What Middle Schoolers Don’t Need (and What They Do)

I recently read an excellent blog titled  Four Things Children Do Not Need, and it got me thinking about what middle schoolers do not need–and what they do.  :

What they don’t need:

  1. Belittling–they’re hard on themselves already, and they spend the day feeling like they don’t measure up to their peers.  Instead of focusing on their flaws, look for what’s going well in their lives, and point it out in an offhanded way:  “I noticed you were patient with your brother.”
  2. Pressure–Grades don’t matter as much in middle school as work habits do.  Students who experience too much pressure are tempted to cheat or develop anxiety.  Help them to figure out how to organize in a way that makes sense to them and encourage strengthening skills such as writing, mental math, and critical thinking.  Such skills will help build success in high school.
  3. Overcommitment–If your middle schooler can’t start homework until 8 or 9 o’clock every night, it may be time to drop an activity.  Experimenting at this age is great, but more than one or two teams or commitments is too many and often interferes with their sleep schedule.  Making choices is an important life skill!
  4. Interrogation–This came straight from a 7th grader and was echoed by her peers:  “Every day my parents ask the same question: ‘How was school today?’ Then they get upset when I say it was fine!” I asked how parents are supposed to know what’s going on, and the response was unanimous–assume everything’s normal until you hear otherwise.

What they do need:

  1. Honesty/Openness–Again, this came from the middle schoolers.  If Grandma is really sick, they want to know.  Shielding kids from adult troubles is not a bad thing, but do speak the truth, even if it’s only a portion of the big picture.  In the words of an 8th grader, don’t “sugarcoat” everything.
  2. Unconditional Love–Teens who know they have this from their parents won’t have to make them prove it.  If your middle schooler fails a class, or gets caught smoking, or sends a bullying text, will your forgiveness be a given?  Of course there will be consequences, but is your continued love a no-brainer in your middle schooler’s mind and heart?
  3. Boundaries–They already have friends their own age; what they need from you is parenting.  Sometimes they will get mad, and they may even hate you, but they will get over it.  Be firm but fair, stay as calm as possible, but do hand out consequences and then stick with them.  No teen ever died from having a phone taken away, and no parent yet has been hospitalized from a fierce glare or a cold shoulder.
  4. Value–People of all ages want to be listened to, taken seriously, and understood.  Teens especially feel this as they begin the transition to adulthood.  Let your middle schoolers know they matter by pocketing your phone, listening without interrupting, and responding with empathy–the same as you want them to do for you.  Follow some of their suggestions and speak well of them within their hearing.  Hug them when they’ll let you, and send them understanding looks when they won’t.

These years are intense, but they will pass quickly and leave you with a high schooler.  Invest in your relationship now.  Stay connected and supportive, and you may find the last half of the teen years to be easier than the first!

 

 

 

The Art of Understatement

Right in the middle of my lesson, a student stood up and walked across the room, heading for the trash can. He was pretty much oblivious that I was still talking, so I had to do something to let him know he was a distraction.  I could’ve said, “Excuse me?  Where do you think you’re going?” or “I’m teaching here!  Go back to your seat!”

Instead, I stopped talking and gently cleared my throat.  He froze and stared at me, then sheepishly crept back to his seat.

I deal with a dozen or so incidents each day where I have to choose between making a big deal out of it or being more low key.  If I can handle something in a way that gets what I want while saving a student from embarrassment, that’s the direction I’ll take.

Some of my favorite understated reactions:

  • Raising my eyebrows and shrugging, in a silent “What the heck?” gesture
  • Chuckling and shaking my head
  • Saying, “No-no” in a light tone
  • Wagging my finger
  • Pointing to the student and then to where she should be
  • Saying “Sh” in a gentle tone
  • Using my fingers to pantomime sitting or walking
  • Making eye contact and giving a subtle shake of my head

Teens are self-conscious, insecure, and easily embarrassed.  Put them on the spot and/or make them uncomfortable, and you can expect defensiveness in return. Then you get to deal with what parents like to call “attitude.”

But if you can get the desired behavior, or change in behavior, without calling unwanted attention to your teen, you’ll not only get cooperation–you’ll get huge amounts of appreciation.

