Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pygmalion Youth Ministry

Junior highers seem to have a bit of a reputation. When I describe my job of junior high ministry to people, the response is usually something like, "oh, God bless you for what you're doing! I could never work with junior highers!" When I ask them why, there are a variety of answers: they're loud; they're obnoxious; they're unruly and disruptive; I can't relate to how they think; they scare me. In my experience, the expectations people have of junior high students is generally negative.

Back in the '60s, a sociological study was done in classroom settings by a psychologist named Robert Rosenthal. Rosenthal studied the concept of expectations placed on students by their teachers and how this affected the students' performance. He found that when two basically equal groups were given different expectations placed on them by authority figures--one group positive, the other negative--the students would perform according to those expectations. It's called the Pygmalion Effect, named after George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, perhaps better known as the Oscar-winning film My Fair Lady. Here are the basics: when expectations are placed on a person or group of people, they tend to live up to those expectations, whether positive or negative. It's also called a "self-fulling prophecy" and it's alarmingly accurate.

So it's no surprise that when adults expect junior high students to be loud, obnoxious, or immature, they live up to those expectations. Expectations, no matter how subtle or tacit, end up being communicated in many ways. From stares to tone of voice to simply ignoring them, students internalize these perceived negative expectations, affecting their actions.

I'm finding that when junior high students are given positive expectations--they're seen as passionate, energetic, insightful, good question-askers, teachable, talkative, adaptable, capable of mature conversations and deep friendships, etc.--they tend to live up to them. When a loving adult comes into their life and views them as valuable, filled with potential, and enjoyable to be around, it radically changes the way they live.

I love what Jesus says to Simon in John chapter 1: "You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas" (emphasis mine). Jesus saw who Simon was (an uneducated loud-mouth fisherman from Galilee) and voiced His expectations of who Simon could become (the leader of the early church). It's the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. It's the power of expectation, of seeing people as Jesus sees them.

What expectations do you have for groups of people, both obvious and hidden, positive and negative?


  1. Hey Joel - awesome insight. Actually, one of the reasons we opted for homeschooling. As parents, we were able to pray/listen and set the expectations that we had for our kids instead of leaving it to a third party (school system/church). This of course, trickles into all areas, not just education, but morally, spiritually & emotionally. Thanks for sharing :) Dawn

  2. I see many examples where God used that encouragement with certain individuals. He saw Abraham as the father of many nations before he had children, He saw Gideon as a great and mighty warrior before Gideon did. It is an example for us as parents to see our children as God can see them and to be their visionaries. I love your insight and reading your blog, you offer many different views. Thanks for your work with my junior higher!!