If you could magically teach like anyone in the world, who would you choose? Do you wish for Piper’s power? Keller’s clarity? N.T. Wright’s wisdom? Maybe you long for the deep simplicity of C.S. Lewis or the apologetic genius of Ravi Zacharias.

I think—for once—that the “churchy” answer is the best: Jesus. But how often is he studied as a model for teaching? Sure, he saved the world from sin. Sure, his work on earth has defined the last two millennia. Sure, he was the smartest person who ever lived and never lost an argument. But learn from his methods? Most of us haven’t even considered it.

Go to Bible college, attend seminary, take a  preaching course, and you’ll read and learn all sorts of useful things: how to find the big idea of a text, how to make a textual outline, how to offer real application. But rarely will you find an extensive study of how Jesus taught—his methods, his strategies, his techniques.

No one will argue his credentials. He is God, after all. We’re promised that his word is “living and active.” No other teacher in history has spoken words that are so enduring, so provocative, and so transformational.

So why don’t we model our teaching after him? Here are four reasons we don’t teach like Jesus. Continue reading


Parents of Teens Must Adapt  by Mark Gregston


Trying to understand how to help your teen in a world that is constantly changing is like trying to hit a target that constantly moves. Just when your aim is right on target, things change — your kids change. Parents are often bewildered when trying to keep up with the always changing world of teens. It’s like trying to get a drink of water from a fire hydrant, or holding a fistful of sand. Knowing how to set the right standards and enforce the right discipline can be overwhelming, and may seem impossible.

The key to success in this arena lies in learning to adapt your parenting style to be more fluid, more accessible.

As your child develops into a teen, you no longer have the luxury of making demands and expecting things to remain the same. Whether you like it or not, things change, and you must be able to understand and move with the culture, and set appropriate boundaries. I’m not saying you should stop caring about your family rules and beliefs.  What I am saying is that how you enforce the rules must change.  Otherwise, your child will be unprepared to cope with a culture that is constantly changing. They won’t develop healthy relationships.  They will remain immature and irresponsible, because all of the decisions have always been made for them.

Change The Boundaries

Adapting your style must include learning how to set appropriate boundaries for their newly acquired behaviors, and giving them the choice for the direction they need to go.

A good example of how this works comes from the time I spend training horses. When I put a fence around a horse, I am setting up boundaries. The horse can go anywhere it likes like within those fences. If a problem develops, I move the fences in a bit, and reinforce the boundaries. The same can be true with your teen. Set boundaries, and allow your teen to choose his direction within those boundaries. If a problem develops, or things change, move the boundaries in. Examine their world, and put some thought into what needs to be done. Kids today often engage with one another without really interacting or developing any kind of real relationships. The lack of interaction doesn’t help them hone their maturity or grow in their social skills. It’s your job to help them grow. So set the boundaries that help them do more than just engage with others – they need to learn how to interact. Let them choose the direction they want to go. Allow them to experience the consequences of choosing poorly. Help them to see that poor choices and crossing healthy boundaries will take their relationships in directions they don’t want to go, and choosing well will help them build good relationships.

Change Your Aim

Changing your parenting style for the teen years means you change your focus from punishment and discipline to training and character building.

The focus of the boundaries you set should become more about obedience, respect, and honesty, which are the top three qualities necessary to build relationships. Respect, more than anything else, allows all others to fall into their proper place. Conversely, disobedience, disrespect, and dishonesty destroy relationships, and need to be addressed when they appear also. Dishonesty, more than anything else, destroys trust in relationships. Hold your teen responsible for the direction they choose, and cause them to own it. They will make some mistakes, but that’s alright. If they lay the blame on you, however, remember to put the responsibility clearly back on them. Tell them, “this is not about me, or my mistakes, this is about you. I will never be a perfect parent, but if you don’t change things, this will hurt you in your relationships in the future.

Change Your Attitudes

Changing your style of parenting teens in order to meet the demands of today’s world also means that you refocus your own attitudes and behavior as well:

  • Move from lecturing to discussing
  • Move from entertaining to experiencing something together
  • Move from demanding everything, to asking them their ideas about everything
  • Move from seeking justice to giving grace
  • Move from seeing everything that’s wrong and finding more of what’s right
  • Move from spending time always telling them to more time listening
  • Move from giving your opinion to waiting until you are asked.

