I have little recollection of what my small group girls looked like in 7th grade. However, I can describe their phone cases in detail, since that is what I predominantly saw when looking at their faces that year.

It seems like 7th grade girls have a need for distraction, and one of their best tactics to accomplish this is gossip. This completely shocked me because as 6th graders, the only times my girls talked about other people was when it directly related to them or someone close to them. They would bring up injustices around them with real concern.

But as 7th graders, they brought up the injustices around them as a means to talk about anything other than the task at hand. The majority of the time, the stories had nothing to do directly with them and were always thrown out at inopportune times. I would ask a question like, “What do you think Moses was thinking when he parted the Red Sea?” and one of the girls would respond, “Oh my gosh, do you know what happened at school this week!? This girl Tricia punched another girl because she was wearing the same dress as her and Tricia said she did it on purpose.” Mouths would drop open and the questions would begin, “Where did she punch her!?” “Did she bleed!?” “What did the dress look like!?”

I would take a deep breath, aware that our group was not going to be crossing the Red Sea that day, and dive in, trying to redeem the distraction with a lesson in friendship or some feely stuff like that, “Are you friends with Tricia or the other girl?” “No, not really.” “Are you thinking about trying to help either of them sort things out?” “No! I’ve never talked to them before, and besides, Tricia is bad news.” “Do you want to pray for them?” “No, I just thought of it and wanted to tell everyone.”

Keeping a group of middle school girls on topic while still being someone they enjoy being around is tough! Sure, you can use your authority-voice and scold them into compliance, but what’s the point of leading small if your group only follows you because they are forced? Here are a few things I’ve learned about steering my few through off-topic conversations without losing my mind or my cool:

  • Be Patient. Middle schoolers are testing the waters, learning the world around them by seeing what works and what flops. As they attempt to connect the dots, what makes zero sense to you might make perfect sense to them. Keep the big picture in mind: It is more important for your few to feel loved and heard than to have what you view as an on-topic discussion.
  • Go With It. Rather than awkwardly ignoring comments that seem irrelevant, ask the group the question, “How does that story connect to what we are talking about today?”
  • Draw Clear Boundaries. As your few toss out ideas and opinions, often about the lives of others, it is important to help your group to have real-life conversations without crossing into gossip. A warning sign that gossip is coming is if the story begins, “There’s a girl at school. I won’t say her name, but all of you know who it is…” When you recognize that one of your few is gossiping or speaking unkindly about another person, gently stop her immediately. Protecting the reputations of others will promote a feeling of safety and honesty within your group.
  • Use Bribery. Yup! It is possible to buy their attention. I’ll talk more about that next month.


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With over a decade of experience leading students and volunteers, Steph now spends her days investing in church leaders and families as part of the Orange team—primarily as the Editorial Alignment Manager for Orange Books. She lives in metro Atlanta with her husband, Tim, and their son, Landon. Steph is a co-author of The Volunteer Project: Stop Recruiting. Start Retaining. You can read more of her thoughts at stephwhitacre.com.

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