What to Expect When It’s All Unexpected: Parenting a Middle Schooler

Jeffrey Kobrin

Parents of middle schoolers, especially those whose oldest child is just beginning the fifth or sixth grade, are best equipped for these challenging years by knowing what to expect from school and from their children—and how their own partnership with the school can best be established. The transitions of middle school are not only experienced by the students. Parents go through their own metamorphosis as well by the time their children move on to high school.

What then ought parents to expect? On the academic level, as subjects begin to departmentalize, students in a middle school will likely now encounter more teachers each day than they did in the lower years, each with their own particular demands and systems of organization. Children will likely have more homework, or at least more disparate tasks to perform, as their teachers each ask for follow-up at home. Students will likely be asked to work on a larger number of group projects than in the past, as teachers integrate teaching joint responsibility with their subject matter. By seventh and eighth grades, students will be expected to move beyond mere rote learning and to begin to demonstrate higher level and more abstract thinking.

Emotional and social development takes place concurrently with academic and intellectual growth. As academic achievement becomes more important, friendships change. As members of the opposite sex become interesting and puzzling in heretofore unknown ways, further erosion of set social circles occurs. Parents ought not to be surprised or dismayed if their children speak of completely different friends in October than they mention in May. Not all middle schoolers go through these changes of interest and intellect at similar rates or at parallel times, so the speed at which these issues arrive at home will vary from family to family.

Parents can prepare for (or attest to, depending on where they are in this stage of parental life) periods of slammed doors, stony silence, sudden weeping or manic excitement. The period of pre-adolescence is certainly never dull. “Seventh graders,” one educator once remarked, “are a breed apart in that no one seems to want them—or really knows how to cope with them.” Middle school parents look to their children’s educators for insight, and the teachers, evaluating the zany behavior of their students, may in weaker moments wonder what messages the students receive at home. For parents, the hardest part is often the contrast between their memory of the adorable kindergartener and the confused (and confusing) pre-adolescent who now sits before them. For example, children who were excitedly verbal about every detail of their school and extracurricular lives as preschoolers will somehow morph into monosyllabic respondents to the most heartfelt of queries.

Middle school parents must emulate the experience of their children as those children transition from the nurturing environment of elementary school to the freedom and self-monitoring necessary for secondary school. They simply need to let go in ways that allow the children to make their own mistakes. For a parent, this can often be nerve-wracking, to say the least; but to be what the press sardonically terms a “helicopter parent” ultimately does a disservice to one’s child, who needs to learn to cope with the academic and social challenges of life on his or her own. Parents who are used to spending time accompanying their children to the classroom door—and lingering there—may feel excluded by a middle school (or a middle schooler) who wants them to depart at the front door of the school building, or even at the front door at home. Even those children who are nervous to say goodbye to mom or dad should be encouraged to do so. Fostering such independence is a large part of what the middle school experience is all about.

Another important area in which independence should be helped along for middle schoolers is that of time and schoolwork management. Many schools provide new students with some form of daily planner, which obviated the spiral homework pad many of their parents used. Students are expected to write down their short- and long-term assignments both to remind themselves and keep parents aware of upcoming deadlines. Many teachers at the start of middle school will happily provide parents with a schedule of home assignments. Parents can be sorely tempted to help their children budget and prioritize their independent work time—and, at the start, the children will need such help. With a larger number of teachers and a myriad demands, they may not automatically know what amounts of time to commit to each task and how to prioritize completing them. After several months, however, students should be expected to be able to do so independently. Parents can help their children focus, but children may need to learn through what can be painful experience that spending too long on one project leaves them little time for

The bad news is that parents may need to keep silent and watch their child mismanage his or her time at the outset. The good news is that middle school grades are relatively meaningless outside of the school in which they are earned. Therefore, a less than stellar grade earned while a student learns far more important lessons of executive functioning is an insignificant sacrifice. If a child still seems overwhelmed by such issues after spending a year or so in a middle school setting, parents may wish to consider determining if some type of learning or attentional issue is at play. The school psychologist or learning specialist can be an invaluable resource in such cases. Parents must try not to create more tension in helping a child learn organization by pressuring the child or making him or her feel that they are being judged by their family.

Take heart: there are not merely “don’ts” for parents of middle schoolers. It is imperative to ask your child many, many questions each day: how their day went, what homework they have, with whom they sat at lunch, etc. As the child progresses through the middle years, the answers to these questions may become shorter and less informative by the day. Parents should expect, or demand, information from the school regarding both academics and extracurricular programming. Such information ought to come not only in advance (in the form of permission slips, information about upcoming tests, etc.), but also after the fact. Schools need to understand that they cannot rely on their blossoming adolescents as conduits of information and hence should be welcoming of parental concern and even input.

Another vital part of their children’s lives that parents of middle schoolers can help provide is making sure that their children have a safe and reliable adult confidante other than themselves. This person may be a family friend, relative, teacher, or even the school psychologist. Children need to have an adult to turn to when they feel for whatever reason that they cannot speak to mom or dad about a particular issue. Many parents feel that such a person is unnecessary because of the strength of their own relationship with their children, which may well be true for much of the time. But for those instances when children do not feel they can confide in a parent, they will need to have another trustworthy and responsible mentor.

Middle school parents go through a parallel transition to that of their children. As their children vacillate between feeling (and behaving) like “little kids” and young adults, parents can be hard pressed to know how to react supportively. Such constant fluctuation is perfectly normal, however trying it may be. As parents strive to give their children the roots that they need to feel confident as they find independence, as well as the wings they need to attempt to confront the world on their own, parents have the right to feel that they can rely on their child’s school to partner with them in this most scary, yet most rewarding, of ventures. ♦

Rabbi Jeffrey Kobrin is the principal of the North Shore Hebrew Academy Middle School in Great Neck, New York. He can be reached at jeffkobrin@gmail.com.

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HaYidion Parents Autumn 2009
Fall 2009