It’s Hard Being 13: Thoughts on Ageism.

When was the last time you heard something positive about junior high?

Or, more broadly, about anyone who is even associated with junior high, like teachers, parents, or youth pastors?

As a youth pastor, I hear this all the time. Most recently, it was from a fellow pastor. At a church network gathering, he asked me how I serve at City Church. After I told him I work in student ministry, he replied with a very typical comment, eyebrows up: “pray for this guy.” He made sure to look over at a colleague for affirmation.

I get it. And I know firsthand that teens and tweens can be annoying or downright difficult. Though our boys are still quite tiny, I’ll eventually also know what it’s like to parent a teen.


But I tell you what, I’ve heard all the derogatory comments enough times that I almost don’t notice it. Like water spots and grime on the windshield, most of us don’t even notice how severely we speak of young people. We just keep on keeping on, oblivious to what we’re saying and what difference it makes.

Two days ago I overheard a woman complain to her friend regarding some kind of incident with young teens, “the more junior high boys there are, the lower the brainpower; it’s a mathematical formula!” I’m sure it’s much different for us adults as we struggle with generosity, honesty, addictions. I’m sure it’s an entirely different for adults throughout history who have cheated their company in cahoots with a team of other sane adults. I’m sure it’s also a different story for the many adults throughout history who have collaborated to lead genocide.

You get the point.

People at any age can do some pretty selfish, damaging, detestable things. And yes, I could list bad things that teens have done throughout history. Or I suppose I could list atrocities older adults have committed.

And yet, we routinely speak so disparagingly to other adults about the irritating nature of tweens or teens.

Now I want you to imagine something. What if instead of talking about tweens we were talking about blacks? Or someone within the LGBTQ community?

Maybe you’re thinking, gosh Ben, you’re way too sensitive. Read on.

I recently attended an event our church sponsored confronting single-ism. Our group of mostly singles listened to a compelling and theologically rich lecture on the systematic neglect and marginalization of singles. For example, single men [and women, if I remember correctly] apparently earn less money than married guys. That’s clearly a justice issue.

Now I don’t hold in my hands the research to support my case than teenagers are systematically marginalized, but I [and most of us, I’d think] have the anecdotal evidence of this reality. And I’m not placing ageism-discrimination based on a person’s age-at the same level as other kinds of injustice, I’m simply saying it needs to be considered more deeply.

We also need to ask tougher questions of our own systems and prejudices, and extend our concerns to the young. Neuroscience has revealed how the teenage brain is uniquely poised for risk. And yes, it can be really bad-or really good. Or, plain annoying.

Allow me to remind you that you-yes, you-were once a teenager yourself. Yep. At one point you were probably difficult to parent, difficult to teach, socially awkward, academically unmotivated. Maybe none of those things apply, though, and you were the perfect adolescent. If so, my apologies.

I know I was a handful during my early teens. To this day I preserve memories of incessant talking during class-the second my teachers turned the other way. I remember refusing to wear a hoody in Chicago during October, a decision that didn’t make my youth pastor all that happy with me. I remember forgetting my uniform on more than one away soccer game. I got in a few fights even, believe it or not [very uncool]. I persecuted other kids in plenty of ways and created my share of havoc.

Chances are that all of us struggled in certain ways during adolescence, some worse than others.

My goal in this brief article is to stimulate deeper thinking on the issue of how we treat adolescents and, ultimately, to prompt small changes in our adult approach to teens and tweens.

If you’re a Christian reading this article, here’s something for you. In one of the New Testament’s smaller epistles [letters], Christians listen in on a note to a young man named Timothy. He’s a younger leader in the church, and his older mentor, Paul the Apostle, is encouraging and directing him in his vocation. He says this:

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” 

I could write pages upon pages about young people who have set an example for me in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. But I won’t. I’ll leave it to you to try a new practice in noticing young people who, though they are sometimes bothersome, are also examples to the rest of us in the ways they can be.

A final thought that strikes me as I move to a close is this: sometimes the way we treat people informs how they act. Yes, if we treat junior high students like incomplete human beings with no sense of how life is, they will likely act that way. But if we show patience and forbearance, if we listen, and if don’t look down on them, we might just impact someone’s life in a big way.

Or, I suppose we could keep up our old habits and go on making the same tired comments about junior high-ers.