Navigating the transition to middle school
By Randye Hoder
Let’s face it: middle school often gets a bad rap. As parents we may remember our own difficulties and insecurities during our tween and teen years and, in turn, worry what kind of experience our children will have through this time of transition. Or we may simply buy into the conventional wisdom that middle school sucks. Either way, many parents put their heads down and simply hope that their kids will emerge with as few scars as possible.
But Michelle Icard, author of Middle School Makeover, says that this negative mindset can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy as you and your adolescent transition to middle school. Instead, she says, moms and dads need to change the way they talk about middle school—and the way they parent through it.
“Middle school is a parenting game changer,” Icard says. “It requires us to guide decision-making rather than control it. We need to embrace a job demotion, from manager to assistant manager.”
This paradigm shift is among the most difficult things that parents of adolescents face. “Your child is going through social, academic, and developmental changes, and it can be confusing to know how much independence to give them,” says Susan Schechtman, a consultant, parent coach, and former middle school dean, director, and principal. “You cannot do everything for them, but you cannot let them drown either. Finding the balance is key.”
With that in mind, here are a half-dozen do’s and a half-dozen don’ts to help you—and your child—transition to middle school and get through these years with more confidence.
Transition to Middle School: 6 Dos and 6 Don’ts
6 Dos to Help Your Child
Provide support to help your child succeed socially. Parents cannot make friends for their kids or guarantee that they find a comfortable place in the social hierarchy. But they can ease the way. Make your child’s friends welcome in your home by being gracious, stocking the pantry, and not worrying too much about the mess. Say yes to driving to and from social events, even if it’s late and you’re tired. And provide opportunities for your son or daughter to have more than one friendship group: sports teams, neighborhood pals, a theater group, family friends. “Your adolescent’s social world is important,” Icard says. “Treat it with respect.”
Give your child some social capital. Say yes to cell phones and social media—but don’t be afraid to impose limits that work for your family. If you can afford it, buy that coveted pair of name-brand jeans or sneakers; it will help your child fit in. “To turn up in something else would be to risk the greatest horror of school life: humiliation, cluelessness, being uncool,” psychologist Michael Thompson notes in Best Friends, Worst Enemies.
Set clear expectations before you need them. This can include rules about appropriate dress, social media usage, homework, curfew, bedtime, drinking, and drugs. Navigating this terrain is often complicated because some middle school boys look like babies and others have budding beards, while some girls may still secretly want to play dress up and others are starting to wear makeup. But be flexible where you can. As they transition to middle school, make sure your kids know that the rules are apt to change as they mature—and as you find your way, too.
Help them get organized. Provide an appropriate space for them to do homework, buy them all their needed supplies, and brainstorm with them to find an organization system that works. Do they want a whiteboard or a calendar above their desk? Would a timer help them manage how long they are spending on each assignment? Suggest creating a filing system to keep track of tests while buying a folder just for homework. “Parents have to be involved, especially in the beginning,” Schechtman says. “You aren’t doing it for them. You are giving them the tools they’ll need to get organized and establish good habits for high school.”
Praise persistence, not performance. Don’t talk about grades or how smart your child is. Let them know that making mistakes is an essential part of the learning process and that you are OK with the occasional failure—as long as they take something away from it. Ask them how they feel about their work so that they begin to consider it for their own gratification and not for your approval. “Praise the work ethic and the effort,” Schechtman says. “Let them fail in middle school when the stakes are low. If you do, they will be more willing to take risks and to want to learn for learning’s sake.”
Keep on learning yourself. There are many books that can help steer you through the transition to middle school years. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a little something to get you started. In addition to Middle School Makeover and Best Friends, Worst Enemies, you might also try It’s Complicated by Danah Boyd, The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey, Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons, Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy, Age of Opportunity by Laurence Steinberg, and Queen Bees and Wannabes and Masterminds and Wingmen by Rosalind Wiseman.
6 Don’ts that Won’t Help
Don’t rush to the rescue. Did your teen forget his lunch or homework—again? Don’t take it to school. Rather, brainstorm with them when they get home about how they can remember next time. (Suggest that they always check their homework folder before bed or put a big sign on the front door that says LUNCH.)
Don’t clamp down too hard. It may be scary, but the transition to middle school is the time to give your child more freedom, not less. If you don’t want them to feel compelled to take dangerous risks, let them experiment with self-expression through personal choices about clothing, music, room décor, and schedule—even if you don’t always like those choices. “Let your child be who she is out loud so that she doesn’t need to experiment in sneaky ways,” Icard advises.
“Parents are freaked out about sexuality, exclusion, drugs. They fear so many things can go wrong that they get in a locked-down mentality. But that will give you the opposite of what you want. You want them to be problem solvers, critical thinkers, and good communicators. You need to give them freedom so they can practice those skills.”
Don’t take their problems personally. If your son or daughter tells you about a difficult situation at school, listen and validate their feelings. Be empathetic. But as you transition to middle school, it’s important not to get involved in your child’s social ups and downs. “Kids will communicate more if they aren’t worried about your reaction or how you will feel,” Icard says. “They just need a chance to express how they feel.”
“Don’t interview for pain.” This bit of wisdom comes from Thompson but was echoed by all three parenting experts I talked to. Yes, you are dying to know how your kid’s day at school went—especially in those early weeks. But don’t barrage them with questions about what went wrong or who they sat with at lunch or if they liked their teacher. Instead ask them about their favorite part of the day or about something fun that they learned.
Don’t project your needs when it comes to friendship and popularity. We all want our kids to be involved at school and to have a rich social life. But don’t pressure them to join a club or a sports team in order to make friends. Remember there is a difference between popularity and friendship. “Set your sights a little lower and look to see if your child has the basics covered,” Thompson says. “One friend might be all you need. If it’s enough for your kid, it should be enough for you.”
Don’t sit with them and do homework. It is perfectly fine for parents to be accessible and to give guidance. If they seek your help, ask them to read the assignment out loud; explaining it to you can help them think through it. Ask questions instead of giving answers. Did they check their notes? Did they re-read the chapter? Have they discussed the problem with a classmate? “I love the idea of ‘Grappling before Googling,’” Schechtman says. “Give them time and space to work it out on their own.”
Randye Hoder writes about the intersection of family, politics and culture. Her articles have appeared in the The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Slate, Time and elsewhere. You can follow her on Twitter @ranhoder.
MIDDLE SCHOOL MAKEOVER: Improving the Way You & Your Child Experience the Middle School Years
Download a copy of 2 FREE chapters of Middle School Makeover.
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.