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What ‘Eighth Grade’ Taught Me About Parenting a Middle Schooler

The reminder we all need when parenting a tween

Published on: July 23, 2018

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in the movie "Eighth Grade"
Photo:
Elsie Fisher plays Kayla in "Eighth Grade." Photo courtesy of "Eighth Grade"

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from having a seventh-grader, it’s this: Parenting a middle schooler is hard. At her best, my daughter is bright, witty, hilarious, whimsical and creative. At her most challenging, she’s sullen, moody, rageful and demanding.

It’s hard to keep up. So if there’s anything that helps me better understand what’s going on in her world, I’ll take it.

Enter: “Eighth Grade.” This indie dramedy written and directed by YouTube star Bo Burnham is an up-close-and-personal look into the life of eighth grader Kayla (Elsie Fisher), as she navigates friends, boys, school, social media, family and growing up.

The bottom line

The film follows Kayla on her last week of middle school. She’s irked by being viewed as quiet by her peers, she’s embarrassed by the overly optimistic sixth-grader she was when she started middle school and she’s painfully pining after a jock and the popular girls. In other words: She’s a normal middle school girl.

Kayla faces challenges we all can relate to: Mean girls, coercive boys, adults underestimating her and her own confusing anxiety and grief about growing up. Her life, though present-day, isn’t all that unfamiliar to anyone who’s lived through it.

So yes, times have changed. But kids haven’t.

And yet, “Eighth Grade” is wholly modern, too. Kayla and her peers must endure a school shooter simulation administered by their teachers and the campus drama club. She spends late nights scrolling her Instagram feed, comparing herself to images she sees there. She has long, carefully manipulated primping sessions, for one seemingly casual Snapchat snapshot each day, and she overhears chatter among the girls at school about pressure they’ve felt to share and send nude pictures to crushes.

But, if you’re fretting over the impact of social media on your tween or teen’s life (and who isn’t?), you’ll find hope in this story, too.

Yes, Kayla tunes out her dad while scrolling through her Instagram feed at dinner. But the scene isn’t all that unrecognizable from dinner tables past.

Yes, Kayla uses her social feeds to compare herself to others, but she also uses them to connect and communicate with people who genuinely share her interests.

Yes, Kayla feels pressure to brand herself by hosting a YouTube video series. But Kayla’s short inspirational vlog messages for her “viewers” are really pep talks to herself.

So yes, times have changed. But kids haven’t.

And that’s what makes the film so triumphant. Ultimately, we’re left with the impression that Kayla will find her way, just as we all do. Life does go on after middle school but how does a middle schooler know it? By painfully, awkwardly, courageously going through it.

“Eighth Grade” is a reminder that parenting a middle schooler is hard, but being a middle schooler is even harder.

Parents should know

The film is rated R and recommended for ages 14 and up due to some disturbing content around consent and coercion as well as mild sexual content. However, I’d consider taking even younger middle schoolers if you’re open to having some difficult conversations about consent and sex.

Also, though the film centers around a middle school girl, the commentary on boys in the digital age makes the film worth seeing for parents of children of all genders.

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