what (middle schoolers) we all need

in a completely stretching gesture, i spent last weekend with middle schoolers. not just an hour or two but the entire weekend, friday through monday. living with them. sleeping on a bunk, eating with them, and hanging with them at free time. i learned a few new dance moves, got called “adorable” a lot, and, above all else, grew.

the venue was an amazing coastal camp facility (go twin rocks!) and the event “jr high jam” (sponsored by northwest yearly meeting of friends). i had been asked to speak and said yes because several families who i love have middle schoolers that would be attending. it seemed like a fantastic opportunity to get some bonding time with them away from our normal fast paced meet ups. when i said yes i didn’t really think much about the fact that there would be far more middle schoolers there than the ones in knew and that i would be responsible for 6 sessions of teaching time.

my first session friday night felt to me like a colossal failure. while i could tell that i had captured a few kids’ attention and interest, others were talking over me, making bizarre faces in response to my silly visual aid (“hello my name is” stickers stuck all over me), or were clearly all-together checked out. that night, as i lay sleeplessly in my bunk until the very early hours of the morning, i realized that i’d rather speak to a room of 500 adults/ph.d.’s/m.d.’s/academicians than this room of 50 kids. i felt completely out of my element. i wasn’t sure i really had what it took to capture the attention of this age group and felt insecure about my ability to give them anything substantive that they would remember. i felt defeated and had barely begun. committed to the task, however, i rolled out of bed the next morning and attempted to ready myself for the upcoming session. 

this time, things flowed. as i made my way through my material i began to realize that there was very little that was different about this “audience” than others i had been with in the past. as i spoke from what i knew (what it is like to be a very flawed and less than perfect person in a world that promotes idealized notions of beauty, intellect, and ability) to who i saw them to be (very flawed and less than perfect people in a world that promotes idealized notions of beauty, intellect, and ability) they responded. over the course of the six sessions we shared together i came to some important awarenesses about what middle schoolers, actually what all of us, need.

what middle schoolers we all need:

1 people who see amazing/good/true/unique/frequently overlooked qualities in us and call them forth.

whether we like to admit it or not, we are all prone to sizing people up and responding to them from there. it’s human nature. it’s hard to wait to notice how people are inside before we respond to their outsides. it involves being uncomfortable and not being in control of any given moment.

i was blessed by the insights these kids who had never met me had about me and felt challenged to live into these things more fully. on the flip side, unlike their parents or the other adults in their lives, i was getting a little away-from-home snap shot of who these young people were. with no prior experience with many of them i was able to simply look for the positive things i saw and affirm them. i had the freedom to observe them without preconceived ideas of how they would behave and find uniquenesses to validate in them. 

to the kid who likely has a difficult time focusing and attending i was able to say, “you really seem to be able to do a lot of things at once. i can tell you’re listening to me and you’re also trying to get your neighbor’s attention and you’re folding your note paper into an airplane all at once. wow. what is that like? is it a helpful thing to have such a wide focus or does it make life hard?” to the student who hung back and seemed uncomfortable with the constant group setting i could say, “i am so impressed that you participated in recreation today. i get the sense that that wasn’t easy for you. way to go!!” to the kiddo who is constantly being told not to doodle on her notes or fidget while listening i was able to say, “do what you need to do to be able to pay attention and remember. if that includes standing up and pacing in the back, do it. if it means drawing while i talk, do it. your body is doing an excellent job of giving you clues. how can i help you listen to them?”

we all benefit by encounters with people who see us with new eyes and who call out what they see in loving ways in order to help us learn and grow. 

2 to see amazing/good/true/unique/frequently overlooked qualities in others and to call them forth.

these 11- 13 year olds needed to see things about me and be able to comment on them. they needed to be able to see that their words impacted me and touched me. they needed to be respected for their opinions and thanked for the relational risks they were willing to take when they spoke relationally with an adult. similarly, i needed to see amazing things in the kids who couldn’t sit still, who were inflexible and/or entitled, or who acted in less than respectful ways.  it stretched me to look at this group of people to whom i felt completely out of touch with eyes for what would connect us and what i could relate to.

it’s easy to assume that those we haven’t yet learned to relate to are “wrong,” “different,” or even “bad” and, therefore, miss opportunities to stretch ourselves and grow. there is something very powerful, however, about being flexible enough to risk meaningful communication with people who are very different from us. the vulnerability in doing this invites others to be authentic in return. from there, genuine connection can occur.

3 safe spaces in which to practice living into these amazing/good/true/unique frequently overlooked qualities.

it can feel very difficult to try on new skills/traits/abilities within the context of people who know us well. unwittingly these familiar people are likely to comment on our “rehearsals” and we are prone to take these comments as underhanded criticism. for instance, when you’re an introvert trying to learn how to navigate social situations, the significant others in your life might over-praise your efforts making you feel as though your introversion is not acceptable. the spaces between how we’ve trained others to think about us and how we’d really like to be can be scary. when we are navigating these spaces, moving from old habits into new ways of being, we need open, affirming, and non-judgmental allies around us.

4 new ideas and information that challenges us. 

we all need information that is a bit beyond our intellectual grasp. left to ourselves we gravitate toward that which is familiar or easily understood. doing so keeps us stymied.

before i had met this group i had a strong notion of what i thought they could handle. over the course of the weekend, however, i found myself adding much more sophisticated content to my talks. the reality was that the more complex information i introduced, the more the campers seemed to engage and attend.  our brains work on the principle of “use it or lose it.” it’s important to ask more of ourselves than we think we can expect at times. it, quite literally, grows us to do so.

