question: "Can Anything Good Come From This Age?" that smacks of the Biblical reference to Jesus's hometown but also underscores the attitude that so many people have towards middle schoolers in our culture. I can't begin to tell you how many people tell me on a regular basis, "That's great you work with THOSE kids, I certainly couldn't do it." Of course, knowing Marko's love for teens of this age I know that he is being snarky with the title. Marko uses this intro chapter to trace the development of adolescence as a cultural phenomenon and talks at length about misperceptions like the one I give above. "The gap between the perception many adults have of middle schoolers' potential and their actual potential is fairly wide. Most of this gap is rooted in complex cultural misunderstandings - even fear - of young teens." The basis of the book is that misunderstanding middle school aged teens is normal - maybe even OK - because it's an opportunity to learn the truth and biology behind the perceived stupidity.

Three important things are highlighted by Marko before launching full-tilt: 1) Most people come to faith in Jesus before the age of 13 or 14 (George Barna stats) 2) The two years following puberty (average age of 11, so 12-13 year olds) are a "tumultuous period of change. One of the most dramatic of these changes is the onset of abstract thinking, which is essential to owning one's faith" and 3) You (the parent) are still the number one influence in the life of your son or daughter!! (Christian Smith's research).

The middle school years are marked by change. We know this from a really base level - puberty happens, boys' voices squeak and bodies change - and girls seem to grow up overnight. But what Marko does so wonderfully in this book is give a teaching of all of the different kinds of teaching that really affect how we understand the process. There are certainly hormonal changes (Chapter 3), but we kind of get those because they happen so obviously. The bigger changes are the cognitive development and emotional development (chapters 4 and 5 respectively). Marko traces the way that the brain changes so dramatically in these years (for a full reading of these changes, I also finally just read "The Primal Teen by Barbara Strauch). We used to believe that the brian was fully formed and firing on all cylinders much earlier than it actually is. Teens are still forming their brains and won't stop until they are in their 20s - which means that what they say and do doesn't always make sense (shocking I know). But in all of this I think the most important thing maybe in the entire book is the understanding that teens learn to think during these years ... third-person perspective, self-awareness, nuance and gray areas, paradox, systems, speculation and inference ... these al come in to play in their earliest forms during these years.

Every week as I teach the 200 or so middle school students in Controlled Chaos I have to think about how to deliver the content to a student without the ability to abstractly handle them, as well as those that are starting to get what it looks like to speculate, reason, and disagree in new ways. The thing is, until I met Marko I didn't have this tool in the proverbial belt. So, for years I taught students abstract concepts to concrete brains. Now, I understand the value in bridging that gap, painting word pictures more vibrantly, experimenting with teaching in new ways. In this book, Marko gives us a better way to navigate and understand these years from this standpoint.

The chapters on relational change and independence have given me a new framework on dealing with those issues as well. For instance, the assertion in the relational change chapter that kids are given friendships early in life off of proximity but at this age start to re-work those friendships by affinity is huge. It makes it so much easier to understand why "lifelong" friends stop hanging out in 7th or 8th grade. It may not make it better or solve the heartache of it, but it certainly gives us an angle to approach it from.

Marko transitions by taking the implications of all of this information for spiritual development, leaning heavily on the Sticky Faith research of Kara Powell and Brad Griffin of the Fuller Youth Institute (who also contribute a bonus chapter at the end about the changing world of young teen girls that is amazing). This chapter (chapter 8: Operating System Upgrade) has obvious value to youth workers, and hopefully to a lot of the parents reading. It gives particular hope to the idea of parents and pastors partnering to make the faith and values systems of teens all that it can be. And again, with research and practicality mixed Marko lays out why teens are how they are at this age in this area.

The culmination of the book comes in chapter 9 - "White Hot Temporary: Early Adolescent Culture". Marko picks up the work that he did in "Youth Ministry 3.0" that talks about the roles of identity, autonomy, and affinity in the development of the teen brain. As the primary tasks of this time known as adolescence, they trade off importance in different decades like the long leg of a three-legged stool. Here, Marko dives deeper into how they play out in the current environment, encouraging parents to always be students of culture to a point where an exegesis of it can take place (interpreting how it pertains to your teen and situation).

The closing contain this sentiment from Marko: "We have both understanding and experiences (our own and what we've observed in others) that are valuable, necessary, and helpful. But we bring that understanding and perspective just as Christ brought his to us: We live incarnationally alongside our children - not merely as buddies or disciplinarians, but as relationally engaged and loving guides.:

This book isn't just a quick read and put on the shelf book. It is a field guide and handbook for anyone that has the best in mind for a young teen, or a group of young teens. My kids are little, but this book will come back into play for me in a whole new way in just a few years. If you are a parent of a young teen, or a soon to be young teen this will profoundly impact your parenting, your home - your entire life. If you teach this age or pastor this age of teen - you will learn more that you can imagine and have to underline and re-read to grasp it. Marko is a voice for a change in understanding and changing the way we do everything in ministry - and now in parenting - that none of us can afford to ignore or miss.


Ed said...

Loved the review, well done.

As a parent of one kid who is through adolescence and another who is in the midst of the journey, it is always nice to read something that gives you some perspective. As a parent, your passions and love are so strong, you sometimes are just too close to the tree to see the entire forest.

Parenting, no matter how educated, enlightened and self-realized is still a very large exercise in the extension of grace. From both the parent and the child's perspective, there is no perfection, but there is grace. If it can be truly given and truly received. God works in and through it's application to bind parent and child in ways that we cannot begin to see or understand.

Zack Weingartner said...

Thanks Ed!
I love what you said here - beautiful!!!

marko said...

wow, thanks, zack!

Steven Doddle said...

I finished reading the book and it was great read. I appreciate the way you illustrated the book with all the examples. It really helped making concepts easy to grasp. My favorite chapter was on physical and sexual development. As a youth pastor this is the chapter I want to send to all my parents. Great book as usual.

Brook said...

nice post