In my last post Gossip, iPhones, and Other Distractions, I shared about the mental wanderings of middle school girls. At the end of the post, I mentioned that bribery can be an effective way to steer dialogue in the direction you desire.

I negotiated with my small group in exchange for their attention on several occasions. I would promise that if they would stay on topic for five minutes, or answer three questions, we could spend the rest of the time talking about whatever they desired within reason. Please note: “Within reason” is an important caveat when negotiating with middle school girls.

Every spring, our student ministry held an overnight event designed for small groups to hang out outside of Sunday. Students were told they were going to have fun. Leaders were told they were going to lead a discussion on moral boundaries. Classic bait and switch.

During this event in their 7th grade year, my group spent the night at my house. Once sleeping bags and mountains of junk food were unpacked, it was time to tackle the discussion portion of the night. The resources provided to leaders were really interactive. We were in the middle of a teaching series on applying the Ten Commandments in our use of technology and social media, and I felt hopeful that we would have a decent discussion.

The first 5 Commandments went okay. Sure there was the occasional excuse-me-while-I-step-on-everyone-trying-to-get-to-the-bathroom move, and the I’m-too-tired-just-let-me-close-my-eyes-while-we-talk argument. But I’d say I had 80% of their focus, which with 7th graders felt like a win!

Then someone mentioned pizza. This was a pivotal moment. There was a chance the conversation would never again return to moral boundaries or the 10 Commandments. Thinking fast, I countered: “Tell you what. I’ll order pizza right now, if between now and when it is delivered, you stay on topic.” They said deal.

The girls kept up their end of the bargain. I felt like an evil genius for manipulating them to focus, in exchange for pizza I would have ordered anyway. Then the doorbell rang and all semblance of order ended.

As I opened the front door, the girls began catcalling whoever was on the other side of the door. I had a split second to think about how I was going to explain to the stranger on the other side of the door why a gaggle of 7th grade girls was harassing him. But when the door swung open, I saw it wasn’t a stranger. It was someone with whom I had gone to college. His face lit up and he began to try to catch up on life post-college. I wanted to be polite, but all I could hear were the whoops and shouts of fifteen 7th grade girls who I had just finished having a conversation with about not acting like out-of-control hooligans.

I paid for the pizza as quickly as possible amidst the questions being fired past me to the pizza guy. “How you doing?” As I closed the door and turned around, there stood a bunch of grinning, mischievous faces. I exhaled and smiled back at them, my face bright red from embarrassment. I asked if they had learned nothing from our conversation about moral boundaries. They aptly pointed out that we had talked about technology, and the pizza guy was not on his phone. I guess they were listening.

If you lead middle schoolers, and feel like you are losing the battle for their attention, be encouraged. In the years following 7th grade, it amazed me how much the girls actually were listening. From time to time, they would recount specific details about a teaching series or a one-on-one conversation. Middle school students might actually be the best listeners out there because they are capable of hearing every word you say while hiding under the guise that they are not at all interested.

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Steph is the Lead Writer for the XP3 Middle School curriculum at Orange. She has a decade of experience leading students and volunteers, including the privilege of leading a group of girls from 5th grade to HS graduation. She recently moved to Atlanta, and is embarking on another 4 years of Leading Small in a high school setting. Steph is married to Tim, and spends her days writing, planning adventures, and drinking coffee. She is the author of the book The Volunteer Project: Stop Recruiting. Start Retaining. You can read more of her thoughts at stephwhitacre.com.

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