5 Magic Arts for Raising Middle Schoolers

woman picking big ripe apples growing in garden

So there you are, having just gotten the toddler discipline thing under your belt. You have trained tiny Tim to say “please” and “thank you.” You have taught him to eat all of the food on his plate. But, just about the time you had a rhythm going, the kid grew. He’s now 9 years old, or 13 years old, let’s take an age range slightly broader than middle school, say 8 to 14 years old. He cleaned his room, but not well. He loaded up in the car for school, but he looked a bit like Eeyore sitting there in the back seat. She’s doing her homework, but it just isn’t up to snuff and you can tell she’s teetering on the edge of doing her best Veruca Salt.

The middle years of child-raising reveal what has always been the case, “not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord” (Zechariah 4:6). Or, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders lose their pain; unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen watch in vain” (Psalm 127:1) .Yes, these truths have always been there. But the middle-years deliver these truths to the soul like the stepped-on nail delivers pain to the foot, like the swiftly opened oven delivers heat to the face. . . singed eyebrows and all. 

The first thing that must be done is you have to get Narnia into your bloodstream. None of this, “I’ll read it to the kids because I know it is good for them.” I’m talking about Narnia in the parents’ veins. I’m talking about grasping the magic world we’re really living in where fish can swallow men alive and spit them up on the shore, where the sun stands still while armies battle, and angels march atop the mulberry trees to wage war against humans. Raising middle schoolers requires the help of heaven, and the help of heaven is just what God has given us. 

Said another way, we need to grasp what Chesterton did,

“All the terms used in the science books, ‘law,’ ‘necessity,’ ‘order,’ ‘tendency,’ and so on, are really unintellectual …. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, ‘charm,’ ‘spell,’ ‘enchantment.’ . . . A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy).

Now, you are wondering what this has to do with getting your mid-aged child to have a better attitude. I’m going to get to those five points in just a moment, but it is of the utmost importance that you see these are “magic arts.” Modern man is unaccustomed to thinking like Narnians and Chestertonians. And if we do not adopt this mindset, which is to say if we do not come to grips with the world God made, then the five magic arts below will slip off of us like a well-cooked egg off a greasy frying pan. So, one step back, and then we will get down to the nitty gritty.

Naturalism and Supernaturalism

In his book Miracles, Lewis does some necessary spade work before addressing the topic of miracles. The foundation clearing that he does in that work is also needed for our topic at hand. Lewis explains that one man is a naturalist and the other a supernaturalist. In order to have an honest conversation about the miraculous, you must first distinguish between the naturalist and the supernaturalist.

The naturalist believes that the “ultimate Fact, the thing you can’t go behind, is a vast process in space and time which is going on of its own accord” (Lewis, Miracles, 7). Naturalism then is a complete interlocking system. The naturalist could admit a certain kind of god. But this god would be produced by the “great interlocking event called Nature . . . Such a God would not stand outside Nature or the total system” (Lewis, Miracles, 11). In other words, you have some form of pantheism for “what Naturalism cannot accept is the idea of a God who stands outside Nature and made it” (Lewis, Miracles, 11).

“The Supernaturalist, on the other hand, believes that the one original or self-existent thing is on a different level from, and more important than, all other things” (Lewis, Miracles, 10). This self-existing thing is the Triune God. The Supernaturalist knows this God who is other, holy, and not like man, has not left the world to click on like a watch. Don’t get me wrong. There is an order to creation. There is a flow. But remember Chesterton. That fruit hangs on a magic tree. Those are enchanted apples. 

We sow. And there is a sowing and reaping principle. But the middle-aged years are a reminder that the Lord brings the growth; and he brings it however he pleases. Modern man is tempted to forget how sowing and reaping really work. We are tempted to substitute four quarters in a soda machine for four seeds in soil—”Didn’t I teach him to control his emotions just yesterday? How long is a man to wait around for the gears of this machine to produce my soda?”