5 opportunities to try new things.

one of my favorite experiences of the weekend came in our final session. it was monday morning and we’d been together since friday afternoon. we had learned and eaten and played and lip sync’ed together and we were preparing to depart for home. i had been talking with them about how to be their most authentic selves for the weekend and how focusing on being loved (by God, by those that genuinely know and care about them, and even by them selves) could provide them with an always available comforting  space. before they left the retreat i wanted to give them the gift of teaching them how to access that internal place in a very real and practical way. i knew i was taking a huge risk and that i might fail miserably but i chose to go with my gut and ask this assembled group of kids to spend 10 full minutes in a completely silent contemplative prayer exercise. the three boys who had sat up front and struggled to pay attention all weekend said, outloud, “there is no way i can do this. no way.” one staff person looked at me like i had lost my mind. i went on anyway. after the first three minutes with some giggles and wiggles the room became completely silent and still. by the end of the time over 3/4 of the students had smiles on their faces as they lay on their backs, eyes closed, imagining the sturdiness of the LOVE i was asking them to imagine. if i would have listened to my fears i would not have given these kids this opportunity to stretch themselves and they would not have been able to feel the success of such a mature feat.

we all need spaciousness when it comes to taking risks. we benefit from experiences that are new to us. leaning into these keeps us flexible, empathic, and actively engaged in life. it also makes us mature.

this week, might you look for opportunities to experiment with and explore this list? might you ask others for what they see in you, or speak into someone else’s life in meaningful ways? might you stretch yourself intellectually or experientially? and, above all else, might you nurture safe spaces for yourself and others in which to get that which we all really need?


february is NOT JUST for lovers!

february is a dreaded month for many. on the heels of multiple holiday and new years celebrations, people who move through life “un-partnered” turn the calendar to february and sigh. or roll their eyes. or feel suicidal. i’m not kidding. even those who are in romantic relationships or committed loving communities often feel a sense of heaviness when doilies and lace and hearts show up on the supermarket shelves. here’s my response to the upcoming holiday, however. i want to take the month back. i want to stand on top of parking garages downtown in big cities and yell, at the top of my lungs, “february is not just for lovers!” as soon as i write this, however, i realize that, perhaps it actually it is, but not in the way we might think.

i don’t know about you, but i love a whole lot of people in a whole lot of ways and these people are every bit as in need of february love as the daily loves of my life are. 

my dentist and his support staff recently welcomed me so warmly that i realized my strong feelings of gratitude for them. i love the familiarity i have developed with the members of my weekly dance class and have come to look forward to intersecting with a planning team i meet with each week. i frequent the lanes of certain checkers at the market and my feelings for the person who has cut my hair for the past 20 years goes well beyond love. we have genuinely shared life. i have decided that these are all varieties of love that i want to celebrate this month.

it is so much easier to do this when i drop the traditional february expectations. while i would be thrilled to make valentines for every person i encounter that matters to me, it wouldn’t be possible or wise to attempt this feat. half way through the making process i’d be burnt out and resentful having spent more of my time than i could realistically afford. what i can do, however, is commit myself to truly seeing the people i interact with, respecting their uniqueness and personhood. as brene brown says about her exercise options, “the 10 minute walk i take is better than the 5 mile run i don’t take” so is the fumbling, on the fly loving gesture i can make better than the perfectly crafted one i don’t have time or energy or resources to make.

and so, i can leave a simple thank you note, scribbled on scratch paper for the person who clears my plate at a restaurant, in the mailbox for the postal carrier, or the person who will eventually clean the bathroom at target. i can take 3 minutes to fill out a comment card and praise the sales associate or server or can ask to be transferred to a manager after a customer service call to praise the rep who has assisted me. i can blot my lipstick on my friends’ rear view mirror or scribble traits i admire about my office mates on our shared white board. i can text affirmations to people (e.g: “you are smart.” “i’ve noticed the way that you go out of your way to...” “you are a gifted teacher/parent/writer/snowboarder/student/cook/social networker/friend/etc.”). i can speak first and with focus to all the children present before i get too involved with their parents. i can get down on their level. i can drop off a plate of cookies (even store bought ones) at the dentist and tell my fellow dancers that i truly notice them and enjoy seeing them each week.

i was recently loved like this and it was a profound experience. knowing i’d faced a very challenging week, a young adult friend left me a message, in the middle of a week day, stating that she had decided to play hooky from a class and wanted, along with her fiance, to take me bowling. right then. immediately. how soon could i get to a bowling alley? the reason this was so meaningful to me was that i have a secret love of bowling that not many people know about and that i am not a person who typically receives spur of the moment offers for silly fun in the middle of the week. this opportunity to be loved so spontaneously and specifically spoke deeply to me. it made me realize how my efforts to love might accomplish this for others. 

so, this month, i am committed to the ways in which february can be for lovers of all kinds. i can take relational risks big and small and do so boldly, being willing to handle the awkwardness (and rejection) that might (but often doesn’t) result. will it always work out well? no. will i attain perfect consistency? absolutely not. might i sometimes end up feeling like a fool. sure. even still, i want to take back the month (and the year) and love as often and as fully as i can afford to. not with the kind of love or gestures that leave me resentful or overspent but, instead, with the kind of small do-able intentions and actions that make small dents in the hard hearts around me. like my dear friend tanner (age 14) said at his last swim meet, “i’m learning how to pace myself and i want to get it so that i don’t have anything left in me at the end of the race.” i want to love at the level that my capacity lasts to the end but doesn’t have much left when i get there. finding that balance can be tricky. and oh-so-worth-it.