Embrace the tangled squiggle: why we love middle schoolers

If (when) people incredulously ask WHY?? when you tell them that you love middle schoolers and that you’re a WyldLife Leader, it might be helpful for you to personally understand why yourself so you can articulate it to others.

Some developmental psychologists describe early adolescence — ages 12-14 — as the beginning of the second cycle of growing up. They say the first cycle lasts from birth through approximately age 11, and the second cycle lasts from age 12 through 18+ (this ending age is hotly debated today in discussions about extended adolescence and emerging adulthood).

Each cycle includes first an age of discovery, then an age of testing out, and then a stage of concluding. Early adolescence, like the first four years of life, is a stage of discovery.


It’s a steep climb of learning, questioning, trying on, trying out, wondering, and discovery. Steep climbs are tricky, challenging, and tiring, so sometimes this phase plays out in ways that might appear awkward, hence the common mantra among those who work with middle schoolers: “Embrace the awkward.”

Indeed, do. The steep awkward climb of discovery is not bad or annoying or something to be avoided at all costs. Instead, it’s exhilarating. It’s meaningful. It’s even endearing — at least, that’s how most people feel about the Cycle One steep awkward climb. Everyone loves 0-4 year olds, right?

But not as many people feel the same way about the Cycle Two steep awkward climb, partly because the climbers aren’t as small and manageable anymore.

But that is exactly how we feel about middle schoolers and early adolescence: that both they and it are exhilarating, meaningful, and yes, even endearing.

Look back at the red section in the chart above. On that steep climb, when life is opening up for middle schoolers in brand new ways, the path looks like a smooth arc. But as one middle school pastor* says, it’s really more of a squiggle, like this:


If you look really close, it’s even more like this:


Adults like things to be controlled and tidy. Adults like things to be managed and manageable. And so, many adults aren’t interested in the squiggled tangledness of early adolescence. Some would do anything to avoid it.

But not us. We LOVE this stage of life. We love the fun, the laughter, the hesitancy, the questions, the energy, the confusion, the transitions, the challenges, the passion, the learning, and the discovery.

And we can’t think of anything better than walking alongside middle schoolers as they navigate the squiggles and the tangles. We believe it’s one of the most important things we will ever do. Sure, there are decisions and responsibilities and challenges and heartaches that middle schoolers must accept and embrace as their own, on their own.

But they should never have to be alone or feel alone in the process.

Young adolescents are worth our very best. They are interesting, valuable, fascinating, and most importantly of all, they are beloved by the Creator. Their current stage of life is an integral part of his creation that even the Incarnate God experienced.

That’s why we love middle schoolers. That’s why WyldLife is our life: because we aren’t afraid of the awkward, the squiggle, or the tangle. In fact, we love it – every awkward moment, every squiggle, and every tangle. We love it all.

And that’s why we do what we do. In case anyone wondered.


*Kurt Johnston, author of 99 Thoughts About Junior High Ministry. Read more here and here.

2 thoughts on “Embrace the tangled squiggle: why we love middle schoolers

  1. AWESOME. These are so good!!! ☺︎

    ☩ Rebekah Bender Regional Director, Wisconsin 414.704.2324



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