Sunday, January 11, 2009

On Middle School Children and Their Parents

This article first appeared in M: The Magazine for Montessori Families in January/February 2007.

Do any of these voices sound familiar to you?

“Why are you always checking up on me?”
“I can do it myself.”
“I’m not on the computer. Don’t you trust me?”
“Stacey’s mother lets her go by herself.”
“Give me a break. I’ll do my homework.”

“I don’t think you should be at the movies by yourself.”
“No way young man. You’re not being honest with me.”
“This has gone on long enough. Clean it up.”
“Don’t use that kind of language in this house.”
“What was that I found in your drawer?”

Conversations with your middle school child ebb and flow, often depending on her/his frame of mind, a.k.a. mood. The middle school years — say, ages 11 to 15 — are the most difficult years in a human being’s life. Fraught with anxiety, confusion, rejection, and desperation and yet, balanced by elation, rapid growth, bounding confidence, and determination, these years are often the roller coaster ride of life that establish patterns that solidify the critical developmental years of high school and college. Over the past 30 years, I have worked with middle school children and parents and have seen patterns emerge — patterns based on observations, parent and child conversations, reading, professional development, and personal life experiences. The more I see and hear about the vagaries of raising middle school children, the more I am convinced that no matter how society changes, events during these tough years are fairly predictable. Unfortunately, predictability lessens with increased personal and family complexities.

Here are a few patterns I’ve observed over the years:

• How adults manage their lives provides important modeling and foundations for middle school children. Parents and their relationship with each other, friends, and children can provide the anchors for erratic middle school mood swings and nagging uncertainties.

• For the most part, the sixth grade to seventh grade transition is the toughest for girls, while boys’ toughest transition begins in the eighth grade . . . some of it because of the increased attention given to them by girls.

• When they are left on their own, middle school children want answers, and when they can’t get them from their parents they go directly to their peer group and draw opinions and notions from the media.

• Regulating the use of technology in the home has presented innumerable challenges to parents and schools and has presented, yet, one more point of contention in raising the middle school child.

• Parents and teachers often resort to blaming each other when the middle school child’s behavior is erratic, unpredictable, or disruptive to the family or classroom.

• It’s not all hormones that cause the vagaries of preadolescent children. The latest research on brain development demonstrates an inextricable link between behavior and development. (Read Barbara Strauch’s The Primal Teen to learn what is being discovered about brain research in teens.)

• Middle school children need understanding and latitude, especially when they are challenged by their peer group. Likewise, failures along the way are inevitable and challenge children repeatedly. (Read Blessings of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogul and “A Nation of Wimps” by Hara Estroff Marano in Nov/Dec 2004 Psychology Today Magazine to gain some important perspective.)

• Growing/changing bodies are an excellent barometer for children’s increasing self-consciousness about their looks, what they say, and how they are perceived by others; their world becomes magnified. They are particularly sensitive to criticism throughout these years.

• Uncertainty abounds as children and parents grapple with boundaries, freedom, affection for each other, and how to continue to love one another during this difficult time.

• Parents often defend their child with the statement, “My child always tells the truth.” but inevitably question this statement and constantly vacillate between supporting their child and finding the truth.

• Parents, particularly when it is their oldest child, are daunted by the struggle between giving up the attachment to their child and holding on for a little bit longer. The child’s friends and school are often the scapegoat as the parent searches for reasons why their child is initiating and persistent in the separation process.

Our adult, parent world is so different than a middle schooler’s world. Often our impressions of their world are based on our own personal experiences tainted by today’s media. So, accepting the patterns above can give us a better understanding of what is happening to our children and provide perspective in how we raise our children.

Based on the stated patterns above and to help us engage in positive, less emotional, and thoughtful conversations with our middle school child, here are a few basic suggestions to consider:

• Like Brer Rabbit’s briar patch tussle with Brer Bear in the movie “Song of the South,” the middle school child begs for freedom and no discipline but this is exactly what the child needs . . . AND wants. How much easier it is for them to say, “My dorky parents would kill me if they caught me smoking.” and be silently grateful in the end when they don’t have to engage in an activity they know is inappropriate.

• The middle school child’s fight between self-centeredness and being thoughtful of others’ needs is an on-going battle. Parents need to appreciate this battle and be flexible. Innately, middle school children are good, frightened, and gain strength from helping others. (Read “How to be Popular” by Dierdre Dolan in the April 24, 2001 New York Times Magazine to see how one eighth grade class proves this.)

• Preparing an environment that is structured and predictable with flexibility and freedom to explore can provide the optimal setting for the middle school child. Two examples: 1) Without parental prompting or badgering, children must have their weekend homework completed before Sunday dinner. Progress can be monitored by parent-teacher communication, progress reports, and periodic inspection of graded work. 2) Children attend the movies or shop at the mall accompanied by parents, but once inside, the children can move about on their own, checking in with the adult at periodic intervals.

• Understand that there are nature AND nurture forces working on your middle school child. Unfortunately, there often is no predictability to what works when.

• It is especially important to be a good observer and to listen to your child. We, as parents, often want to give our children the answers — our answers, but all they really want is to have someone hear their story. Through observations and listening, establish a baseline for your child’s behavior, then use that baseline as a barometer for measuring subsequent behavior. When their behavior is not in line with the baseline, extend your antennae for closer observations and listening.

• Use all available resources to give you perspective. Teachers, other education professionals, other parents, and pediatricians are important, readily available advisors. Read, read, and read all that you can about preadolescent and adolescent children. Good young adult books can be very insightful. (Read Kira, Kira by Cythia Kadohata, which is the latest Newberry Medal winner.) Outside perspective can give you the confidence, rationale, and conviction you need to deal with your child.

• The behavior you see today will not last forever. Deposit your child’s good behavior in the bank, and get ready to make withdrawals repeatedly, always trying to maintain a positive balance.

• I believe that we need to embrace two assumptions when raising a middle school child: 1) they are good people and they are trying their best to please their parents and teachers; 2) our children at one time or another will distort the truth as they make their way from childhood to adults. It is up to us to carefully guide our discussions and actions with our children so that they are not forced into positions of having to be untruthful to us AND themselves. Avoid placing undue pressure on them. (Read The Pressured Child by Michael Thompson.)

• Above all, provide unconditional love for your middle school child — even when it isn’t warranted. Know that you have to set aside your own desires to feed their voracious needs. They must know that they are the most important people in your life. One fool-proof way to demonstrate this importance and love is to have your evening meals together as a family — no excuses . . . for anyone.

Keeping in mind all of the above and with understanding, patience, patience and more patience, middle school children and their parents can have conversations using:

“Thanks for understanding. I get it now.”
“I’m sorry but I am so unsure. Thanks for agreeing with Dad on this.”
“You’re right. I shouldn’t have jumped the gun.”
“Can we talk about this later?”
“I do trust you.”
“I love you.”

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