Why I Like Middle School

As a middle school teacher, I am frequently blessed–literally! When I mention what I do for a living, invariably the reply will be, “Oh, bless you!” I usually smile in agreement but can’t resist adding, “I actually love middle schoolers!”

Here are six things to like about middle schoolers.

  1. Energy level   Oh, they can be slugs, especially when there are chores to be done, but when they’re excited about something, they are crazy energetic. The day I assigned skits to teach the Beatitudes, the volume of their voices (and laughter) reached a fever pitch. When I give them a choice of which movie to watch, the discussion can get pretty heated. I took my 8th graders on a bowling field trip, and they couldn’t sit down between their turns because they were so wound up.
  2. Inquisitiveness  I was trying to teach a lesson on the Bill of Rights but kept getting sidetracked by their questions. Some were thoughtful–“What kind of crime deserves the death penalty?”–and other showed their limited life experiences–”So is it legal for someone’s army dad to stay in their house, or is that considered ‘quartering a soldier?'” Though they often seem self-centered, their awareness of a bigger world out there is growing exponentially, and they want to know how it works.
  3. Playfulness   Though they’re on the brink of full-blown adolescence with adulthood just around the corner, they’re still happy to behave like little kids. Their selfies are full of silly faces and goofy poses. When faced with a large open space, they’ll take off running or doing cartwheels. And they’ll do almost anything for a donut!
  4. Sense of humor   They still love a clever knock-knock joke, but their humor is also becoming more sophisticated. While it may take them a moment to get a funny anecdote (again, because of limited life experience), they’re flattered that you’d tell it to them. Bathroom humor is prevalent in middle school, but they love to experiment with sarcasm and puns.
  5. So Much Growth   The young man in the photo grew at least a foot between the beginning of 6th grade and the beginning of 8th, and his voice went from squeaky to deep (with the predictable cracks). But it’s more than physical growth: mentally, they’re making the abstract leap. “Last night I couldn’t sleep because I kept thinking about how long eternity is!” Emotionally, they’re all over the place, but they’re developing feelings like compassion and empathy on a more adult level. Spiritually, they’re questioning what they believe and why.
  6. Passion to Love–and to Not Love   Nowhere is this more evident than in relationships with parents and other family members. On the one hand they still crave approval, but on the other they can be extremely critical. “My parents really care about me” can happen in the same sentence as “I wish my parents would get off my case!” They hate getting up early for school but love being able to hang out with their friends all day. “Are you serious!?!” can express both excitement and frustration–sometimes together, like when I tell my class we’re playing dodgeball in P.E.

Middle schoolers present a unique set of challenges to the adults in their lives, but for those who love and appreciate them, the joy of watching them unfold like blossoms in spring far outweighs the struggles!

Precious Cargo

I see analogies for adolescence everywhere.  51NS2e04OML

On my drive to school I often pass a line of flatbed trucks, waiting to transfer their cargo of shipping containers to freighters.

The containers come in assorted sizes. Though all are basically the same shape, their contents are very different–and invisible.  I can’t judge what’s inside by the color or condition of the outside, nor do I know anything about their final destinations.

Each contains something of value to someone.  One might have items of obvious worth, like jewelry or expensive china.  Another might have a less glamorous but equally important load, like batteries or light bulbs.  Regardless of monetary value, each has a purpose.

I consider the journeys ahead of them: some will have smooth sailing, arriving undamaged and in good shape.  Others will hit storms with big waves, arriving battered but more or less intact.  Some will make the trip in record time, while others will suffer unexpected delays.  But they all should get there eventually.

In this analogy I am the truck driver, entrusted with precious cargo for a short time.  I get only glimpses of the contents inside each crate–a passion for math, a tender heart, a gift for encouragement–before I send it on its way.  My flaw is that I get so attached to my cargo that it’s hard to let it go.

Maybe at 8th grade graduation this year I’ll affix a sticker to each of my students that says “Destination:  Adulthood. Please handle with care.”

