Many junior high youth struggle to restrain themselves when granted a measure of freedom. They vocalize any thought that comes to mind. They stay up later than is healthy. Their food choices, both in terms of quality and volume, can be horrifying to behold.
Mission trips are as good a lab as you will find to observe this lack of restraint. Engaging junior high youth in a reflection on the day’s service, for example, courts a wide range of random outbursts (not all of which are verbal, if you take my meaning), and setting a shared table for them essentially turns the first page on The Lord of The Flies. For adult leaders, this can be utterly maddening.
The good news is that mission trips are also a terrific tool for prodding young adolescents toward a) maturity and b) the concern for others in community before oneself that is the New Testament vision of the church.
Structure has become my best friend in nudging younger youth towards this kind of growth. On my most recent trip, we observed a hard lights out time, and we dictated how much of each portion of a meal students could take the first time through. I structured reflections that, though loose and informal, had clearly expressed rules for participating. By the last night of the trip, those rules were shot, but I think they had already done what we needed them to do–flexibility is important too.
This structure is the opposite of what I used to do, which was to expect younger adolescents to behave like adults and to get angry and judgy when they failed. This fails for two reasons. First, an angry trip leader is rarely effective. Second, judgment and shame are of very limited value when it comes to developing maturity. If what we want is young people who consider the needs of others before their own, guilt won’t work; guilt will grow resentment of others. Also, an awareness of others before oneself is a developmental achievement. Some of the young people we’re working with are literally not yet capable of it.
I think we have to look out for instances of maturity and call them out to reinforce them. Hold up youth’s peers and adult leaders as laudable examples and, eventually, as the norm. We also have to regulate our own reactions to youth’s selfishness and inappropriate outbursts. The indignation of adults is just as harmful to the community we believe God calls us to be as is the thoughtlessness of adolescents.