It is difficult for teens today to grow up and move on. They tend to like their immaturity, and don’t feel the need to grow in their responsibilities. Teaching them to grow and own their attitudes and choices is one of the most important character qualities we can help them develop. So, don’t just tell them they need to be responsible, or that they need to be mature. Instead, carefully identify what is going on in their world, and begin to set out boundaries that give them responsibility and cause them to act upon them. And when the next new thing comes along, learn to adjust the boundaries in ways that help them continue to recognize their need to be mature, responsible, and own up to the consequences of their choices.


How Young is Too Young for Digital Technology and Social Media  by Art Barnford


Many of you know firsthand how difficult today’s question is: At what age should a person start using a certain device, app, or social media platform?

When we talk with parents about this, many express feeling like they’re holding the line in a battle for as long as possible. There is constant pressure, from multiple sides, for kids to start using more and more digital technology at earlier ages.

That cultural pressure makes this question particularly tough. We can tell you what doctors recommend, what the national averages are, or various other pros and cons; but when your kids’ school tells you they need an email account, or their coach tells you they will be coordinating practice times by text message, or your teen comes home and tells you the irrefutable sad refrain “all my friends have one!”—the data seems to go out the window.

What the Doctors Say

In case you’re wondering, here is what medical professionals say: The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends having “screen free zones” in the house, especially a young person’s bedroom, as well as “screen free times” like during meals. They also recommend just one to two hours of entertainment screen time per day, and zero screen time at all for children under two years old.

Now don’t be too thrown off if those recommendations are not quite how it is in your house. Keep in mind that these are the same people who recommend brushing your teeth three times a day, sleeping eight hours a night, daily exercise, and a well-balanced diet—they set the bar at “best-case scenario.” But that best-case scenario is based on what’s good for our bodies, minds, and emotions.Aiming high never hurts.

That being said, there are several big takeaways that I want to share after having reviewed a number of relevant studies. First, a few key findings to consider, followed by some recommended tips and strategies for families and leaders.

Key Findings about Kids and Digital Technology

Continue reading


Friendship on Purpose: A Letter to My Daughters by Karen Brown

Dear Daughters,As you get ready to enter new schools in the fall, it’s normal for you to be anxious for things to go well.We’ve thoughtfully planned your core classes, electives, and extra curricular activities.

We made a list of supplies and will scour the stores for just the right binders, backpacks, and notebooks.

We’ve budgeted and will shop carefully for outfits that are practical, appropriate, and expressive.

You are pretty much ready, except for one thing.

We haven’t done anything to prepare you to sift though a big, new group of people in the hope of making godly friends. Often, the friendships that you have in middle school and high school can influence you so much more than your classes, supplies, and clothes. Therefore, I’d like to offer some advice and encouragement, to be just as intentional about getting ready for this part of your new school year. You can begin now to prepare to make friendships. You can do this…on purpose.

First of all, start with your heart. Pray now, over this summer, that God will give you His desires for your friendships. Seek Him daily, for without Him, we girls tend to chase after unhealthy and unrighteous relationships. To illustrate this point, I have some off-blog stories for you…

Secondly, use your brain. God gave you amazing intellect, therefore don’t save it for only classroom work. This is important life work, so be smart and contemplate what qualities make a godly friend. Make a list of those qualities before school starts, and ponder what blessings can come from having wise friends. Thoughtful preparation does not come naturally at your age, but you are still very capable of it. It’s an essential part of growing up, and you can avoid so much pain if you practice it!

Then when school starts, get your face in on the action.

With your eyes, watch carefully. And I don’t mean social-media viewing. I mean look into real faces, in real life. But be careful that you don’t limit yourself to watching only those who are beautiful or strong. You might miss a good friend if you focus only on appearances. Observe behaviors and attitudes, paying extra attention to how they respond when things don’t go well. Keep those eyes peeled for hints of character. The stand-up ones will stand out, I promise.

With your ears, listen to topics, tone, and language. Words are a direct reflection of a person’s heart, so listen for good ones.

And with your mouth, smile. Even though you will be busy watching and listening, that doesn’t mean you have to frown in judgment. Be not friends with everyone, but be friendly to all.

