For a period of about seven or years, I consistently had middle school students in my home. My oldest three were born in close enough succession that it was a chain of unbroken adolescence.
The youngest of those three is now a high school senior. Two of them are well into young adulthood as happy, well-adjusted people who show every indication of becoming productive members of society.
Now, after this interim, I have another middle schooler this year! Once more, our home rings with the dulcet tones of an adolescent who is navigating middle school and all that comes with it.
Having been through this before, and having the advantage of seeing 150ish students a year, I've done a lot of reflection on what worked well before, and what didn't. I've thought about what I learned and things I want to do differently. In case it's useful to anyone else, I thought I'd pass on some of things I'll do differently.
Melding my experience as a parent with my experience as a teacher, I've decided the biggest thing I'd do differently is this: I'm going to devote the best of my energy and the bulk of my time to coaching him through long-term issues, and spend less time worrying about short term ones. Another way to put this is to address problems, not the episodes that bring them to my attention; to focus on causes, not on symptoms.
In other words, I'm going to try to be strategic with my parenting, and less tactical.
I think I probably did this in reverse last time around. In retrospect, my wife and I were so busy putting out various fires that we didn't do as much long-term coaching. The kids still learned what they needed to, and I don't have serious regrets, but instead of doing 70% fighting fires and 30% coaching, I am going to try to reverse that.
I'm especially going to try to build emotional habits like grit, resilience, and problem-solving skills. I've noticed that immature behaviors tend to go away with time. But immature emotional habits can persist.
When your child has a teacher that is difficult for him, if she has friend struggles, a hard class, if he or she doesn't get chosen for the team, or get the part in the play it is very difficult. It feels like a BIG deal. But it's very temporary. And yet, I feel like this sort of thing is where we often invest parenting energies.
When I look back at the things that consumed my last child's time in middle school--the things that she and I worried about--I realize that most of it just doesn't matter anymore. It's gone. I've learned is that the specific, day-to-day stuff, the skirmishes of adolescence, really aren't all that important, although they feel like it at the time.
Being tactical, and trying to win specific battles is always going to be a part of parenting, I suppose. But it's so easy to get caught up in the moment that you lose the big picture.
So, I'm going to worry less about specific assignments and much more about helping him develop study skills.
I'm not going to worry if he has some failures. In fact, while I won't set him up to fail, I hope he does have some failures. I'm not going to bail him out. These struggles are so important for growth--and he needs to learn to cope and adjust now while the stakes are low. I don't want his first failure to be when he's got his first job.
I'm going to worry less about him getting playing time/positive attention from a coach or teacher and focus more helping on developing a good attitude and giving his best efforts regardless.
I'm going to worry less about social ups-and-downs (they are inevitable), and more on helping him be the kind of kid people want to be around.
The single biggest thing I'm going to focus on with him are these related principles:
The only thing you ultimately can control is yourself. People will disappoint you. Life will be hard. In middle school, in high school, and beyond. That won't change. The sooner you learn to take focus on your choices, and I'm going to try to help him be less focused on what others do, and far more focused on taking responsibility for what he did. Middle school students are incredibly focused on what other people do to them. It's hard for them to look at their own responsibilities in problematic situations.
But this focus on blaming others can easily become a habit. Maturity takes care of a lot of things, but people who don't learn to accept responsibility seem to struggle with that for the rest of their lives.
The related principle is this: every choice has consequences--some are good, some are bad, and some are not really either--they are trade-offs. You are free to choose--but you are not free to opt out of the consequences of your choice.
There are no perfect options. Trade-offs exist. Humans simply can't have it all, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, is selling you something, or is trying to get your vote. A happy life is learning to make the best choices you can and then accept the trade-offs and consequences that come.
I am a firm believer in the idea that kids need to work their own problems out. The world can be difficult and kids need grit to succeed. Recently, I heard about employer who had an employee's mother call him to demand that he change her son's work schedule. The son was a new employee and schedules were done according to seniority. One hears about this more and more often and it is worrisome--both for the long-term prospects of the child as well as our collective future.
To intervene is to cripple them and reduce their ability to function in the world. But then--bam! My child gets too much homework, or someone is mean, or--any number of other things. Suddenly, all my beliefs about non-intervening get tossed out and I'm ready to be a micro-managing helicopter parent.
