Few people look back at middle school and say: “What a formative, profound, and fulfilling time of life that was.” Instead, most of us remember it as three years of embarrassment and awkwardness that we suffered through as we tried to figure out our place in the microcosm of society. For our kids entering this phase, not much has changed.
Middle school remains a developmental minefield where the academic focus shifts from facts to theory, and the responsibility for learning falls squarely on the student. In addition, kids are still expected to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, and keep up on the happenings of their friends – all while staying afloat atop swirling undercurrents of peer pressure. Self-confidence wanes as adolescents become aware of conflicting gender and socioeconomics roles, and their behavior reflects this. Middle school is the coming-of-age trifecta, where kids face challenging transitions on three major fronts: physical, emotional, and social. The difference with our kids, though, is they have us to help them through it.
I’m not saying we are the first generation of parents who are self-actualized enough to be useful, but we do have the distinct advantage – with a foot in each century – of witnessing and influencing modern social trends. In many respects, we are better equipped and more willing mentors than our parents ever hoped (or tried) to be, and we are ideally suited to guide our charges through these clumsy years. Here are four ways you can be the person you needed so badly in middle school:
1 | Show your middle-schooler physical affection
Puberty often acts as a barrier forcefield, deterring parents from casual physical contact. As kids’ bodies change, they become more self-conscious and are less likely to initiate affection. They may, at times, act aloof and reject a caring touch. Parents will take this as a cue their kids want space and gradually the hugs and other non-verbal expressions of love subside.
Studies show, however, that kids who feel deprived of physical affection have more difficulties gauging healthy boundaries in romantic relationships and place too much importance on filling this void. Our job is to keep offering appropriate affection and not take it personally when it’s rebuffed. Your seventh-grader might not climb into your lap for a cuddle, or kiss you goodbye in front of her friends, but she would probably love to sit close on the couch while you watch a movie.
2 | Model the behavior you want to see
The “Do as I say, not as I do” period has expired. Lectures to your kids about your expectations are quickly muted. Threats are obsolete. Your kids already know what you expect, and they know how you’ll react to defiance. They already know what you think and how you feel about pretty much everything. They know your opinions and where you stand on all the issues. It’s time to put up and shut up.
You don’t want them to smoke? So, don’t smoke. You want them to be inclusive and tolerant? Don’t gossip and say disparaging things about your friends. Want them to have a good body image? Stop calling yourself and other people fat. Want them to respect women? Respect women, comprehensively.
Consider this the trial phase of your child-rearing experiment, where your prototype is tested in a real-world setting. Theoretically, your child has the tools he needs to succeed but needs practice implementing the skills, and he will constantly look to you for demonstration – so set a good example.
3 | Respect your middle schooler’s individuality
Adolescence is a time when kids foster their own identities, distinct from their parents’, and it is crucial we recognize this. Pay attention to what they enjoy, encourage hobbies and activities that challenge them to improve physically and mentally, and leave your ambitions out of it. If your daughter shows no interest or aptitude for sports, quit signing her up for sports. We all know families where kids are miserable trying to fulfill their parents’ hopes and dreams vicariously. It’s time to step back and let them follow their talents – be supportive and encouraging as they uncover their own talents.
4 | Like your middle schooler
Of course we love them, they’re ours, but do we like them? Adolescents are so accustomed to being treated with disapproval and distain, they have grown uniformly defensive. They are criticized more than praised, doubted more than trusted, and ignored as contributing members of society. They have no independent legal rights, they aren’t wooed as a voting bloc, and they aren’t considered a valuable consumer demographic. But they are the future of our nation and they have much to offer.
Make a point of getting to know your middle schoolers without preconceived notions. Include them as full-fledged people, ask their opinions, ask their advice. They are actually delightful, multi-dimensional, almost-grown humans – and very helpful when you need technological support.