Baby Talk

baby talk

I was chatting with  parents who were concerned about their 5th grader’s use of baby talk:  “Is she immature?  Do you think it means she has emotional issues?”

It’s such a part of my life that I don’t realize how odd it is for others to hear it.  Middle schoolers will resort to using a babyish tone of voice when they are embarrassed or self-conscious.  Put them in front of the room for a speech or a presentation, and many of them will speak with it – especially at the beginning of the year.  It can happen when they raise their hand and are called on, too.

I went straight to the source and asked my 7th and 8th graders why it happens.  They were split between two explanations.  The first camp said that when little kids talk, everybody thinks it’s cute, so middle schoolers do it to try to be cute.

The second camp (the one I lean toward) said that they don’t want to be taken seriously in case people think that what they’re saying sounds dumb.  If it’s spoken like a baby, they can always back out and say, “I was just kidding.”

When it happens in class, I stop the speaker and ask for a repeat without the baby voice.  The tone of voice changes almost every time.  As the weeks go by, all it takes is a one-word reminder, “Voice,” for the speaker to stop – and then start over in a normal tone.

(Though I’ll be the first to admit that “normal” in middle school is hard to define.)

 

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Two’s Company; Three’s a Gang

FeetI’m not referring to gun-wielding, colors-wearing gang members.  I’m talking about three or more middle schoolers hanging out together and uttering those fateful words: “You know what would be funny?”

It’s not an outright dare, but the challenge is implied.  And where one teen would never be brave enough, and two might talk each other out of mischief, three will egg each other on until they’ve convinced themselves to go through with it. Not only is there safety in numbers – “They can’t catch all of us!” – but there’s also bravado, which is scary at an age when good judgment is outshouted by the desire for fun.

Brain researchers will tell you that the part of the brain that says, “Let’s try that – it sounds awesome!” is overdeveloped compared to the part that says, “Don’t do it – it’s dangerous!”  I see the bigger problem as the parents who overestimate their teens’ ability to do the right thing when surrounded by friends, so they drop them off unsupervised at the mall or the movies or the skating rink.  “She’s a good kid; I can trust her,” they think.  And she probably is trustworthy – until she’s with a group of friends and peer pressure takes over.

Smart parents will realize that independence needs to be granted in small increments as teens mature.  Instead of dropping off a group of middle schoolers, go with them.  You don’t have to tag along behind, but they should know you’ll be keeping tabs on them.

And that could mean the difference between “You did WHAT?” and “You did well.”

“Don’t Read Mine!”

self-conscious

image-source: bluelife-jason.blogspot.com

Middle school is the Age of Extreme Self-Consciousness.  This was evident last week when I asked students to write a short paragraph about a person or event at our school that had impacted their lives.

After several minutes of discussion, they got to work and finished in short order.  As they handed in their papers, almost all of them said, “Don’t read mine out loud!”  Curious, I looked over the papers, expecting to find embarrassing stories.  No such thing.  They’d written about learning to play an instrument, or being hugged by a teacher on a bad day, or playing on the basketball team.

So why the reluctance to share?  Because at this age, the social rules are unwritten – and unclear.  They can’t predict what will bring scorn and laughter from their peers, so it’s easiest not to take the risk.

What they don’t see is that their peers are laughing because of their own discomfort.  They’re all worried about doing the right thing, and it’s safer to mock the efforts of others than to approve of them – and risk being mocked by someone else for doing so.  It’s a scary, anxiety-ridden spiral that few middle schoolers escape, so the safest move is to be as unnoticed as possible.

It’s important for parents to be sensitive to this self-conscious time and not to belittle their middle schoolers for their feelings.  Doing so only makes them feel stuck between the scorn of their peers and that of their parents.

Be respectful of the pain they’re experiencing.  They’ll be grateful.

 

We’re Just Not Friends Anymore

Girlfriends

Every year I counsel parents  and middle schoolers about the ebb and flow of friendships in this age group.

In lower grades, it seemed easier:  everyone who liked to play soccer would get together on the field at recess.  Those who preferred the Big Toy would hang out there.

Everything is different in middle school.  Because kids mature at different rates, friendships change – often without warning.  Friendships are based on common interests, because “If you like what I like, that validates my choice.”  And boys who aren’t interested in sports or girls – or girls who aren’t interested in make-up or boys – will find themselves adjusting their friendship circles.

Middle school is also when the whole class is no longer invited to birthday parties.  Some middle schoolers are allowed to have their first boy/girl parties, which creates all kinds of social calamities as feelings get hurt when one’s not invited.

It helps to remind middle schoolers  that this is a difficult time everyone goes through, but things usually get better in high school, where there are more clubs and teams to join.  Most teens find their niche (or their “group”) by the time they’re 15 or 16.

My advice to parents is to step out of “Problem Solver” mode and work more on “Good Listener” mode.  Give lots of empathy – “It’s hard when things change, isn’t it?” – but don’t feel like it’s your job to make the bad feelings go away.  Middle schoolers need to feel they’ve been heard and understood, and then they can move forward in dealing with feelings and social issues on their own.

Friendships change like the tides – it’s a parent’s job to be the anchor.