I don't think it's just me. I believe most parents recognize that it can be unhealthy to intervene too much. They understand that on a theoretical level. But then, a child has difficulty, your parental instincts kick in, and suddenly you are devoting all your resources to solving a problem for your child.
This has happened to me very recently. There was a situation in which I intervened and later realized I shouldn't have. Then, there was another situation in which I did not intervene and now think I should have.
So, how do you know when to intervene and when not to?
I've been thinking a lot about this, and while I don't pretend to have all the answers, I have come with a few thoughts.
1. Is your child in serious physical danger? You should probably intervene. I say "probably" because I think the level matters. A skinned knee or bruises? No. A broken limb? Yes.
2. Is your child's long-term health and/or happiness at stake? A test, several assignments, a role in a play, playing time in a game, even a final grade in a class do not rise to this level, in my judgment. Be careful with this one. It can play tricks on you, and you can easily convince yourself that intervening is necessary.
3. Is there a power imbalance at play? Kids need to learn to work through problems. They need to learn to express concerns to their teachers and peers. Disagreements are a chance to learn how to work through these problems. Bullying is different. It involves a power imbalance, repetition, and intentionality. Someone who is being truly bullied may not be able to solve the problem using his or her own resources. Note that a lot of what people call bullying is not true bullying. It's mean, it's discouraging, it's difficult--but it's not bullying.
4. Ask yourself this: "If I don't intervene what is the worst thing that will happen?" The answer to this question is illuminating. It leads me to realize that usually the stakes are not terribly high. I might be frustrated, my child might be frustrated, and so on. There is rarely a serious, long-term consequence.
5. If you think it is serious, then add this question. "Even if it is serious, is this problem worse than inhibiting my child's problem-solving abilities?"
6. Do an ego check. I am confident that a lot of parental interventions stem more from wounded pride, bruised egos, latent insecurities, and other similar parental issues. Asking myself why I really care is often very illuminating for things like this. I really think that's true.
7. Do you intervene a lot? If everything looks like an emergency, then your view of emergencies might have become inflated. If you find yourself saying things like, "I would never want to be the kind of parent who xyz, but..." more than once or twice every few months, I would be very careful and do some reflection. Intervention is a habit, and it can be hard to see. But if your child is constantly needing intervention, I suggest that might a warning sign. You might ask a trusted outside observer.
8. Is everyone out to get your child? If you feel that lots of people--coaches, teachers, etc.--don't appreciate or understand your child, that would be a big red flag. I'm not saying that would never be true. But I think it's unlikely enough to give some serious pause.
9. Last of all, it is my experience that policies and procedures are not usually random or arbitrary. Generally there is a reason someone created a rule or policy. Chances are that there is a reason that coach didn't play your child, or that the teacher gives so much homework. Maybe not, but it would be good to try to explore that before you intervene.
10. When was the last time you coached your child through how to solve a problem?
11. When was the last time you saw your child solve a problem?
A final caution: make sure you understand the full context and details of the problem. Sometimes there are nuances and levels of meaning that might give additional insight. It can be embarrassing to intervene and then find out your understanding was incomplete or just plain wrong.
What are some things that have worked for you in deciding when to intervene?
Something like twenty-three years ago, I was a young missionary for my church. Living in a small town in Western Pennsylvania, I spent my days going door-to-door from dawn to dusk, telling anyone who would listen that God loved them, that he had a plan, and that he spoke through prophets on the earth again--just like he did in Biblical times.
At some point, I got mono, but didn't know it. I just knew I was tired and didn't feel well. But I figured I was just being lazy. Or that I hadn't quite adjusted to the demanding life of a missionary. So, my partner and I kept going. Day in, day out, we knocked on doors, walking all day long, fall, winter, spring, and summer.
I didn't know I had mono. But my body eventually figured it out. So, although I kept going, it finally couldn't. A year later, just about this time of year, it simply stopped. Overcome with exhaustion, I couldn't get out of bed, and I mean that literally. Getting up to shower constituted an enormous effort for me, and driving to go get groceries or eat dinner at some kind person's home was, quite literally, something that took all my energy for days.