Lighthouse vs. Helicopter Parenting

Essentially, when we remove all risks from our kids’ lives, we may do more long-term harm than the risk itself. ~Tim Elmore

lth

Sometimes I come across an article that is so good I just have to share it.  I’d never heard the term “lighthouse parenting” before, but author and speaker Tim Elmore makes a great case for it in this Focus on the Family article:

From Helicopter Parent to Lighthouse Parent 

heli

Tell Me A Story

Getting a tow at LAX

Getting a tow at LAX

I woke up this morning to find pictures on Facebook of my son’s car being towed from LAX.  Later I will call him and say, “Tell me a story about your car,” and he will begin, “Okay, so I was at the airport. . .”  And pretty soon I’ll have all the details this mother’s heart craves.

It’s a habit that began years ago.  Instead of demanding that he tell me what happened, or peppering him with a dozen questions, I simply spoke the neutral, non-threatening words, “Tell me a story.”  That told him that I already had some info, so he might as well come clean.  If he didn’t know–or pretended not to know–I’d add “. . .about the broken light fixture” or “. . .about the email I got from your teacher.”  “Oh, yeah that,” he’d say. “Okay, so here’s the deal. . .”

I use this technique in my classroom when I come across two students fighting, or when I have a student whose homework looks suspicious.  “Tell me a story about why I saw you kicking him.”  “Tell me a story about why there’s no work shown on these math problems.”  If I meet resistance, I may give a little shrug to show it’s not that big of deal and add, “I was just wondering what happened here.”  Most students will capitulate at that point , and then we can move on the the next step.

But I don’t use it only for problems or negative situations.  It works just as well if there’s good news to share.  Quiet or shy students are put at ease because they’ve been invited to tell their stories in their own way.  I keep interruptions to a minimum, maybe just giving an encouraging “wow” or “mm-hmm” to keep them going.  Chatty, boisterous storytellers are excited to have a captive audience (though they don’t need much encouragement to tell their stories).  Whether they’re eager or reluctant, they get to be heard and I get to hear what’s on their hearts and minds.

Parents of middle schoolers sometimes complain that their kids don’t talk to them.  This can be due to a fear of parents “going off” (overreacting) or frustration because they can’t finish their story without being interrupted.  Students sometimes tell me they don’t think their parents are all that interested in listening to them.  Try taking a more relaxed approach and simply saying, “Tell me a story.”  You may be surprised at all you can learn, especially if you listen until the very end without interrupting.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a (Facetime) call to make.  My son has a story to tell me.

Speaking in the Second Person


ptc-3I hold student-led conferences, where I expect students to talk about their accomplishments and their plans to improve.  Most parents appreciate this, but sometimes they will address questions to me as if the student weren’t present:  “What do you think he could do to raise his math grade?”  “How is her behavior in class?”  I always direct the question to the student: “How do you think you’re doing? What’s your plan for improvement?”

This disappoints parents at first, but after I let the students speak and then chime in afterward with my input, they’re usually satisfied.  Sometimes I remind students of conversations we’ve had; other times I offer suggestions.  But I never talk about them with their parents as if they aren’t present at the table.

It’s a habit we get into when our children are babies, too young to understand what we’re saying.  As they get older, we adapt by s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g or using half sentences: “Did you take care of his. . .?”  There comes a point, however, when it’s just not okay to talk about them as if they’re not there, and that time arrives somewhere in elementary school.

If it’s a conversation about your kids that you don’t want them involved in, hold it when they’re not present.  If they’re in the room and it’s actually about them, include them in the conversation.  Allow them to tell their side of the story, and then involve them in seeking solutions where needed.

At the beginning of every conference, I remind my students that they’re in charge.  Since every conversation is about them, doesn’t it make sense that every conversation should include them?

21st Century Students

blg scrsAs I laid out the schedule for our upcoming PE unit on bowling, I told my class I would teach them how to keep score.  “But why,” asked a puzzled student, “when the machines will do that for us?”

While it sounds like a line from a science fiction movie, it’s an issue I face daily. As a teacher in a 21st-century classroom, I’m often faced with the question of how useful a skill is now and how useful it will be in the near future.  Debates rage in social media over whether we should be teaching cursive, but there are other issues: analog (clock face) vs. digital time; multiplication tables vs. calculators; keyboarding vs. voice (or just thumbs). . .