Also, use your mouth to speak positively whenever possible, and words of life about everyone. Have a plan for when gossip arises in the conversation. Because, unfortunately, it will. Some effective gossip-avoiding strategies that I use are: changing the subject, saying something positive about the person, or excusing myself from the conversation. You don’t have to choose one of my strategies, as long as you are ready to respond to that sneaky enemy of girl bonding. I’ve seen it kill many relationships over the years, so trust me, and beware.

After some time, and when you have spotted a few jewels, get your feet and legs involved. Walk alongside them, measure their pace, and roam in their circles. See where they work, play, hang-out, and worship. Before you share the yoke of deep friendship with someone, you need to know in which direction they are headed. You don’t want to be tricked into going the wrong way, believe me. Also, at this stage, keep yourself grounded. Walk among the crowd, have fun, be engaged, but resist the urge to jump in with both feet. You might feel like you are missing out, or like you’re the only one left on the bank at times, but it’s foolish to leap before you are sure of what’s below. You may end up way over your head, off a cliff, or in a den of lions. I don’t want to scare you, or cause you to be cynical, but we are still dealing with undercooked frontal lobes here…So, please be safe. Set your feet on the Rock, the Solid Ground, and He will bring friends with whom you can jump and fly without fear.

But what about your hands? I didn’t forget them. They have much to do.

First, resist the urge to wring them in worry. God knows that you need friendships and He will bring them, but His timing often doesn’t match ours. Waiting is so difficult, but His plan is always worth it. When you feel yourself start to panic in the waiting, busy your hands with service. Developing the habit of working hard to serve others will keep your mind off of your own longings, and will make you a better friend when the time comes.

Be willing to extend your hands to bring other gems into your circle. For some reason, girls tend to think they “own” one another. They mark their feminine territory with bracelets, t-shirts, and necklaces split in two. Resist the “best friend” label. It leads to exclusion and often creates much relational pressure. Be the one to carry the good news to all girls that this friendship thing is not a contest. Maybe the message will spread and there will be an epidemic of mature, brave, honest, sacrificial, and humble teenage girls who are free to share and enjoy one another. How different would middle school and high-school be, then? All things are possible with God.

Also, with your hands, reach out for help. Often, it’s too difficult, at your age, to know when to set up appropriate boundaries in friendships or to discern if a relationship is healthy. I’ve learned so much about this the hard way. More off-blog stories later… Please ask for guidance when you’re sensing something isn’t quite right. I promise I’ll listen and guide while keeping my own hands out.

And finally, still with your hands, let go. Release the grip you have on any unrealistic expectations that you may have for your friendships. Remind yourself that your friends will fail, forget, and flounder in their relationship with you, and you with them. They will not meet all of your needs, nor should they feel compelled to try. Let each of your friends be herself, and don’t ask her to be God.

Finally, return to your heart. At this point, you will know if those around you can be trusted with what’s inside. Be free, after all of this, to open up and share your hopes, dreams, worries, longings, and emotions with these treasures. Allow time and space for them to share theirs. Enjoy these gifts of Grace from God. Pray for them, be thankful for them, and continue to seek Him daily in them.

I want all of this for you, my beautiful daughters, and I’ll be on my knees with you, asking God to bring His girls to you in friendship.

But also, I’ll be in prayer over you, from head to toe, that you can be the kind of friend for others that you are wanting for yourself.

All of this, so that all of your friendships can be a testimony of the gospel; full of grace and truth, brimming with love and forgiveness.

So that you, your friends, and those watching would know God, the Friend of sinners.

Friendship on purpose. Friendship with a purpose. Friendship so that others may know Him.

With Christ as our Friend,

I love you, Mom

“The righteous choose their friends carefully” Proverbs 12:26a

How to Choose Friends Wisely What are the Important Traits to Look for in a Friend           by 

Think you don’t get to just choose who you’re friends with? Absolutely not. You get just as much say who your friends are as they do. Making friends is one thing, but choosing who your friends are is incredibly important, because your friends are your guides in life as well as the people who help define who you are. In some ways, they are family. There are some friends who are closer to you than others, but who you choose to share important parts of your life with matters.

Continue reading


5 Truths About Youth Culture  by Walt Mueller


Pop Culture is Market Driven
The children and youth market is the most aggressively targeted market segment in the world. The reason? They have more disposable income and purchasing influence than any other age group. Consequently, marketers both use and shape the pop culture in an effort to influence the values, attitudes, and spending behaviors of our kids while developing lifetime brand loyalties. By using market research to better understand kids, marketers are then able to turn around and use what they’ve learned to connect with and influence those most vulnerable in our society.

