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 successful parenting wins that I think we got right.
6 Parenting Wins
1. Plan some family fun every weekend.
A lot of bad things start in the middle school years. Our kids are experiencing peer pressure, experimenting with alcohol, and testing sexual activity. 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. We would plan an activity, and casually mention it. Family bowling, or a Risk tournament, or “Harry Potter” movie marathon, or flashlight tag in the dark. We also planned bigger outings such as a weekend at an indoor water park or white water rafting. Knowing there was something else to do gave our kids an excuse to turn down unwanted invitations. Besides, telling their friends on Monday that they went camping and played paintball made everyone realize that dances are lame.
2. Be home base.
Our kids knew they could have friends over any time. Even though I hate sleepovers with the white hot intensity of the sun, we hosted them anyway. We made it a point to offer our house for everything: Team dinners, poker night, football viewing parties, cooking parties. My husband and I deliberately dialed back on our own socializing with friends so we could be home. We figured these years would pass all too quickly. And at least we would know where our kids were, what they were doing, and with whom.
Looking back, 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. Read for pleasure as a family.
Of all our successful parenting, the best was to make reading a family activity. Our gang went to the library as a family. Everyone talked about what we were reading over dinner. We read out loud together at night. And we fought over the latest Harry Potter book. 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. But they were allowed to read in bed as much as they wanted. Reading in bed became their favorite part of the day.
Research indicates that children who read for pleasure significantly outperform their peers who don’t in all areas of academics. The benefits include increased engagement with learning, insight into human nature and decision-making, and general knowledge. One study found children at age 14 who love reading had higher scores on cognitive tests and higher levels of motivation towards school. They outperformed for engagement in school, communication with family, and positive friendships. Readers in the study also report less risky behavior.
From our experience, 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 show that teens who eat with their families 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. Get a family pet.
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 cats.
6. Spend 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 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. Outdoor time cuts down on screen time, too. The best benefit is that our adventures helped to instill a lasting love of the outdoors. In fact, two of the kids have joined outdoor clubs in college, and the other has taken up rock climbing. It’s a parenting win that keeps on giving.