The list of no-longer-taught items continues to grow: dictionary guide words, the library card catalog, using encyclopedias.  But at the same time, the list of necessary new skills also grows: validating online research, uploading an assignment, creating presentations on PowerPoint/Prezi/Keynote, using the Help feature on a new app or program.

When someone says students should know how to write in cursive or read a wristwatch in case their electronics break down, I point out that few of us can saddle a horse, make bread from scratch, or milk a cow.  When our cars break down, we find a ride; when we run out of bread or milk, we buy or borrow some.  We never go back to “the old ways.”  Humans have an amazing ability to adapt and to cope.

There will always be an overlap of new skills with old; for example, sometimes I use Google to look up an answer and other times I ask SIRI.  Sometimes I look at an online map before I go and other times I just trust my phone’s GPS.  See how quickly new skills become old?

Yes, some day there may be an electromagnetic pulse that will stop all electricity and radio waves, like in sci-fi movies.  If that day comes, we will need to learn to live off the land, or use Morse code, or draw water from a well.  The “old skills” will become the new ones that everyone needs to know.  And we will adapt.

In the meantime, I’m going to sharpen some pencils and teach my kids how to score a strike.  For old time’s sake.

Talking Back

chbrThis week I had to get after a student for two things in P.E.:  messing around on the chinning bar and goofing off with a friend.  He protested, “But my friend came over to me and was bugging me!  Is that my fault?”  I reminded him he was also in trouble for the bar, and he said, “Oh.  You didn’t mention that the first time.”

The fact was I had mentioned it, and I would’ve preferred his response to be, “Okay, sorry”  in a respectful tone of voice.  In my book, he was talking back to me.  He, however, would see it differently.

I saw a T-shirt that perfectly expressed the feelings of teens:  “To you it’s talking back, but to me it’s just explaining.”  This is also what students told us when we wrote our middle school book.  The reality is that we all want the chance to explain ourselves and there are right ways to do so–but teens often choose the wrong way.

Keeping in mind that adolescents are trying to figure out how to be adults, take the time to teach the proper way to explain.  Start by modeling an acceptable tone of voice and comparing it to one that makes the listener defensive.  Then explain the value of the words “Sorry” or “I’m sorry,” especially as a lead-in for what comes next.  Finish up with the difference between making accusations and explaining one’s actions  Suggest a better response: “Sorry for messing around on the chinning bar, but my friend was the one who came over to me.  Guess I should’ve just told him to go away.”  All spoken respectfully, of course.

It’s a lesson I teach every year, and it takes lots of patience (for me) and practice (for the students), but it’s an important step in learning to be a considerate adult.

I’ve always said it’s part of my job to civilize them. . .

 

In Praise of Parents

1939604_10204899660594615_5063056642471817184_n“I know I need to let her be more independent in middle school, but it feels like she needs me now more than ever!”

When Cynthia Tobias and I speak with parents of middle schoolers, we often hear the above sentiment.  While there are “helicopter parents” on one side of the continuum and “don’t care” parents on the other, most parents fall right in the middle as they try to find the balance between too much control and too little.

The frustrating part of parenting is you don’t know if you’re doing it right until many years later.  The reality is that sometimes you’re going to do it wrong: you’re going to be too controlling or too lenient.  Getting into a big ugly argument about how high your 14-year-old’s heels are?  Probably a mistake.  Dropping her off at the movies with a group of friends and no adults?  Also probably a mistake.

Here’s the good news:  no single situation is going to determine the outcome of your child’s life.  You will have many opportunities to try again, and it’s perfectly okay to admit to your child that you messed up and need to apologize (which is good modeling).  You may even need to revise the penalty you handed down.  Don’t give up–hang in there and make the effort to have a good relationship with your teen or pre-teen.  At this age kids still need their parents (even though they may not admit it or act like it), and it’s important for parents to communicate their love and support, no matter what.

Today I sat in conferences with 8th graders and their parents, none of whom acted disappointment in their kids.  Instead, they said, “What’s your plan to improve?” and “Looks like you’ve got a good handle on things!”  It’s my experience that the majority of parents are doing the best they can to figure out how to help their teens (and themselves)cope with all the changes that middle school brings.  In my opinion, these are the best type of parents.

(Along with the ones who come to conferences with Starbucks for the teacher. . .)

You Can Complain about the Problem. . .

brknpncl“I broke my pencil.”  The student looked expectantly at me.

