In the Church School curriculum used by our “tween” (4th & 5th grades) class, they are exploring the story in Matthew 16:13-20, the passage where Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” It is Peter who answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” and the Church traditionally interprets this passage as Peter’s confession of Jesus lordship. But something else is going on in this passage that speaks exactly to the developmental needs of our emerging teens.
Jesus has been on a discernment journey as he grows into his ministry. People have reacted to him in a variety of ways – the Pharisees have tested him, the crowds have followed him, the demons have fled from him and people are talking. Conflicting messages about his purpose and mission are coming from all directions. Perhaps Jesus is not asking his friends “Who do you say I am” looking for a particular answer. Perhaps Jesus is asking those closest to him to help him discern his identity – to reflect back to him not only the call he has begun to follow, but the very sense of his divine selfhood as he is beginning to understand it. In this trusted group of companions, it is safe for Jesus to ask if his friends see him as he is coming to know himself.
Our tweens are beginning to ask this same question and, like Jesus, they need a trusted group of peers in which to ask it. While our tweens may have had extensive friend networks through elementary school, the group of friends they are building now has a different quality and purpose. If we pay attention as parents and educators, we have the privilege of watching the formation of the teen version of the “discernment group.” While the very phrase “peer group” sounds alarm bells for many parents, it has a God-given purpose and we can respect and support its work. The peer group can become a critical and intentional place of Christian formation if we recognize what is going on in the hearts and souls of our tweens and their friends.
Our tweens are hard at work discerning who they are and how they fit into the world. The peer network, like Jesus’ band of disciples, is the group of trusted friends who can help our tweens figure out who they are called to be. Rather than initiating this work, as parents and Christian mentors, we are called to spend time observing and listening to the group: What do they talk most about? What is the interaction like between them? What are the questions they are asking? What do we see that we can encourage? What might we want to challenge?
There is most definitely a place for wise adult participation in this process, but it comes in the form of prayerful questions, intentional modeling and in the respectful verbalizing of what we see going on in the group: Have you thought about it this way? Where do those values come from? Tell me more about why you believe this is right. This is the “you” I see when you and your friends are together. I wonder what God might be asking you to do . . .
While the culture tells us that we must turn our tweens and teens over to the peer group and stay out of it, Christian parents and mentors are called to support and participate in adolescent development. If you are a parent, get to know your tween son or daughter as they are with their peer group – volunteer to drive them, let the pizza parties, game nights and sleep-overs happen at your house. What you observe and learn about your child is worth its weight in soft drinks and chocolate chip cookies. If you are a Church School teacher of this age group, take a morning off from your curriculum and enjoy a “pajama and movie” morning, get out of the classroom and stock shelves at the local food pantry, have a lock-in. What you learn being with the group is worth whatever effort it takes to make it happen.
Rather than fearing the peer group, Christian parents and mentors can support and celebrate it. Grace happens here – and if we are wise enough and patient enough, we are privileged enough to watch it unfold in front of us. Thanks be to God!
Dr. Elizabeth L. Windsor is the Director of Christian Education at Sudbury United Methodist Church in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Christian formation throughout the life cycle is both her profession and her passion.