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Motivations and Moral Compasses: Helping Students Discern What Is Right

Growing up has always been hard work. And it’s even more challenging today.
Am I Accepted? Step into the Mind of a Middle Schooler

Growing up has always been hard work. And it’s even more challenging today.

Think for a minute about how access, connection, and pressure have changed since you were in a student.

Today’s generation is growing up in a world where:

  • Alcohol abuse begins as early as age 10
  • The average age to view pornography is 11
  • 12-year-olds are prone to self-harm
  • Suicide is the third-leading cause of death in adolescents

Counselors report a rapidly growing epidemic of depression in teens. Without getting into why things are changing, it’s important to recognize that they are changing. Kids have to navigate increasingly serious pressures, temptations, and moral dilemmas at an earlier age than ever before.

Unlike mental and physical development, moral development doesn’t happen automatically. In order for a kid to discover their uniquely created potential–to grow emotionally and morally–they need a guide. A guide helps someone become self-aware of the effects their choices and behaviors have on themselves and others.

Kids and teenagers need consistent reinforcement. They need someone who can smile at the good and frown at the bad, so they repeat positive ways of thinking and doing. They need someone who can interpret what is happening in real time, who can assist their decision-making process.

Scripture points to this:

  • “Train up a child in the way he should go.”
  • “Bring them up in discipline and instruction.”
  • “Train your children because then there is hope.”

God designed our emotional and moral formation to require a relational investment. There’s no one simple formula for how a person grows a moral conscience. But it seems as if helping kids discern what they should do really comes down to one simple factor–understanding their motive.

Middle schoolers are primarily motivated by acceptance.

If you try to motivate a preteen through shame or embarrassment, it may work against their primary motive and lead to defiant and defensive behavior. But when you respond to them in a loving manner, you learn to listen more often, encourage more specifically, and guide more patiently. Then, you influence them to stop and think rationally before they respond in the moment.

Middle schoolers can be impulsive and intense. They feel things deeply, with a unique blend of confidence and insecurity, unlike any other phase. Middle schoolers need you to affirm their personal journey.

When you influence a kid’s current behavior, you only help the kid respond to the present circumstance. But when you influence a kid’s motive, you set the kid up to win in future circumstances.

High schoolers are motivated by freedom.

If you try to motivate a 17-year-old through excessive limits, it may work against their basic motive and incite frustration and rebellion. But when you guide them with love, you collaborate on boundaries and give high school students opportunities to prove they can be trusted.

Then, you influence them to make responsible decisions and expand their opportunities. High school is a time to test the limits.

They’re ready for new experiences and feel more independent than ever. When you influence their current behavior, you only help them respond to the present circumstance. But when you influence their motive, you set them up to win in future circumstances.  

That’s why the role of a guide isn’t to motivate a kid or teenager to do right. The role of a guide is to influence their motives so they can discern what is right. 

This content was contributed by Phase. Discover all the resources available for your middle schooler in the Phase store.

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