Pop Culture is Fluid
In order to grab and maintain the attention of children and teens, pop culture must constantly reinvent itself. What is new, edgy and exciting today (styles, music, ideas, icons, etc.) will be obsolete tomorrow. Because kids are conditioned to look for and embrace whatever is fresh, the purveyors of pop stay busy examining their research in order to shape and develop the next big “thing.” As a result, pop culture is specific to place and time. While there is always some overlap, it’s necessary for those who study culture to look hard for and identify the specific nuances of the popular culture in their unique place and time.

Pop Culture is Pervasive
Wherever there are people, there will be popular culture. It is inescapable. Students cannot be sheltered from it. Even if they don’t engage the primary outlets themselves, they live and move in a peer society influenced by the pop culture. In today’s world, the advent of MTV and the Internet has facilitated the effective exportation of North American youth culture around the globe. While there are unique aspects from place to place, popular culture is everywhere and as a result, has facilitated the growth of a globalized youth culture. It has touched and shaped virtually all social institutions including the school, church, home, and community.

Pop Culture is Entertaining
Because it is market driven, pop culture must grab the attention of children and teens in order to survive and develop. It enters into their lives through a plethora of outlets, grabbing and holding their attention and allegiance by design. In the increased absence of stability and influence from the traditional institutions of home, church, and school, young people seek out pop culture to fill their time and, in some cases, help them forget their pain. Because it must be constantly developed and updated, pop culture’s “newness” increases its effectiveness to entertain.

Pop Culture is Unifying
In a world marked by relational breakdown, young people long for connections. Pop culture serves as a common thread that runs through the lives of children and teens, giving them a common experience, shared allegiances, and a place to belong. Pop culture binds children and teens together.


5 Reasons Your Teen is Rebelling and How to Handle Teenage Rebellion                 by Mark Merrill


Teenage rebellion is nothing new. Rebellious children have been around since the first children inhabited the earth.  Remember Cain and Abel? So, what should you do about it?  Run from the battle? Raise the white surrender flag in defeat? Go to war with guns a blazing? None of those things will accomplish very much and may end up killing your relationship with your child. Instead, it’s important to first get a handle on why your teen may be rebelling. Understanding why your teen is rebelling is foundational to understanding what we should do about it.  In today’s blog, I’m going to talk about the “Why?” Tomorrow, we’ll address the “What?”

Here are 5 reasons why your teen may be rebelling: Continue reading


Study Claims Most People Would Rather Receive an Electric Jolt than Sit Idly for 15 Minutes   by John Stonestreet breakpoint.org
The weekly journal Nature recently reported, “Given the choice, many people would rather give themselves mild electric shocks than sit idly in a room for 15 minutes, according to a study published . . . in Science.”
Say what?
In an experiment led by social psychologist Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia, 409 undergrads were asked to sit alone without mobile devices, books, or any other kind of entertainment for 15 minutes. That’s it. 15 minutes.
Nearly half found this unpleasant. Allowed to repeat the experiment in the comfort of their own homes, “nearly one-third of the study subjects later admitted to cheating.”
And now comes the bizarre part: “In the next experiment, participants were given a small electric shock—akin to a jolt of static electricity—that was so unpleasant that three-quarters of them said they would be willing to pay not to experience the shock again.”
But when participants sat in the room “alone with their thoughts, 67% of male participants and 25% of female subjects were so eager to find something to do that they shocked themselves voluntarily.”

Continue reading


How to Use Your God- given Influence to be a Kingdom Builder   by Rick Warren


Everyone has influence. We all influence someone. And God expects us to be good stewards of that influence for His kingdom’s sake. He didn’t give us our influence for selfish purposes on our part, but so that we might share the good news about him – so that we could be Kingdom builders.

What exactly is a “kingdom builder?” It’s someone who has…

  • A great purpose to live for. And for the Christian, we have the greatest purpose of all – to rescue people for eternity through Jesus. Kingdom builders demonstrate a great commitment to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.
  • Great principles to live by. A Kingdom builder is one who has a different source from which to draw wisdom – God’s eternal truth revealed in the Bible.
  • Great power to live on. A Kingdom builder operates in a different power that the rest of the world – the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit who offers guidance every step of the way.
  • Great people to live with. A Kingdom builder gathers with God’s people and joins up with a small group for encouragement and accountability.