Loading. . .Please Wait

While waiting for an update to load on my computer, I find myself staring at the numbers that show me how much progress it has made.  It starts out at a good clip: 15%. . .28%. . .35%. . . and then it sticks.  I cheer when it starts moving again – and then it stops at 88%.  Finally it makes it all the way to 100%, and I am relieved.  Until I remember there will be another update coming along soon.

Waiting for a middle schooler to develop adult traits and habits can be just like that.  They progress in fits and starts, and sometimes it seems they stall altogether.  For example, consider being responsible for one’s own stuff.  After months of nagging and complaining, parents might be delighted when their son remembers to take all of his basketball gear to school for two weeks in a row.  But then in the third week he may leave an important assignment at home on the day it’s due.

Or there’s the issue of being accountable for one’s own actions.  This week you may be surprised when you ask, “Who was supposed to feed the cat?” and Lori says, “Oh, sorry, I was.  I’ll go do it now.”  But next week the same question may cause her to reply, “I forgot, but it wasn’t my fault!”

Don’t expect every step forward to be permanent.  But don’t get discouraged either when they fall back into old habits just when you thought there was reason to hope.  It may be uneven progress – but it’s still progress!

Kids These Days!

“They don’t know how good they’ve got it!”  When I hear this from an adult, it always makes me snort.  Of course today’s kids don’t know how good they’ve got it – WE didn’t know how good we had it, compared to our parents!

My mom grew up during the Depression, so she told stories of putting cardboard in her shoes and not getting enough to eat.  That didn’t stop me from begging for another pair of shoes or for a certain kind of cereal.

The reality is that we can’t use others’ tough times to make us appreciate our own luxuries.  This is even more true for teens who live in the center of their own worlds.  Can you really imagine a 15-year-old saying, “Wow, you’re right.  I shouldn’t complain about slow internet when my parents didn’t even have computers at my age!”?

I’ve just returned from my annual mission trip to Northern BC, which I spent with dozens of high school and college students.  When they saw the living conditions of some of the people we met, THEN they had a new appreciation for what they had back at home, both material and non (like parents who get inolved, or easy access to the mall).  Even our living conditions on the trip – camping in tents and sharing small bathroom facilities – made them appreciate the comforts of home.

Want teens to appreciate what they have?  Take them where other people don’t have as much.  Or better yet, put them in a situation where THEY don’t have as much.

But don’t expect them to learn anything from your stories of what you – or anyone else – may have experienced.

The No-No Rules

Here are nine ways to ensure your teen won’t open up and share with you:

1. Interrupt. Cut her off before she gets to the end of her story.  Better yet – predict how her story will end and finish her sentences for her.  For best results, interrupt with a question about chores or homework being done.

2. Downplay feelings.  Especially if he’s really excited about something, or really angry at someone, be sure to say, “You think that’s a big deal?  You should try living my life!”

3. Raise your voice.  Your teen is guaranteed to clam up if she thinks you’re “going off” on her.

4. Use Always and Never.   Be sure to point out his faults, especially how he always forgets to be responsible or how he never treats you with respect.

5. Criticize.  Complain about her clothes, her hair and her friends.  Tell her how disappointed you are in her grades and in her behavior.

6. Use half an ear.  Say “Uh-huh” and “Mm-hmm” to make it sound like you’re listening even though you’re not.  Tell yourself he won’t know the difference.

7. Belittle her in front of others.  Tell your friends and family members about her faults and past mistakes when she’s standing right there.  Describe a situation that really embarrasses her, and then expect her to laugh along.

8. Be judgmental.  Ask “What were you thinking?” or point out how immature he’s being.  Remind him that he will never get a decent job with an attitude like that.

9. Solve his problems for him.  Make him feel inferior by telling him what he should do.  Don’t let him gain any self-confidence by allowing him to persevere on his own.

