Middle school is an amusement park of discovery. As teachers, for example, we discover our tolerance for the silliness of middle school students while encouraging their self-expression. We learn how incredibly loud these students can be–and also how private. It´s a time when young people can easily hold two diametrically opposed ideas and passionately defend both without the slightest sense of irony. As Dickens said (before middle school existed), it is the best and the worst of times.
Middle school, above all else, is the beginning of puberty. For boys, there is a 30-fold increase in testosterone production. This increase is often linked to changes in mood and behavior, often leading to aggression, risk-taking, and depression. Today, girls become women at earlier and earlier ages, both physically and socially–bringing changes they are often not prepared to manage.
Beyond the intense physical changes these young people are undergoing, they are also experiencing a time of both questioning and independent thinking; and sometimes, because it seems easier, forgetting about thinking and simply conforming.
During my time in schools, I´ve had many conversations about how to best handle children this age, and although there are no hard-and-fast rules, I´ve learned that it can be extremely trying and also highly rewarding. Middle school students don´t really want you around except when they do. They want to know you are there, but not watching them too closely. They feel safe around you, but also profoundly embarrassed about your attire, your jokes, and the extraordinary demands you place upon them…such as flushing the toilet.
However, it is normal and even healthy that teenagers push back against their parents, for this is how they attempt to assert their independence. I often find humor in hearing about the experiences of highly successful, determined, and resilient adults confounded by the stubbornness and insubordination of their children. It´s almost as if they learned these traits somewhere.(:))
As I said to a parent recently when discussing how to best work with his son: When a young man pushes against the rules, our job is to gently push him back into his lane, but not into the ditch. Adolescents want rules–even when they don't–but they want them on their terms and they want the opportunity to negotiate them. These are exactly the kind of young people who grow up to change the world.
When this parent asked what he should do to reconcile and punish the misbehavior his son exhibited in school, my advice was simple: Take him to dinner and start the conversation by talking about how he can become the person he hopes to become. It is easy and sometimes necessary to punish, but to understand and treat young people like the adults they are aspiring to be is a better way to develop the meaningful relationships we all want with our children.
We are not seeking to raise automatons, after all, but seekers of truth and beauty; change-makers with a moral compass.