There are at least a dozen principles we learn from Scripture about how to use our influence as a Kingdom builder. I’m going to share six this week and six next week. First of all, Continue reading


Poolside Purity & Bikini Battles by Nick Burczyk


Here we go again. It’s summer time, which means at any given time, in any number of churches nationwide, pastors, youth pastors and leaders are giving their kids (read: their female students) the “one-piece” talk.

A few years back at our church, some students actually petitioned our pastor to include Tankinis. It was a big win for preteens everywhere. I imagine they sat by the pool that summer in their tankinis and drank virgin daiquiris to celebrate.

We have all been there for that dreaded talk. It’s painful for everyone involved and it smacks of legalism. As one student recently said to me, “It just feels like another instance of the old people at church telling people to behave because you’re at church.” It’s absurd, I know. In case you are unfamiliar with the one-piece talk, it goes something like this:

Ok, ladies, it’s summertime, and we’re going to have a lot of events where water is involved (or we’re going to camp, or to an amusement park, or your event-du-jour). You know, guys are visually stimulated, and can’t help but think about sex a lot of the time. We wouldn’t want to make them stumble. So swimsuits should be one pieces only. No exceptions. If you show up in a two-piece, you’ll be asked to sit out.

It’s sad but true. What are you going to do? Those hopeless, slobbering, drooling neanderthal boys are just going to be hopeless, slobbering, drooling neanderthal boys.


Lately, that thought is giving me more and more trouble. I can’t get around the idea that somewhere in the jungle of one-piece swimsuits and hormones, we are missing the true message of the Gospel. Here are three MAJOR overhauls that we need to apply in the way we talk about purity with our teens.

1. STOP giving boys a pass.

I saw a man wearing a TShirt at the grocery store today that proudly boasted, “World’s Okayest Dad.” Hilarious. Men are bumbling idiots. Watch any show on TV and you will find manhood defined as boyhood, but with a wife instead of a mother. Who screws things up? Dad. Who is there for comic relief? Dad. Who can’t even perform “dad” kinds of tasks without ending up in the hospital? Dad. Mancaves. Nagging wives demanding attention (how dare they? Don’t they know there’s a game on?). Homer Simpson. Peter Griffin. Al Bundy. Fred Flinstone. The list goes on.

It’s time we take back our view of manhood. Boys chase one girl after the next. Men treat them with dignity and respect. This message has to be reversed and it starts in our homes.

Fathers: It’s not a “rite of passage” when you take your kid to Hooters. It’s not funny when you nudge them when pretty girls walk by, and give them “the wink.” It’s not funny when you encourage your kids to carry on the stereotype that the first and only thing a man is supposed to think about when he sees someone of the opposite sex is how physically appealing she is.

Every time we do that, we send the following message to our young, impressionable sons: “Look for the skinny girls. Look for the girls with big chests and tiny waists. Check out anyone that walks by with high cheekbones and a perfectly-manicured look. The ‘ugly’ ones aren’t attention-worthy. And don’t give ‘the nudge/wink’ for an overweight girl unless you’re making a joke.”

MAN. FREAKING. UP. The first step to changing the poolside-purity culture in our churches is to stop participating in treating women as if they are objects to be attained.

Instead, we need to teach our young men to honor women for what they are: God’s creatures, created in his image; a gift to man so that we wouldn’t be alone; companions; sisters in Christ; people with feelings, and thoughts, emotions and aspirations.

Putting all the pressure on the girls to “protect” the hopeless boys is a biblically backwards way to look at gender relationships, and is degrading to the boys. If you want to change our poolside-purity culture, change the message you give to the young men, and start it when they are young boys. 

2. Stop putting so much pressure on young girls.

Let me get this straight: On top of keeping up with fashion trends, and social stigmas around dressing right, and on top of parental concerns about modesty, and on top of body image issues and concerns like “that weird mole that I hate on my arm” or “my hair won’t lay flat” issues, you’re telling me that you want to add to a teenage girl’s morning routine, “Is there any possible way this could make any boy I will see today lust?”

Why do we keep telling them that protecting the boys’ struggles and temptations are their problems to bear?

