by Jane Parent
When our three kids were in middle school, we did a lot of things wrong—especially with the first one. But along with those parenting mistakes were some parenting wins. Beginning in the middle school years, we made a few concerted efforts to protect our kids from the more negative aspects of adolescence. Here are a few parenting wins that I think we got right.
1. Plan Something Fun Every Weekend
A lot of bad things start in the middle school years: peer pressure, experimentation with alcohol and pot, sexual activity, walking around the neighborhood at night up to no good. No one gets invited to every party, but that doesn’t mean your 13-year-old isn’t feeling miserable about it—and she’ll never tell you, either. They will feel pressure to go to the junior high dance, but secretly not want to go.
Here’s what we did: plan an activity for whoever is going to be around, and casually mention it. Family bowling, or a Risk tournament, or “Harry Potter” movie marathon, or flashlight tag in the dark. Or bigger outings such as a weekend at an indoor water park or white water rafting. Knowing there was something to do at home gave our kids an excuse to turn down invitations to do things they didn’t want to do. Besides, telling your friends on Monday that you went camping and played paintball will make them realize that dances are lame, anyway.
2. Be Home Base
Our kids knew they could have friends over any time. I hate sleepovers with the white hot intensity of the sun, but we hosted them anyway. Team dinners, poker night, football viewing parties, cooking parties, we made it a point to offer our house. My husband and I deliberately dialed back on our own socializing with friends so we could be home, figuring these years would pass all too quickly and at least we would know where our kids were, what they were doing, and with whom. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. We got to spend downtime with our kids, their friends (and some of their parents). And our kids noticed. They knew they were our priority, and I think it made them feel both confident and secure enough to avoid some things they might have been tempted to try.
3. Reading for Pleasure
Of all our parenting wins, the best was to make reading a family activity. We read out loud together at night, fought over the latest Harry Potter book, and talked about what we were reading over dinner. We went to the library as a family. If we went to a movie, we would always discuss afterwards how it stacked up against the book. We listened to books on CD on car trips.
Our kids did not have a TV or computer in their bedrooms. They were allowed to read in bed as much as they wanted, which became their favorite part of the day.
Research indicates that children who read for pleasure significantly outperform their peers who don’t read in all areas of academics, including increased engagement with learning, insight into human nature decision-making, and general knowledge. The 2009 Growing Independence Report on Competent Learners, which studied children at age 14, found that students who love reading had higher scores on cognitive tests, had higher average scores for engagement in school, positive communication and relations with family, and positive friendships, higher levels of motivation towards school, and showed less risky behavior.
And it works. Our kids crushed the reading comprehension portions of standardized tests. Just saying.
4. Eat Dinner Together
Even if it was just grilled cheese eaten after cross country practice, we made sure to sit down as a family at dinner. We made a ritual out of each person sharing our Best and Worst of the day. Sometimes that was the only way I learned anything about what was going on at school. You’ve heard all the other reasons—better nutrition, acceptance of new foods, portion control. In addition, studies on the impact of family meals on adolescents by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health have shown that teens who eat with their families frequently are less likely to get depressed, consider suicide, and develop an eating disorder. They are also more likely to delay sex and to report that their parents are proud of them.
5. Family Pets
Yes, they shed, track in dirt, and vomit on the oriental rug. But they also search for you in the crowd of school kids at dismissal, and literally jump for joy when they see you. They don’t ask you how your algebra test went. They provide stress relief, companionship, and unconditional love. Experts say that pets help keep family members more emotionally engaged with each other, and teach teens, even those who don’t readily express emotions, how to give back love and affection to others.
Some days our kids didn’t want to talk to us at all, much less tell us their most private problems and worries. If we didn’t have pets, I’m not sure what else we would have had to talk about. I cannot imagine our home without the presence of our devoted dogs and yes, even cats.
6. Time Outdoors
We spent a lot of time outdoors—in the yard, hiking, having river walks, or just a family walk around the neighborhood with the dog. Big problems seem smaller outdoors, right? Our kids complained before every single one of them about being forced on “another Bataan death march,” but by the end of the outing they were laughing and having a great time. It got them away from the computer or Xbox, and helped to instill a lasting love of the outdoors. Two of the kids have joined outdoor clubs in college, and the other has taken up rock climbing. It cuts down on screen time, too. It’s a parenting win that keeps on giving.
Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.
MIDDLE SCHOOL MAKEOVER: Improving the Way You & Your Child Experience the Middle School Years
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RELIEF IS HERE. Middle School Makeover is a guide for parents and educators to help the tweens in their lives navigate the socially fraught hallways, gyms, and cafeterias of middle school.
This book helps parents, teachers, and other adults in middle school settings to understand the social dilemmas and other issues that kids today face.