The Opportunities our Middle Schoolers Give Us

This fall, Debby wrote a welcome back to school letter to Middle School parents. The following is adapted from the letter.

Recently, I received a phone call from a friend whom I’ll call Bailey. The conversation went something like this:

“Debby, I need your help.” Bailey’s voice was in a panic. We hadn’t spoken in almost a year, so I paid attention.

“Bailey, of course, I am here for you. What do you need?” My mind raced and conjured all types of possibilities of what we would need to troubleshoot together. Was it a divorce? An ill parent? Was she finally leaving her demanding job? I braced myself for anything.

“It’s Kyle.” Kyle was her eldest son. Now I began to panic, “What is it? Is he okay?”

She spoke softly. I held my breath. Her voice was barely audible when she said, “He is starting middle school.” What? I burst into laughter. It was not a nervous laughter one might make upon hearing troubling news. It was an all out, really big laugh. “I am terrified,” Bailey said, and she was not laughing.

Instead, she had a flurry of questions, “Are the teachers going to see my child’s strengths? Are they going to support him if he needs it? Are they going to notice that he is a lot more immature than his men’s size 11 sneakers suggest? Is he going to have friends that will steer him away from risky behavior? Is he going to be a confident learner? Will he still talk to me if he is troubled by anything?”

Bailey’s fear was all too familiar—that the middle school social and academic experience could irreparably damage her son’s self-esteem and academic future. In that moment, I was humbly reminded of the array of variables and unknowns in middle school, which to a parent, can feel daunting. I sat on the phone with my friend and listened. In the end, I reassured her that middle school years present a time of great intellectual awakening, self-awareness for students, and incredible physical and emotional growth. Instead of dreading and fearing the experience of parenting her middle schooler, I encouraged her to recognize the tremendous learning opportunity that lies ahead for her as well.

I imagine that many parents of middle schoolers may harbor similar feelings as Bailey did—a bit nervous about what this segment in your child’s educational journey may bring. And yet, I have learned that the experience of parenting and teaching middle school students can also be enriching in many ways. The following are three of the most powerful learning experiences our students embark on during their middle school years. As the adults in their lives, we have a unique privilege to learn alongside our young people, if we accept the opportunity.

Middle Schoolers embark on a quest to know their purpose; we have an opportunity to not ride the worry roller coaster with them.
With every interaction and every silent moment, our middle school students are making meaning of the social landscape of their world and figuring how they can participate in that world. Even when they may seem stagnant; their hearts and minds are busy at work. This persistent learning and growing at times can evoke angst, insecurity, and fears of failure for both them and us. We will be better positioned to understand their motivation when we note their habits, proclivities, and idiosyncrasies, withhold our judgment, and ask the right questions. These acts of intentional listening allow our middle schoolers to live their own middle school years sheltered by our unconscious propensity to project our own worries onto them.

Middle Schoolers are often intrigued by the adults in their lives; We have an opportunity to share our truths.
While we should avoid reliving our own adolescence, it remains important to selectively curate and reflect upon the meaningful experiences that helped to shape our values, perspectives, and personhood. Our young people need insight more than ever on what it means to be an adult as they embark on their journey toward adulthood. And so instead of limiting conversations to asking about their day, begin to share your own lived experiences. If we want to encourage braveness, we must tell them what we have tried and share with honesty our own successes, failures, and learnings. Also, if we allow them, middle schoolers can ask the most profound questions and make the most keen observations. We will be pleasantly surprised by their clarity and cognizance when we remove our omniscient-adult-mask and ask them for their insight. As much as we will be observing them, they will be observing us.

Middle Schoolers often are test-driving various identities; we have an opportunity to collaborate with other adults in our young peoples’ lives to better know them.
The adage “it takes a village to raise a child” becomes very real in middle school. Middle schoolers may reveal one version of their true selves to their parents, another version to their teachers, another to their coach, and yet another version to their friends’ parents. This is not to suggest that middle schoolers are purposely duplicitous, but that they are beginning to learn what we as adults already know—social context matters. If we want to know our young people and be of support to them, we have to accept that other adults in their lives may also have insight into their strengths and areas for development. Learning to listen to multiple opinions outside of our own will place us in a better position to support our middle schoolers.

Middle schoolers often are risk takers; we have an opportunity to be patient, and wait for (and respond to) the unexpected.
Our middle schoolers can and will surprise us. In some moments, they will make decisions that were neither anticipated nor sanctioned, and that seem in stark contradiction to your family’s values and expectations; that will require a measured response and engagement. At other times, we will observe in delight and wonder as our young people take on more responsibility, become independent, shine academically, and show their skills in arts classes or sports. These moments will feel affirming to us as we witness all of the love, energy, and time we invested in them come to fruition.

In essence, parenting and educating our middle schoolers calls on us to learn and grow alongside them. As we support our middle schooler we will need each other more than ever to be forgiving, patient, and wholeheartedly committed to support our middle schoolers who will look to us, their parents and their teachers, for clarity, community, and levity.

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