In an effort to provide relevant teaching we often segregate kids from the rest of the church. While this may be appropriate for young children, when kids reach the age of reason (twelve or thirteen years old), they are ready to join the greater church body. In fact, according to the authors of Sticky Faith, attendance at church-wide worship services is arguably the best predictor that a young person will stick with their faith after high school.
Why is this? Our children are by and large being socialized by their peers. Being socialized by others of the same age is not a good way to mature, but rather an effective way to encourage young people to continue to act immaturely.
Consider how 95% of humanity has lived throughout the ages. The grand majority of men and women worked in the home and in the fields around the home. Children, beginning around age five, would work with their parents and learn the skills they would need to someday run their own households. Kids were around other kids their own age, but they were also around younger siblings, younger cousins, grandparents, older cousins, aunts and uncles, and their parents. These adults would teach them and talk to them and thereby socialize them as to what it meant to be an adult. As a result, kids naturally and seamlessly matured and entered the community.
Compare that with how children are socialized today. At very young ages (often as young as six weeks!) children are placed in narrow cohorts with their age peers. They are educated with their peers at school (for we as a society divide them by and large by age, not ability or developmental level. Need proof? When is the last time you heard of a sixteen or twenty year old graduating from high school?) We then take our children to sports, youth group, and sleepovers or playdates where they are again surrounded by their age peers. As our children get older they spend dozens of hours weekly on social media . . . with their age peers. True there are adult teachers and coaches, but for every one adult our children are surrounded by about twenty of their age peers. Then they go to college, with their age peers. When they go to college, many get license to indulge all their baser impulses by those in authority. Then they get internships where they once again congregate with their peer groups. Finally, somewhere near the middle of their third decade of life, they get a real job and have to interact with people of all ages. Our adult children struggle with this and we throw up our hands in surprise! But why should we be surprised that a person surrounded by their peers for twenty-five years is incapable of having a conversation with a seventy or seven year old?
We have, in essence, a Lord of the Flies system of socialization. This is stultifying our children’s maturation and development. Ever notice how immature and irresponsible many young people are? Well, it is no surprise when they spend their first two decades plus exclusively with their immature peers!
What can we do about this? To the extent we are able, we need to imitate and recreate the intergenerational communities that naturally socialize children and help them mature.
Ideally every child should have five adults that are good role models, that speak into his or her life, and that spend time with him or her and give sound advice. These can be relatives, neighbors, coaches, youth pastors, or members of small groups. This will not happen naturally and we may need to make an effort to get our kids around other mature Christians. But the fact is we are formed by our communities and we cannot expect our children to grow into mature Christians if they lack models of Christians maturing in their faith.
Second, our kids need to be around younger children. Younger kids look up to older kids. Recognizing this often inspires older kids to be good role models.
Now it may seem awkward or forced to hang out with older or younger people. A good way to overcome this awkwardness is by doing service projects. When people have common tasks the things that divide them tend to melt away as the group focuses on uniting to accomplish the collective goal.
Our society as a whole is doing a very poor job of socializing our young. It is not wrong for kids to spend time with other kids their own age; however, if we want our kids to mature we have to have them around mature people.