Written by Aaron Helman
We’ve all been in a small group, Sunday school class or a summer camp cabin with that one kid who just never talks.
I’ve got one of them in my ninth grade guys’ group this year.
He’s been with us for virtually every session and has spoken less than fifty total words and probably less than ten when I haven’t asked him a direct question.
You know the quiet kid. You’re certain she hates you.
Or maybe she hates everything. During icebreakers, you asked the kids what their favorite ice cream flavor is and she sat there unmoving as if Rocky Road was a state secret that needed to be protected at all costs.
Thing is, as much as I am frustrated at the experience of pulling teeth to gain simple answers to easy question, that absolutely used to be me.
I was the quiet kid.
And as a former quiet kid, I am uniquely positioned to explain everything that might be going on inside the quiet kid’s head.
The good news is that the quiet kid probably doesn’t hate you. He’s got plenty of other reasons for not talking.
Here are a few of them.
HE’S AFRAID OF BEING WRONG.
For much of a teenager’s life, he exists in a setting where he sits in a room full of his peers with one authority figure standing in front of the room asking questions.
And while I know that small groups are different than classrooms, many quiet kids exist in a very permanent fear of embarrassing themselves.
Even a seemingly innocuous question can throw off the quiet kid, because he’s probably been embarrassed by the way he’s answered innocuous question before.
SHE HAS (OR USED TO HAVE) A SPEECH IMPEDIMENT.
This is unfortunately very real. A stutter or a lisp can impact students in very real ways, even if those things have already been dealt with and have gone away.
And while I know that neither you nor your small group would make fun of a peer with a speech impediment, the idea of remaining silent in groups is a developed habit, not a conscious choice.
HE DOESN’T FEEL INCLUDED.
I was the only student from my high school at the church I attended as a teenager.
Everyone else attended a larger, more affluent school than I did.
I didn’t resent them or feel poorly toward anyone, but I didn’t always feel included.
When the first few minutes of small group small talk centered around the Friday night football game that everyone attended except me…
…I became quiet primarily because I didn’t have anything to add, because the conversation was about a shared experience that I didn’t share.
And while things like small talk or icebreaker sessions are designed to warm up the conversation for everyone and to get people used to talking, they can also have the opposite effect.
A student who doesn’t feel included in that small talk or icebreaker can develop a quiet habit that’s tough to break.
SHE’S NOT AS QUICK-WITTED AS SOME OF THE OTHER STUDENTS.
Some teenagers (and some adults) are adept at thinking up quick-witted comments on the fly that elicit laughter from everyone else.
For others, it’s a superior Biblical literacy that allows them to connect dots quicker than the others in the room.
And for others, they’re willing to begin a sentence or a spoken thought without first deciding how it will end.
These people are the talkers.
Others don’t have a fast-paced sense of humor.
They lack the Biblical knowledge to find and discover themes and ideas – at least not before someone else has shared the idea.
And then there are those who are intense cerebral processors, who plot each word and idea before it leaves their lips.
Most of the time, before they’ve developed the thing they wanted to say, someone else has spoken up and the conversation has left their point behind.
HE’S JUST QUIET.
Some kids are just quiet.
It might be a function of their personality, emotional maturity, school life, or cultural upbringing.
Sometimes kids are more comfortable as a bystander in the conversation rather than a lead participant.
The quiet kid in my ninth grade small group is one of these.
He enjoys being there.
What happens in small group is important to him.
It’s just that he’s not a big talker.
A girl in another small group wrote that the experience was among the best of her life, despite the fact that she sat tight-lipped through every session, once shaking her head and refusing an answer when I asked her what instrument she played in band.
Sometimes the quiet kids are quiet because they are quiet kids and we have to trust that God doesn’t need them to regularly speak out in front of groups in order to work in their lives and hearts.
It’s easy to get caught up trying to get the quiet kids to talk, and it’s also easy to unintentionally leave them feeling uncomfortable and exposed.
We so want to know what God’s doing in their lives and what they’re thinking, but often, we just need to know that God knows what God’s doing in their lives and that’s enough.
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Written by Aaron Helman. Aaron has been in youth ministry for over 15 years and is currently a youth pastor in South Bend, Indiana.