Prayers and Preteens
Their bodies are changing, along with their clothes, friends, taste in music and study habits – so why are preteens stuck with the same-old, same-old when it comes to Sunday school?
According to Lissie Browder, a Sunday school teacher at Trinity United Methodist Church in Wichita Falls, Kan., our preteens are asking, but institutions aren't paying attention. "Unfortunately, my church spends less time and money on these kids than any other group in the church," she says. "I believe it's like that at most churches."
Giving Them Answers
What kinds of questions are on these young minds? "[They] ask the same questions mankind has always asked: Who is God? What does it take to go to heaven? Why is 'little me' significant?" Bowder says.
Rabbi Glenn Black, director of regional programming for National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), agrees. "They're dealing with the same issues we're grappling with," he says.
Jewish preteens, even if they attend religious day schools, have other questions. "Kids want to know what distinguishes them as a Jew: What's different between them and other people? Why should they follow the Jewish religion?" he says.
Current events also matter. "Israel is a big issue: How do we respond? Who's right, who's wrong?" Rabbi Black says.
Browder believes this type of real-world tie-in can actually help keep kids interested in religion. "There has to be a relevance to their lives," she says. Churches are experiencing the same problems as schools: "Our children are constantly bombarded with electronic media ... then we expect them to get excited over paper and pencil tasks," she says. "This may be fine for young kids, but not when you have savvy, sophisticated preteens."
Making a Difference
But Rabbi Black feels it's not just the institutions' responsibility. "Synagogues are not designed for that," he says. "Schools and shuls [synagogues] are too busy; they just can't do it ... they're not equipped; rabbis are overworked and underpaid."
Browder, whose own children are now 16, 13 and 6, says that most kids develop their spiritual beliefs between the ages of 8 and 14. But peer pressure is also hard at work then, making it difficult to broach spiritual subjects. "What's going to happen to the kid who suggests Bible study to his peers?" Browder says.
So who can make the difference in a preteen's maturing relationship with God? Parents. Browder warns that if parents put God last with no time for devotions or prayer and make work and material things more important, kids will adopt the same posture.
"Consistency of religion is an important foundation," Rabbi Black says. He warns that keeping the Sabbath inconsistently and participating in religious rituals half-heartedly is the kind of relationship to God that is exceedingly damaging to kids.
His organization strives to make religion relevant through drop-in centers around North America, teen leaders and regional Shabbatons (weekend conferences) that Rabbi Black calls powerful Jewish weekends. "Kids come from all over," he says. "We eat together. There are songs and programs that help kids identify strongly with the Jewish people."
Though NCSY serves mainly teenagers, Rabbi Black says the pre-Bar and Bat Mitzvah years (Bar Mitzvah for boys takes place at age 13; Bat Mitzvah for girls at 12) are crucial, because so many young Jews drop out after that milestone.
"Kids didn't come up with that by themselves, [saying] 'I'm 13. I'm going to drop out of Judaism,'" he says. That message comes straight from parents who, aloud or silently, tell kids, "Just get over this hurdle, and I won't bother you with religion." Rabbi Black reminds parents that to keep children involved, parents have to know about the unique qualities of Jewish people and why it's worthwhile being a Jew. Of course, this advice can apply to any religion.
Many churches are incorporating rituals to introduce preteens to adult spiritual concepts. Browder's church baptizes children as infants, but "reconfirms" them sometime around age 12, offering context impossible with younger children. "[Classes] detail the origins of Christianity and the beginnings of Methodism," she says. It all culminates in a ceremony on Pentecost.
Sunday school or afternoon Hebrew school may never be able to compete with Nintendo or hockey, but maybe it doesn't have to. If the bad news is the negative impact our attitudes can have, the good news is that despite our preteens' growing reliance on friends' opinions, we still matter – probably more than they'd ever admit. "If parents get it, the kids will get it," Rabbi Black says.
"You, the parent, have to walk the walk," says Browder. "God must be important in your life, and your kids have to know that." Despite their tough husks, there are still earnest, sweet souls inside our children, looking to us for answers, for faith and for inspiration that they can carry with them into their teenage years and beyond.