(What’s that? You want me to publish the other list next week?  I’m thinking you might be right. . .)

Please Advise

(Written last week for posting today – I’m home now, suffering from jet lag!)

As I sit here on my lanai in Kauai (let the envy begin), I’m struggling for an idea for a new topic.  No, it’s not because I’m a little distracted by my surroundings – oo, listen to those waves! – it’s because this is my 85th post, and I run the risk of repeating myself.

Give me some advice, please – should I revisit important topics, like empathy and the bubble concept, which would be helpful for newer readers but old hat for long-time readers?  I’d really like to address issues you’re currently dealing with or pondering.  Even if you don’t have teens anymore (or yet), you must see things when you’re out and about that might be worth a post.

Right now, I’m 2700 miles from my classroom, which may play a part in my difficulty in coming up with an idea – that, and the palm trees rustling over my head.  So would you please take a moment to reply or comment and tell me what to write about?


Building an Empty Nest

One week from now, my husband and I will have our first taste of empty nesting as two boys head off to college and the third continues to look for work in California.  Friends keep asking us how we feel about this big change in our lives, because they know how involved we’ve been in all of our kids’ activities.

I feel a little guilty every time I clap my hands and say, “We can’t wait!”  Okay, we actually have mixed feelings, but the uppermost feeling right now is anticipation.  I’m going to redecorate the boys’ bathroom and make it mine, because it has a bathtub in it while ours has a single shower.  (Tempting as it is to make it “girly” just to annoy them – pretty flowers and rainbows, anyone? – I’m practicing restraint.)  We will no longer spend our evenings and weekends ferrying kids to their various school events or attending their games and concerts.  We’re looking forward to lower food, gas, and utility bills, and the clutter around here will be cut in half.  Sure we’ll miss the little blighters’ faces and voices, but we’re both proficient at texting and Facebook, so we know they’ll be in touch (e$pecially when they need $omething).

And it isn’t like we didn’t know this day was coming.  It should be the goal of all parents to work themselves out of their jobs, so to that end we began encouraging independence as our boys approached adolescence.  This meant we were no longer the centers of their lives, controlling every aspect and monitoring every action.   When our oldest was 11, we began leaving him and his brothers home alone while we ran to the grocery store.  We worked up to leaving them for a weekend when the older two were in high school.  This meant they had to know how to cook, do chores, get the mail, and secure the house at night – all without being reminded (though Dad did call home to check on the security).

We also expected them to call and make their own appointments and to get themselves to those appointments once they could drive.  By the time they graduated from high school, each boy was capable of living on his own, from doing his own laundry to preparing his own meals to refilling his own prescriptions.

The side benefit for us-the-parents was that less time spent taking care of the kids meant more time spent with each other.  Saturdays became our breakfast date days, followed by running errands.  The boys knew they were welcome to join us if they got up, but most often they opted to sleep in.  Once they were up, they’d call to find out what chores they needed to complete before they could play video games.  We’d come home to find bathrooms cleaned, floors vacuumed, dishes done – and freshly-showered boys happily wending their way through cyber world adventures.

So as we find ourselves with no children left at home and only each other for company, it won’t be that much of a shock.  We really are looking forward to it, especially since we realize we could be with just each other for another 30 years or so!  Besides, we’re not really alone – excuse me, I have to go.  One boy is texting and the other wants to chat on Facebook. . .

(Please ignore the laughter in the background.  It’s my friends whose young adult children have left the house – only to move back in with the folks a few months or years later.  They keep trying to warn me!)

Two of a Kind: Teenagers and the USA

As we celebrate Independence Day, I ponder again how much like a teenager our country can be.  Both have been given lots of freedoms – and both can have problems dealing with those freedoms responsibly.

For example, when our founding fathers touted freedom of speech, they never dreamed it would be used to permit pornography in public libraries or atheist banners flying over the city on the Fourth of July.  In the same way, teens discover how powerful their words can be and use them to hurt others to gain power for themselves.  Or they exercise their freedom to swear in order to feel older and tougher.