These were bleak, bleak days. For months, during fall and a very dark winter, I had to stay in bed all day, every day. Because missionaries travel everywhere in twos, my poor partner (we call them companions) had to sit there in the tiny apartment and do basically nothing. I think he had it worse than I did, honestly. I don't know how many times he re-read the New Testament.
I remember, one very difficult day. I had a portable tape recorder and my mom had sent me a tape recording that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had released. The name of the album was "Gloria," and it was sacred choral music composed over the years by the great masters: Mozart, Schubert, Puccini, Vivaldi, and on and on.
This music became my comfort during dark times. It spoke to my soul when I was struggling both physically and mentally. It also gave me a desire to be a teacher and find a way to share the great masterpieces of the world with students so they could have richer, fuller lives as well.
In fact, during these wretched, claustrophobic, soul-stewing days, the vague thought of being a teacher took root and started to become a real desire and goal. Up until then, I'd planned on being a doctor.
Eventually, I got better--although it was a long journey that involved a bona fide miracle (for details, ask me--or tune in around January since I usually re-tell it then). But even all these years later, I am not quite the same. I simply don't have a lot of physical resilience, and when I get worn down, I absolutely have to rest or risk serious relapse.
I know that now. I learned it the hard way over a lot of years. So, when the warning signs come, I rest and catch up. As long as I do this, it's not a big deal, and remains very manageable.
Today is one of those days. After a few busy weeks, I am worn down to the point of getting sick. I just can't keep pushing it. So, I'm in bed today. I turned on some music, and since it was Sunday, I am listening to my Mormon Tabernacle Choir playlist. Of course, some of it is exactly the same songs I listened to all those years ago.
As I lay in bed listening to Vivaldi's "Gloria," while struggling with the same flu-like mono symptoms, I remember then, and think of my life now, and I can't help but compare and contrast the two.
Instead of a tiny, dark apartment, I have a house. It's small, but comfortable and cozy and includes every convenience I could need or want.
Instead of living with a guy my age (who will change every few months), I have a loving, lovely wife, who is the best woman in the world, and the person I most want to be with forever. We have five wonderful children who bring so much to my life. They good, affectionate kids, and are growing up, and bringing deep and abiding satisfaction as I watch them meld maturity with good choices and growing abilities.
I have become that teacher I thought about being. I get to spend every day at a truly amazing school, trying to help adolescents experience the beauty and transcendence of music and theatre. I'll be better tomorrow, and I'll go back to a boisterous, joyful noise and energy in my classroom. My students might not quite sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but hearing them sing makes my heart soar.
My life has become exactly what I wanted it to be back then, although I couldn't have dreamed about just how wonderful that life would be.
And so, I need to pause and thank God for this goodness--and sing my own Gloria!
So this happened today.
Totally on their own, some of my former students came at the end of rehearsal today. They brought cupcakes and candles and Dr. Pepper. Mostly, they brought themselves, which is the greatest gift of all.
But honestly, they cannot know just how much this meant because I don’t think they can know how much I love them—how much I’ll always love them. This was about the nicest thing I can think of.
Next to God, my wife, and my own kids, I love these guys more than just about anything or anyone I can think of. Even though they are gone, they’re part of my heart and I think about, worry, hope, and pray for them.
We spent some happy hours laughing and reminiscing about plays and other memories, and I relished the chance to hear about their all the exciting things they are doing now. I also loved sitting back and listening to them talk and laugh with each other. They’ve all gone on to different high schools, and so they don’t see each other as often.
There’s a lot of water under our collective bridges; we’ve been through a lot. Part of that is the magic of theatre, which creates durable bonds. But another part of that is perhaps the fact that I watched them survive the awkward throes of adolescence. I saw them as they were just beginning to glimpse who they could be, and watched them take the first steps toward their adult selves. Seeing them grow from being awkward adolescents to articulate, confident, funny, considerate young men and women is a huge joy for me.
How did I get this lucky? I don’t know, but with the sweet things my wife did earlier in the week, the fact that my daughter spent hours making cupcakes for my cast on Wednesday, and now this delightful surprise, I’m feeling like a very wealthy man this week.
Thank you, guys. I love you.
Reliving the past...
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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