Saturday, April 25, 2009

Middle School Girls

My daughter's youth group held a car wash this morning to raise funds for their summer camp. A couple days ago Joe, the youth leader, called me and asked if I would be participating. I told him that Teresa would certainly be there, at which point he made it clear that he was really hoping I could be there as well. I told him I would try and in the end I was able to make it. It didn't take me long to understand why he had wanted me to join in.

The middle school group at our church is not particularly large, maybe 15 kids on average. The funny thing though is that they are almost all girls. They meet Friday evenings and if on any given Friday there are 3 boys present that is a large number. So it is almost a girls club at this time. I don't understand why there aren't more boys. If I had had an opportunity to be in a youth group with lots of girls even at that age, I would have rushed to be there. But I never really went through a stage when I thought girls were "icky." Must be part of being an unguy.

Today's car wash reflected the balance in the youth group. We started out with 2 guys, 8 girls, one mother, Joe and myself. After an hour and a half or so one of the boys and his mother had to leave, which left Joe and I with 8 girls, all of them in 6th or 7th grade, and one boy. Now I am not making any statement about the ability of girls to wash cars being less than that of boys. My daughter has helped wash our car many times at home and is quite capable. What made the experience so interesting was the dynamic of working around a group of middle-school-age girls. One image that comes to mind is that of herding cats. They were having so much fun in their own girl world that it was challenging at times to keep them focused on the task of actually getting cars washed and dried. It might not have been any less challenging had it been a group of middle-school-age boys, but I can't say because that wasn't the situation today.

Actually, the morning was pretty fun. It was an opportunity to get to know some of the girls in the group a little bit and quite fascinating to observe their different personalities and the group dynamic among them. Because my daughter, currently in 7th grade, will become a teenager this summer, I've been doing some reading on girls and parenting them as teenagers. I feel like I am going to have to learn parenting all over. The middle school years are so important and yet so difficult in a child's development, both for boys and for girls. There's a lot of talk about the importance of positive female models for girls this age and I agree that this is needed. In fact I'm thankful for those around my daughter, not least of them my wife. But I think that it is also very important for us men to remain active and engaged in the lives of our daughters and girls this age as well. Because of the changes they are going through and because we as men never went through those exact changes, we may feel estranged from girls at this stage of life. They become weird to us (maybe they are weird to women as well?) and because we don't know how to handle it, we retreat and withdraw. We leave girls without the positive male influences they need so they can learn what a mature, caring man is like and how to interact with them in a positive, healthy manner. Obviously appropriate boundaries are needed, but we can't just abandon the field because we don't know what to do with these strange creatures.

I used to work with junior high schoolers (that's what it was way back when!) and found it to be both challenging and rewarding. I remember my own junior high school experience, how I longed for someone to invest their time and energy in me, to affirm that I was important and loved and really, just that I was okay despite my awkwardness at that age. I had good parents and am thankful for them, but I think at that age we are also looking for affirmation outside of the family environment. We want to know that we matter and that we will be loved and accepted even as we figure out who we are. It's not an easy task to work with children at this age. It takes a lot of grace and patience. For that reason I want to express my deepest appreciation for Joe and Cassie Mason, for Katie Redel, Amy Phillips and others who are investing in the life of my daughter and many other girls (and boys) her age, as well as for the Mike Olivers, Dan Sadlers, Sheryl Agnews and so many others who have given all or a portion of their lives and invested them in people like me at a time when we really needed it. You are all awesome!! I'm glad I could share a bit in your world today washing cars alongside these precious, weird girls.

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