If a parent drifts into naturalism—and we live in times when naturalism is running wild so beware—he will become a prayerless, micro-managing, manipulating, impatient, burden of a father. A mother who falls prey to this naturalism will be a fault-finding, knit-picking, anxious wreck. Machines, after all, have glitches. What’s to say the cosmic machine—the complete interlocking system with no God outside of it—won’t jam, chew little Tommy up, and spit him out to be a foolish son who is a grief to his father and bitterness to his mother (Proverbs 17:25)?

The answer to that question is Pauline: “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25). But faith in that Christ requires a full-scale repudiation of naturalism. God is not the greatest created being. He is not the best component of the self-contained system. He is not in the system. He is beyond it. And he is your hope for raising the kiddos. “Oh, it will take miracles, a string of them,” you say. Asaph replies, “Thou art the God that doest wonders” (Psalm 77:14).

With the groundwork of supernaturalism laid, here are those five magic arts for raising mid-range children.

First, ask the Lord for wisdom. Solomon knew the job was too big for him. He wasn’t sure how to keep the people under his care out of the ditches, “And now, O LORD my God, thou hast made thy servant king instead of David my father: and I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in . . . Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people” (1 Kings 3:7, 9). 

Now you are likely familiar with Solomon’s request for wisdom. So it would be easy to file this in your been-there-done-that-Sunday-School file. But recall the foundation we just laid. I’m not merely telling you that you need to ask for wisdom. I’m talking about you actually obtaining heavenly wisdom like the magic apple tree gets its fruit, or coming up empty like the withered fig tree cursed by our Lord. God really gave the requested wisdom to Solomon. He will really give it to you. Would you lead a middle schooler to cheerfully do the dishes? Would you train him so that when he shoots a big, fat, brick-shot in overtime, and loses the game for his team with all of his friends watching, he still controls his emotions? God gives that kind of wisdom. Ask and you shall receive.

Second, lead by example. Paul could say, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). The truth is you are always leading by example, for better or worse. And middle school eyes watch closely. The eye gate is broader than the ear gate in this season of the child’s life. And something more than a strict science is going on here. You see your temper in them. You see your pride in theirs. There is more going on than meets the eye in this enchanted world we inhabit. Joy is contagious. Laughter spreads faster than the flu. If righteousness exalts a nation (Proverbs 14:34), can it not exalt a home? 

Third, talk to the Lord about them. One of Saul’s big problems was that he did not inquire of the Lord. One of David’s keys to success was continual prayer about practical matters. When you see something slightly bent in your child, talk to the Lord about it before you talk to your child about it. Now, if he’s throwing dishes and kicking puppies, go ahead and speak directly with the youngsters. But when the problem is run-of-the-mill, ask the Lord to restore to them the joy of his salvation. Ask the Lord to make them diligent. The naturalist can’t do anything but tinker with the machine. You speak to the God who knows where the Philistines are encamped, and can send his angel by night to hamstring their horses. This is shepherd-like prayer. It requires that you know the sheep, what they’re struggling with, what their temptations are. Keep an eye on what is going on, and talk to the Lord about it. 

Fourth, sacrifice for them. Paul told the Corinthians that death was at work in him and life in them (2 Corinthians 4:12). That is quite a transfer. God, of course, has to make the whole thing work. But there is no way of escaping this principle. God has established how things work, how things grow. You have to die for the welfare of your children. You have to deny yourself, clean the house, cook the meals, pack the bags, work the job, haul those soccer players around in the minivan, sing them songs, choose good movies, read the stories, and listen to theirs. All of that dying, that daily dying, requires energy. And the God beyond the stars, the God outside creation, supplies that strength.

Fifth, rejoice over them with loud singing. God does so for his children (Zephaniah 3:17). Just before Zephaniah spoke of God singing over his people, he said, “In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, ‘Fear thou not:’ and to Zion, ‘Let not thine hands be slack'” (Zephaniah 3:18). Don’t let your hands be slack because God rejoices over you with a song. One of the reasons that children have slack hands is because their father and mother are not singing over them with joy. Nothing gets hands moving like fatherly joy. We are to show them what the Father is like. If he sings over us with gladness, why shouldn’t we rejoice over our children?