Here at First Christian, our Children’s pastor and myself have begun a restructuring process of ministry. Youth ministry as we currently know it did not even exist until recently. We then saw a shift in the division of ministry to children’s, middle school, and high school. Now we are taking it even further. We are working on dividing up into two grade increments (1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8, and eventually 9-10, and 11-12). This idea of focused and age-appropriate ministry is pretty recent in churches and that is for a good reason. The words teenager, pre-teen, etc…did not even exist until about 50 years ago and this is because our understanding of adolescent development has come such a long way.
When I say adolescent development I am talking about the changes that the body and the brain undergo until we are a fully-developed human. This idea first came to light in the early 20th century but was viewed as only an 18 month period in the life of a child. Now it is something we realize occurs all the way into the early to mid 20s. During this time people develop an identity and independence. However adolescent development has multiple phases and they should all affect the way we parent and the way we do ministry.
The first stage is called Pre-adolescence and usually occurs between ages 8-10. This stage is exactly what it sounds like. It’s pre “adolescent development”. It happens before the major processes really start. However, it’s so important to understand what is going on so we can prepare for what is to come. The main parts of this process involve what I like to call the PMESS (pronounce it PMS, it’ll help you remember). That stands for physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. So when your child is in this age range, WHAT’S GOING ON? Good question.
Physically: You can expect a wide range between kids in things like height and weight. They are beginning to lose more baby teeth and their eyes are starting to finish development. You’ve probably noticed that your child is very confident in things like running, walking, and playing in general. They are starting to get the whole coordination thing down. Also at this age, girls (who develop much earlier than boys) may even experience changes associated with puberty. Make sure to talk to them about these changes so they know what to expect.
Mentally: Kids at this age are very concrete in their thinking. This means that everything is black or white, yes or no, and they have trouble understanding things like maybe, sometimes, or exceptions to the rule. You can give them any problem and they will have a solution even if it isn’t reasonable. Want to test this out? Ask your 8-10 year old what to do about world hunger, or war, or slavery and just see what they say. They think concretely at this stage and cannot process abstract ideas. They can address one problem at a time and cannot identify multiple related problems. For example, maybe the lights won’t turn on, the tv won’t work, the internet is broken, and all the refrigerated food has to be thrown out because the power is out. They have trouble realizing all the problems are related to the same issue. Likewise, they have trouble tracing backwards. If they come up with a wrong answer and you ask them to look back over the decisions they made to see which one was wrong, they will have difficulty finding it. Finally, children at this age have very short attention spans but are fascinated by the world around them and can hold in lots of information about something they like. Maybe you’ve noticed your child seems to know everything about this certain type of animal, or action figure, or whatever it may be. Use this to your advantage in teaching and introducing them to new things.
Emotionally: Children this age desire approval. They want approval from friends and siblings, and most importantly parents. Make sure you are taking time to reaffirm your child. Although they are getting closer to an age where friends’ input and approval will mean more to them, currently parents are still at the top and they will listen intently to your advice. This is the time to have talks about safety, health, avoiding certain behaviors, and even sex.
Socially: At this age children still mostly have positive relationships with friends with little trouble. They usually play with others of the same sex and have around 5 very close friends. Kids this age may be bossy with younger children and dependent on older ones. Relationships with peers are important but their relationships with adults are still most important to them. Make sure they have a good understanding of what appropriate relationships look like with adults so they are not taken advantage of.
Spiritually: Faith is found in stories that children this age hear and tell about God. They hear the stories and their concrete thinking always finds literal interpretations of these even if that is not the point. Meaning, they probably won’t understand Jesus doesn’t literally want you to gouge out your eye if it causes you to sin. The best things to go with are foundational Bible stories as well as right vs. wrong. They will take clear understanding to this with their black and white thinking.
Things to do at home and in the church: First, their physical development makes them very active. It’s important to plan time for them to be active and play games and move around with one another. It’s also important for them to experience relationships with adults, especially in a teaching setting. Since kids this age are so concrete in their thinking we need to be careful what spiritual ideas we present to them. This is an ideal time to focus on storytelling and morals and explain easy to understand concepts from these stories. They also do very well learning through activities like acting out or crafts. The most important thing is how you live and act as well. Children at this age will mainly take their cues from the examples other adults set at home and at church.