Every guy finds different things attractive. Different guys will like the “dolled up” look, while some may be more attracted to the “relaxed” look, complete with sweatpants and ball caps. Even when girls aren’t “trying” to be “sexy,” they could cause a man to lust after them with what they wear.

But they don’t cause that. That’s on the young men.

But here’s what really bugs me about this approach. If we are honest, it’s only a meaningful conversation when discussing “attractive” girls. I mean, we address everyone, but when chubby girls wear tight pants or short shorts, society’s reaction is rarely “that’s inappropriate” and more often “that’s gross, no one wants to see that!” It’s disgusting, I know, but I’m just pointing out where we are as a society.

Make no mistake, when we tell girls that it is their responsibility to keep boys’ lust in check, we are asking them to run through a checklist of their body asking, “Is my butt lust-worthy? What about my boobs? Do I need to cover those, or are they not lust-worthy enough? Maybe I’m just inherently ugly enough that it doesn’t matter what I wear…” And the monologue meanders on.

If you want to change our poolside-purity culture, stop telling girls that they need to judge for themselves if men would find them sexually desirable or not.

3. Teach girls a biblical view of modesty.

One of the things that is missing in our conversations about “poolside purity” is that we often overlook or brush over a biblical view of beauty. Our teaching shouldn’t stop at, “Barney the dinosaur Jesus loves you just the way you are,” but rather we should be teaching what Godly beauty really is. Turns out the Bible talks a lot about that.

God designed women to be beautiful in a specific way. Men who are real men (not sitcom men) will be attracted to this.

1 Peter 3:3-5—”Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves,”

1 Timothy 2:9-10—”Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.”

These passages teach that women shouldn’t seek to be called beautiful because of their outward “adornments.” Proverbs talks a lot about how great it is to find a wife or woman of noble character. Never does it say, “A hot wife who can find?!” Just like we should be teaching boys to look at girls with dignity and respect, we should be teaching girls to be modest and gentle, and to view themselves with dignity and respect. That’s why I love this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJVHRJbgLz8

Dressing immodestly objectifies the woman. It makes her an object to be ogled rather than a treasure to cherish. A young woman who is developing Godly character and a Godly view of beauty will have no desire to objectify herself, but to make people see her true beauty, the kind of Beauty God delights in seeing in her.

Ladies: the point of modesty is not to “protect those drooling, heathen, teen boys,” but to draw them in, to make them seek your true beauty that lies in the person God created you to be.

If you want to change our poolside-purity culture, spend more time teaching women what Godly femininity looks like. 

Those are three thoughts on the dreaded one-piece talk. Here’s a parting thought: the church should be the safest place in the world for a girl to wear a bikini.

I’m not advocating bikinis, and I think modesty is a far more godly way to go. To say it as clear as I possibly can, I don’t think girls should want to wear bikinis, but if they so desire the safest place to do so should be the church. So let me say it another way: the church should be the one place where women don’t need to fear being objectified and made into sexual objects.

In our over-sexualized, boobs-on-every-channel-and-in-every-SINGLE-movie, sexual-humor-everywhere, “That’s-What-She-Said,” Hugh-Heffner-is-the-image-of-a-real-man, “every-guy”-has-a-hidden-magazine-and-movie-stash, “I-just-go-there-because-I-like-the-wings” culture, the church should be the one place where we can give women respite from the constant inner monologue that tells them all about how their non-airbrushed bodies aren’t good enough.

It should be the one place where sex—every single aspect of it—is between a man and a woman inside the confines of a marriage.

It should be the one place in our ever-losing-its-mind world where we can separate sexuality and personhood.

So consider this an invitation to join me in changing the culture.


Cool at 13, Adrift at 23 by Jan Hoffman
JUNE 23, 2014

At 13, they were viewed by classmates with envy, admiration and not a little awe. The girls wore makeup, had boyfriends and went to parties held by older students. The boys boasted about sneaking beers on a Saturday night and swiping condoms from the local convenience store.

They were cool. They were good-looking. They were so not you.

Whatever happened to them?

“The fast-track kids didn’t turn out O.K.,” said Joseph P. Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. He is the lead author of a new study, published this month in the journal Child Development, that followed these risk-taking, socially precocious cool kids for a decade. In high school, their social status often plummeted, the study showed, and they began struggling in many ways.