“I see that,” I said.

“I can’t do my assignment with it.”

“You know, you’re right.”  I waited.

Finally she asked, “May I borrow a pencil, please?”  And I directed her to the cup full of lost and found pencils on my desk.

In our family we raised our kids with this saying: “You can complain about the problem, or you can seek a solution.”  We wanted our boys to be able to think their way out of a dilemma, because we knew we wouldn’t always be around to come to their aid.  I use this in my classroom to help students think for themselves when they approach me about issues such as a locked door, a missing notebook, or a forgotten combination.

In today’s busy world, parents sometimes just solve their kids’ problems because they have neither the time nor the patience to wait for them to figure out what to do.  This keeps kids dependent on Mom or Dad to rescue them while robbing them of the self-confidence that comes fromfiguring it out for themselves.

Independence and responsibility don’t magically happen after high school graduation.  Teens need opportunities to practice along the way, and chances to suffer the consequences if they don’t think things through.  The next time your teen comes to you needing help, stop yourself from giving an easy answer and ask a question instead:  “What do you want to do about that?”

Because you solving all the problems is not the best solution.

To Tell the Truth

 

(Re-posted from April, pn2010, when I wrote much longer blogs):

From a blog reader: “Why do so many teenagers feel compelled to LIE? There are days it seems my 17-year-old lies just to lie. I know sometimes he just doesn’t want to be bothered with a conversation, but other times it’s because he doesn’t want me to know things and yet there are times I feel he is just being plain evil. Too big to “spank”, not sure soap in the mouth would work, do you have a good solution to help resolve this issue?”

Teens lie for two major reasons: to get what they want or to get out of trouble. They also lie for a host of minor reasons: to be funny, to test your mood, to tick you off, to irritate their siblings, to get out of chores/homework/punishment, to let you know they think the question you’re asking isn’t worth their time, to avoid a scene. . .

Sometimes you can just laugh it off with a “yeah, right,” and get a grin of acknowledgment in return. Sometimes you have to confront it head-on and call it what it is, and then issue consequences that fit the crime as much as possible. I do think it’s important to deal with blatant lying, because if you don’t, you’ll be encouraging a really bad (not to mention really immoral) habit. You can also give a teen a false sense of power if he thinks he can outsmart you.

The rules for dealing with any issue with your teen are always the same: keep your cool and stay connected. Most teens have an arsenal of ways to distract you (blaming you, changing the subject, out-and-out attack) – be on the lookout and stick to the task at hand. Sometimes prolonged eye contact – without any words – can result in an admission of guilt. Your goal is to avoid blowing up and creating new issues. Remember: don’t waste your air by asking useless questions like “What made you think I wouldn’t find out?” (you won’t like the answer anyway), or by launching into a lecture. One or two sentences about the importance of being trustworthy or what it means to be a person of integrity, and let it go – for now. You can revisit the topic later in a nonthreatening way when he’s in a more receptive mood.

But what if you know he’s lying and he won’t admit it? First off, make sure of your facts. If you have little or no doubt, then be prepared to be patient. Calmly present your evidence – “I read the text on your phone” – and give him a chance to respond. If he still denies it, tell him you’re going to give him time to think about it. Take his phone and ask him to hang out in his room (or wherever you think is appropriate), and put some distance between the two of you. After a couple of hours you might stop in the doorway and casually ask if he wants to change his story. If you get a glare and a sullen “No!” just fade away and leave him alone. When he’s finally willing to admit he lied, issue a reasonable, appropriate consequence (grounding for a month is usually pretty extreme; missing a social event or staying off the computer or video games for a week or two will usually do the trick). If he never does admit it, sadly express your sorrow that he doesn’t trust you enough to be honest with you – and then issue the consequence anyway.

You will also want to have a conversation about how hard it will be for you to trust him in the future, but don’t make a federal case out of it. Keep giving him “second chances,” and make (casual) mention of your appreciation when he chooses honesty over lying. And remember this: if he does choose honesty, don’t discourage the behavior by “going off” on him. His response will be, “See? When I DO tell you the truth, you just freak out! What’s the point?” Encourage honesty by making it worth the effort, “Thanks for coming clean. Because you did, your consequence will be less than it would’ve been if you’d gone on lying to me.”

It’s too bad that Pinocchio nose-growing thing never panned out, isn’t it?