Friday, June 10, 2011

Lessons Learned From Middle School: A Tween Parent's Reflections

Middle school is one of the most universally hated rites of passage in the U.S. And let's face it: it's with good reason - when else must one endure the growing pains, onset of puberty, ramped up academic requirements, and ever-shifting social landscape ALL AT ONCE? And for good measure, let's stick all of the kids going through this phase together in confined spaces for duration. I'd say that a close second to enduring middle school is parenting a child through those years. 

I realize that this intro might lead folks astray - our tween who is graduating middle school this week actually achieved some of her biggest accomplishments to-date, made some great friends, and is turning into a strong, confident young woman. But this is in spite of middle school, not because of it. So as I look to parent our other kids through their middle school years, I've cobbled together a list of lessons learned and shared wisdom from other tween parents so that I might be wiser the next time around. Please add your thoughts - because boy, does it take a village.
  • Teach perspective. If I have one mantra in parenting, it is "perspective", and believe me, I chanted it endlessly throughout the past couple of years. Because everything - the good and the bad - seems amplified in the middle school years, I tried my darndest to give our tween perspective on whatever drama was going on at the moment. Perspective that today's perceived snub wasn't the end-all-be-all of lunchroom dynamics. Perspective that one bad exam score did not doom her to never getting into college. Perspective that a sports injury didn't mean giving up a sport she loves forever. Perspective that just because "Everyone watched Glee last night" she wasn't going to be a social pariah if she had to wait until the weekend to see it. It seems that middle schools are the birthing grounds for peer pressure, so I figure that coaching her now to realize (or at least consider) that there are many paths/options/choices out there is an act of self-preservation (hers and mine).
  • Form a family policy on technology. Whatever your views on mobile phones, Facebook, Formspring, and the like, get out ahead of technology and your tween and make an informed opinion. As parents, we need to be aware of  the digital landscape before our tweens are - both the risks and the rewards. Make whatever policy makes sense for your family but have and articulate a stand on mobile phone usage, texting, social networking, etc. Be clear with your expectations and boundaries (e.g. "No Facebook until you're 13" or "Yes, you can have access to a family Facebook profile") and monitor how they engage. I don't know of a single middle school where Facebook isn't prevalent, so I highly recommend chatting with other parents about how they have established technology standards in their families.
  • Read what she's reading in English class. This is something that I've tried to do but wish I had done more of. Middle school English also functions as a very rigorous book club, and if you've read the same book she has, you'll be amazed by the conversations you'll start and continue years later. We read "The Giver" by Lois Lowry, and to this day the themes raised in the book come up in conversation. Sharing her reading list gives you wonderful substantive conversation fodder, helps her to further develop her arguments for class, and keeps your brain from turning to mush (All things in moderation folks, even People magazine.).
  • Teach stress management. Middle school algebra may strain your mind a bit, but the skills you learned to cope with exams, manage stress in school, and get a grip on a fear of public speaking are still fresh in your mind. Tweens will encounter pop-quizzes, final exams, and standardized tests for the first time in middle school - and it's gonna stress her out. Sharing the little tricks that worked for you can really help her calm the pre-test butterflies in her stomach. For more ideas, check out our Middle School Finals Care Package.
  • Coach her in study skills. She's learning study skills in school already, but you can reinforce these at home. Post her big project due dates and tests on the family calendar (this has certainly helped me to NOT schedule a dinner meeting the night before). Talk about how you've broken down a big project before into smaller, more manageable tasks. Teach her that writing is supposed to be an iterative process - the more she's used to the concept of multiple drafts, the easier the feedback will be to take.
  • Make home a home base. The later tween years are when kids "try on" different personas and take longer strides towards independence. They'll have their first school dances, attend inter-league sporting events, go to the school play with a group of friends, and much more without you. While it's a far cry from dropping them off at college, these little excursions are simultaneously fun and stressful: Will I fit in? How casual will other girls be? What if I don't see anyone I know? What if I run into the girl who was mean to me yesterday? Where will I sit at lunch? She's going to have to figure most of this out on her own, so do what you can to make home as safe as possible. For us, this means recognizing that our tweens need some downtime to just veg-out with music or with t.v. - any time that doesn't have to be productive is what you're going for here. Let her regress a bit and don't freak out when she suddenly demands to sleep with a hall light on, retrieves her once shelved stuffed animal, or suddenly craves more nesting time. The tween years are a tug and pull between young childhood and adolescence, and the small comforts of home are huge to help them make this transition.  This doesn't mean, however, letting her off the hook. Our Head of School recommends that parents keep the same standards for girls completing their chores even during exam week because it's routine, it reminds them of their role beyond being a student, and it's part of what everyone does in the family.
  • Pack the bags the night before. This sounds silly, but honestly, I've found that as our tweens age, they're WORSE at keeping track of their stuff. Maybe it's because they've got so much more going on, or maybe keeping track of their multiple class binders is all that their minds can handle at the moment, but I've made more "emergency" mid-day school deliveries than I care to admit. Institute a rule that all bags - school, soccer, swimming, etc. - be packed the night before no matter how late they're up doing homework. It'll save her a lot of last minute angst.
  • Model moderation. I'm not a doctor, but I seems to me that tween girls develop ravenous sugar cravings in middle school. Our kids like treats as much as the next ones, but candy has become a big thing in our house. I'm trying hard not to freak out too much, so I consulted our pediatrician (and our dentist). It turns out that our girls are not alone in their sugar rush, and they counseled me to keep an eye on three things: 1) Make sure that on balance, the girls eat well (so think back to the baby years when you evaluated what they ate over the course of a week) - they're going to have good days and bad. To avoid battles over food, keep an eye on what they ate over the week rather than the day (chances are they are successfully self-moderating after a sugar binge day). When in doubt, consult with your pediatrician. 2) When the sugar intake goes up, so does the level of activity. Introduce a new sport or institute family walks after dinner to counterbalance the increase in desk time and t.v. time during the tween years. And parents, this means you've got to get up and move too. 3) Make certain that dental hygiene doesn't slip - this is doubly important if she's got braces. Her friends will likely let her know if she's forgotten to brush her teeth that morning, but now that she's got her adult teeth, she's got to take care of them for the long-term.
Dear readers, what advice would you add? Please join the discussion on Facebook or by posting a comment below.

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BellaVida said...

Lots of great advise here. I enjoyed reading this post.

Ms. Twixt said...

Thank you so much, Letty, for your comment! Please feel free to add any tips/advice for other parents of middle schoolers.

Jennifer Shewmaker said...

Great advice! I would also add, take the time to tuck your tween in at night. My tween doesn't always ask for it, but I make an effort to go in every night and cuddle and talk just like I did when she was younger. Guess what, she loves it! And, it gives us some one on one time that's hard to find throughout our busy day and with two siblings around. It's important to remember that our kids continue to need physical affection, even when they're acting a little prickly. Give your tween plenty of affection, both physical and verbal.

Ms. Twixt said...

That is FANTASTIC advice, thank you Dr. Shewmaker! You are so right that we need to seek out these opportunities rather than rely upon our tweens to ask us for them.

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