It was their early rush into what Dr. Allen calls pseudomature behavior that set them up for trouble. Now in their early 20s, many of them have had difficulties with intimate relationships, alcohol and marijuana, and even criminal activity. “They are doing more extreme things to try to act cool, bragging about drinking three six-packs on a Saturday night, and their peers are thinking, ‘These kids are not socially competent,’ ” Dr. Allen said. “They’re still living in their middle-school world.”

As fast-moving middle-schoolers, they were driven by a heightened longing to impress friends. Indeed their brazen behavior did earn them a blaze of popularity. But by high school, their peers had begun to mature, readying themselves to experiment with romance and even mild delinquency. The cool kids’ popularity faded.

B. Bradford Brown, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who writes about adolescent peer relationships and was not involved in the study, said it offered a trove of data. The finding that most surprised him, he said, was that “pseudomature” behavior was an even stronger predictor of problems with alcohol and drugs than levels of drug use in early adolescence. Research on teenagers usually tracks them only through adolescence, Dr. Brown added. But this study, following a diverse group of 184 subjects in Charlottesville, Va., starting at age 13, continued into adulthood at 23.

Researchers took pains to document the rise and fall in social status, periodically interviewing the subjects as well as those who they felt knew them best, usually close friends. About 20 percent of the group fell into the “cool kid” category at the study’s outset.

A constellation of three popularity-seeking behaviors characterized pseudomaturity, Dr. Allen and his colleagues found. These young teenagers sought out friends who were physically attractive; their romances were more numerous, emotionally intense and sexually exploring than those of their peers; and they dabbled in minor delinquency — skipping school, sneaking into movies, vandalism.

As they turned 23, the study found that when compared to their socially slower-moving middle-school peers, they had a 45 percent greater rate of problems resulting from alcohol and marijuana use and a 40 percent higher level of actual use of those substances. They also had a 22 percent greater rate of adult criminal behavior, from theft to assaults.

Many attributed failed adult romantic relationships to social status: they believed that their lack of cachet was the reason their partners had broken up with them. Those early attempts to act older than they were seemed to have left them socially stunted. When their peers were asked how well these young adults got along with others, the former cool kids’ ratings were 24 percent lower than the average young adult.

The researchers grappled with why this cluster of behaviors set young teenagers on a downward spiral. Dr. Allen suggested that while they were chasing popularity, they were missing a critical developmental period. At the same time, other young teenagers were learning about soldering same-gender friendships while engaged in drama-free activities like watching a movie at home together on a Friday night, eating ice cream. Parents should support that behavior and not fret that their young teenagers aren’t “popular,” he said.

“To be truly mature as an early adolescent means you’re able to be a good, loyal friend, supportive, hardworking and responsible,” Dr. Allen said. “But that doesn’t get a lot of airplay on Monday morning in a ninth-grade homeroom.”

Dr. Brown offered another perspective about why the cool kids lost their way. The teenagers who lead the social parade in middle school — determining everyone else’s choices in clothes, social media and even notebook colors — have a heavy burden for which they are not emotionally equipped. “So they gravitate towards older kids,” he said. And those older teenagers, themselves possibly former cool kids, were dubious role models, he said: “In adolescence, who is open to hanging out with someone three or four years younger? The more deviant kids.”

Dr. Allen offered one typical biography from the study. At 14, the boy was popular. He had numerous relationships, kissed more than six girls, flung himself into minor forms of trouble, and surrounded himself with good-looking friends.

By 22, he was a high-school dropout, had many problems associated with drinking, including work absenteeism and arrests for drunken driving. He is unemployed and still prone to minor thefts and vandalism.

But as Dr. Allen emphasized, pseudomaturity suggests a predilection; it is not a firm predictor. A teenage girl from the study initially had a similar profile, with many boyfriends at an early age, attractive friends and a fondness for shoplifting.

Yet by 23, Dr. Allen wrote in an email, “she’d earned her bachelor’s degree, had not had any more trouble with criminal behavior, used alcohol only in responsible ways and was in a good job.”

Dr. Mitchell J. Prinstein, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies adolescent social development, said that while teenagers all long to be accepted by their peers studies suggest that parents can reinforce qualities that will help them withstand the pressure to be too cool, too fast.

“Adolescents also appreciate individuality and confidence,” he said. “Adolescents who can stick to their own values can still be considered cool, even without doing what the others are doing.”