Or how about the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?  Many Americans have landed in jail for their schemes in pursuing happiness for themselves.  Teens push for their right to liberty, and sometimes it seems as if all they care about is their own happiness.

And then there’s the right to a trial by jury.  Most, if not all, Americans cling to that right (though most Americans also fear the dreaded jury summons).  The teen version sounds like so:  “I swear I didn’t do it!  You can even ask Brittany – she’ll tell you I didn’t do it!”

However, in the same way I won’t give up on the USA ever straightening things out, I refuse to give up on teens getting their acts together.  By the world’s standards, our country is still a young’un at the tender age of 235.  By anyone’s standards, a 15-year-old is still much closer to childhood than to adulthood (but you might not want to point that out to the 15-year-old).  In both cases, we need to have plenty of patience while we watch to see how it all turns out.

And in the meantime we can expect plenty of fireworks from both!

The Lesson of the Orchid

Finally blooming

For my 50th birthday, a friend gave me a beautiful flowering orchid, which I placed on the kitchen windowsill.  Carefully reading the accompanying instructions, my husband and I were surprised to see how little care it needed.  No plant food?  No constant watering?    Everything we thought we knew about growing a plant was apparently wrong for this one.

The flowers soon shriveled and died, but the leaves appeared to be growing and happy.  We transplanted it to a bigger pot and held our breaths, hoping it wouldn’t be too upset.  To our relief, in a month or so new buds appeared on the stems.  They grew so slowly, weeks seemed to pass without any changes.  Even when they looked ready to pop, days went by and they didn’t open.

Finally, one morning I pointed and said, “Look!  It’s a flower!”  And my husband said, “About darned time!”

Raising an adolescent is like growing an orchid.  Just as too much water is bad for the orchid, so can too much control (or advice or rescuing) be bad for a teen.  A gentle touch, a neutral approach, a wait-and-see attitude are sometimes needed to balance the battles that must be fought.  And it might take a long time to see any results.

As you head into 2011, remember these key points about parenting teens:

  • Empathy will get you farther than threatening, every time;
  • Consequences should be delivered matter-of-factly, when everyone’s in the “blue zone;”
  • Teens live in a bubble of self-centeredness;
  • Treat your teens  like adults but don’t be surprised when they behave like children;
  • Make sure they know you will always love them, no matter what.

One day you will look over to see that somehow your prickly, unpredictable teen has turned into a responsible, delightful young adult.

And it will be your turn to say, “About darned time.”

Fifty Posts!

A couple of years ago, when Josie had a student in my class, she often would approach me with, “Say, Mrs. Acuna – what should I do about. . .?”  Her questions ranged from dealing with adolescent moods to motivating her daughter to do better in school.  “You always have such good advice,” she’d say.  “You should think about writing a book!”

I have thought about it – and this blog, begun about 10 months ago, was my first step (along with starting my own company, BRIDGE*Parenting).  Fifty posts later, I’m surprised to discover I still haven’t run out of things to say!  Certainly my classroom provides plenty of fodder, especially this year, when I get to spend time with seventy 7th and 8th graders as the day goes on.  But I also blog about questions and issues raised by parents (including Josie, whose daughter is in high school), and also by students (“I wish you’d tell my parents that!”).

I find teenagers fascinating and funny, and they never fail to tug at my heart as they navigate their way through the storms of adolescence.  I ache for their parents when I see them getting sucked into the storms with their teens.  They often make the same mistake an untrained rescuer might make when trying to help a drowning person – getting too close and trying to do too much, or trying to overpower the victim.

And so I write, and I advise (only when asked!), and I dream of the day when I see my name on a book cover or I receive an invitation to speak at a conference.  I’m building a website (and a “platform”) and learning how to market myself.

In the meantime, what’s going on with you and your teen?  Can I help?