As a student I hated the middle school years. What was I, anyway? A kid? An adult? I didn’t know. I really missed recess, yet I was starting to think about marriage. I was mostly an awkward life form trying to fit in with other awkward life forms. (My first day of middle school should have tipped me off. I entered on crutches, having broken my ankle playing football. It was raining, and my crutches slid straight out in front of me, leaving me in a perfect Superman pose at the feet of a dozen hysterical girls.)
Recently I’ve had the pleasure of going through middle school again, this time as a parent. Overall it’s been easier. Our daughters have handled middle school with much more elegance and grace than their dad did. And they’ve been truly blessed with a lineup of middle school teachers who have taken a genuine interest in them.
Now that two of our girls have finished middle school, we are, of course, experts. Not really. But we’ve picked up a lesson or two. Especially for the middle school parents right behind us, here’s my best advice about these confusing and wonderful years:
1. Be there, even when they don’t seem to care.We’ve always made a Herculean effort to attend our kids’ activities, knowing how much it means to them. And it breaks my heart to see other kids longing for their parents’ presence.
As our oldest daughter, Ally, reached eighth grade, however, she seemed to care less and less about the goofy grins and waves from Mom and Dad out in the audience. (Hey, honey!) Once at a volleyball game I remarked to Cindy, “The only time she looks at us is when she wants money for snacks!”
I felt justified when I talked with another dad about his daughter’s sudden aloofness. “I know!” he said, his eyes lighting with recognition. “I hate it!”
One Friday evening we were running so late to Ally’s choir concert 60 miles away that we decided to just stay home. (Ally probably wouldn’t even notice anyway!) Cindy texted another mom, asking her to give Ally a ride home. That night, about 11:30, I was lounging in our living room when Ally walked in the front door.
“Hi, sweetheart,” I said. “Sorry we didn’t make it. We figured you wouldn’t mind that much.”
She stood motionless. “I kept watching for you,” she said, tears filling her eyes.
Ohh. I sighed deeply, tears now filling my own eyes. I swung to my feet and wrapped my arms around my girl, feeling both sad and happy at the same time. She still needed us after all.
2. Limit their blankety-blank media.I have enormous admiration for all you parents who have limited your kids’ media use from the start. We were a little slow here. How gratifying it felt to pass along our iPhones, savoring the huge smiles on their faces and telling them we trusted their judgment.
The problem was, we couldn’t always trust the judgment of their peers. The apps were especially bad: the secret evolving worlds of anonymous questions and disappearing photos. And if it wasn’t the bad quality of the communications, it was the sheer quantity. Bing-bing-bing, text-text-text, selfie-selfie-selfie. Finally we cut back to the good old days of talking and texting only; and the phones stay downstairs at night. (“No, you don’t need it as your alarm clock. And if you don’t stop complaining, we’re going to buy you one of those new alarm clocks you have to chase around your room. LOL!”)
3. Celebrate them.When each of our girls turned 12 (biblically, a child’s passage to adulthood—e.g., Jesus in the Temple), we planned a special dedication for them: a blessing and a gift. Last spring our church expanded this blessing to all our seventh graders, gathering around them outdoors for prayer on a Friday evening, and watching them and their families symbolically plant an aquatic plant in the creek.
As happy as the students looked that evening, there was an extra-special look in the eyes of their parents, a look that said: Tonight . . . tonight I did something right.