The Butting Order: How Middle School Students Rank Themselves in School

Middle school student are very much aware of what we call the “butting order.”  We all have our own preferences and opinions that form our individual kingdoms. Within our own kingdoms, we often strive for individual glory which ultimately ends up leaving us empty. Through various methods, we attempt to lift ourselves higher on the “status” ladder which, in turn, pushes others down the rungs.   Middle school students take this to a very level.

My friend, Brian Donohue tells the story about watching the goats on his farm. At feeding time, the young goats will make a mad dash for the trough, with the older goats shuffling along behind. However, when the older goats arrive, they butt the young goats out of the way. The top goat never runs, and she’s usually last to arrive at the trough. But make no mistake; every other goat has to wait in line until the big girl has finished eating. This is what Brian calls the butting order. Unfortunately, it’s not limited to goats.

Middle and high school students are very sensitive to what their peers think of them, so much so that their concerns can interfere with their studies. As early as fifth grade, students begin to sort themselves out and find their place in the school “butting order.” The goal in their minds is to quickly get as high on the scale as they can because, once it’s fixed, it may not change much over the course of a school year. Have you ever heard about that student who “tried and tried to make friends,” but couldn’t? That’s the perverse power of the butting order. Although I don’t think this characterizes our school, I do not think New Covenant kids magically escape this problem.

Jeremiah 9:23-24 says, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me.” An easy way  for us to remember this is not to glory in the brains-body-bank factor (wisdom, might, and riches).

High academic achievement is valued by parents and is often worn as a badge of honor. When the math tests are handed back, and the student who got a 98 leans over to his neighbor that he knows scored much lower, and says, “Hey, how’d you do?” the butting order might be at work. The expected reply is “Terrible, what about you?” which in turn serves up the opportunity to brag about brain power and secure one’s spot in the “brains” butting order. I’m not kidding. It’s subtle, but real.

A second way to secure a higher spot in the butting order is by physical presence – the body. This can be expressed, of course, with athletic ability. Students will naturally defer to the classmate with the best soccer skills, jump shot, dig and spike ability, or LAX skills. Girls and boys will defer to the girl that everybody thinks is the prettiest or the boy who is cute. Others will resent it, of course, and will either display impressively “catty” behavior, or form a little group that is lower on the butting order. Does this happen with our kids? Sometimes. In larger schools you can see it most dramatically in the lunch room. Students know which tables they can sit at and which ones they can’t. It’s so powerful that they do it unconsciously, and they voluntarily arrange themselves in sequence in the butting order.

Finally, students can establish a butting order with the bank. Some students are more privileged than others. All the kids know who took that big trip out of the country last summer, who has an expensive skateboard, or who has the latest Smartphone. The uniform code tends to mitigate this problem in the area of clothing, one of the biggest factors in the butting order, but it doesn’t eliminate it entirely.

Taken together, the brains-body-bank factors are powerful drivers of social turbulence in the lives of young people (and, let’s be honest, people of all ages). At New Covenant, we counter this by making our students aware that Jesus teaches us not to be anxious for what we eat, wear, or where we live. He taught us that a man’s life is not measured by the abundance of the things that he possesses. And, He taught us that His Kingdom is the only one worth seeking. Much adolescent anxiety is traceable to an emotional attachment to brains-body-bank reality, and one way to break free is to talk about it openly and address it with the students themselves.

We’ve found that students respond to it, first with sideways glances at their neighbors, as if to say, “How did our teachers discover this?” Pretty quickly, however, they admit that it’s true, and at that point we are able to talk about it in chapel, in advisory, and individually with small groups of students. Be sure that your child will probably experience some form of the butting order in middle and high school. Plan to be supportive of your children; be supportive of their teachers, and know that we are intentional in helping our students navigate this period in their development as we all strive to glory in The Lord and His promises.