Nervous about sending a child off to middle school soon? Haunted by your own memories of middle school awfulness that often accompany those awkward years? You're not alone. Author Anne Lamott was right when she quipped that no decent adult was happy in middle school. I don't think I'm wrong in assuming that makes most of us pretty decent people, right?
Middle school is not a time folks tend to recall fondly. I certainly don’t. Puberty hormones, shifting peer group alliances; new academic challenges, and battles with parents for more independence make it a fraught stage of life. So I wasn’t surprised when my own kids found those years challenging.
But by the time they completed eighth grade, I’d learned a thing or two. True, middle school will always be rife with angst and full of drama, but as parents, we can take steps to make it a little easier for our kids to navigate.
When my boys came to me with grade school troubles, they wanted me to fix the problem, from a mean kid on the playground to a lost library book. It took a while to understand that middle-schoolers want something different. They may still bring us their problems, but they don’t want us to swoop in and fix them anymore. In fact, offering solutions can shut down a conversation with a middle schooler. By now they know we can’t restore a friendship gone south or alter a disappointing grade.
For middle schoolers, it's far more important to listen, give them our full attention and to empathize. Sometimes a heartfelt, “Wow, that really does sound hard,” is all a middle schooler needs to hear.
Not just with our kids (that’s a given) but their teachers. Gone is the close-knit, self-contained elementary classroom. But don’t hesitate to check in with their new teachers now and then. Teachers have insight into social dynamics we parents find mysterious: drama, gossip, hurt feelings. If your kid suddenly “hates” some class, the reason may not be academic. And their teacher probably knows the score. One caveat: keep parent-teacher communication on the down-low. Few things embarrass middle schoolers more than discovering that their parents and teachers – shudder – talked to each other.
Several weeks into sixth grade, I realized my oldest son had no notion of how to organize his schoolwork. Handouts spilled from his backpack or lay crumpled on the bedroom floor. Homework assignments routinely went missing. Why had I assumed he would naturally figure out how to keep straight materials for a bunch of separate classes? I have no idea. But I knew the kid needed a system. He groaned when I insisted he should give all his papers a spot in designated, color-coded folders. But once in place, the system was immensely helpful. I just wished I'd helped him set it up sooner. Perhaps some kids keep their schoolwork organized all on their own. But organizational skills (like all life skills) usually must be taught.
When I was in seventh grade, every girl in my class had a V-neck velour pullover in a jewel-tone color—except me. Decades later, that experience of exclusion is my most vivid memory from middle school. As parents, we want our kids to be confident in their individuality. And they will be, eventually. But during these confusing and turbulent years, most middle schoolers feel insecure. They simply want to fit in and survive socially. Try to remember how that felt. (And if it doesn’t break the bank, consider letting your kid have the current hot item.)