Happy Halloween!!!! In the spirit of the season, let me ask a question: is your child a trick or a treat? What do you think? What would coaches and teachers think?
One of the most difficult things about writing a book is making sure that the characters are three-dimensional--that they are not cardboard cut-outs, cliches with names. I think most authors would agree with me on this point. This is especially true when writing villains, but also of protagonists.
For some reason, we humans have a tendency to put everything into categories of bad and good. Heroes and villains. Black and white without much gray. We do this with people we know, and we do this with children, including our own.
I once had a meeting with a parent. This parent was concerned that their child was being bullied by another child. When they told me the name of the alleged bully, I was a little surprised. That did not track with what I knew about that student. I didn't disbelieve them, I just hadn't seen that kind of behavior before. I started watching more carefully and was surprised to see that the behavior described was accurate. The story was more two-sided than the parent realized--but it was certainly accurate.
I struggled to figure out how this student--someone who had always been kind and considerate and polite to other students could have done that. It broke my conception of that student. Until I realized that my conception was wrong and incomplete.
On another occasion, a student that most people (myself included) saw as being vain and rather shallow came up to me to express sincere concern about something that a classmate had said. This apparently vain student was worried that the classmate was having a serious problem and needed adult intervention. Again, it sho
The point of these stories is simple and it's something we all know. But it's one of those things that is simple to say but difficult to put into practice.
Very few people are all bad or all good. Most of us are a pretty well-assorted mix bag. This is equally true, perhaps especially true in middle school.
Adults are also mixed bags, but generally speaking, either self-discipline or conformity to social norms generally mitigates the extremes and in our behavior in public, we generally tend to hew fairly close to the man.
Middle school students generally live at the extremes of emotional experience. They live in a world where everything is big and dramatic, stark and high-definition. Psychadelic, not pastel. They don't do nuance well. They experience the highest highs and lowest lows--often within the same day, or at least the same week.
This means that the normal human tendency to be a combination of both good and bad is magnified and that average middle school student is capable of both incredible feats of kindness and breathtaking cruelty in a way that most average adults are not. An average middle school student has a greater range.
A student can be a pretty good kid and still do something mean or stupid or thoughtless in a way that most adults don't.
To begin with, they don't have the decision making skills of an adult and their impulse control is very immature. Imagine how you feel on your worst day and the things that you would do, but for your ability to control your impulses.
This is why good kids say and so incredibly stupid or unkind things. It's why kids who seem shallow and disengaged suddenly show great sensitivity.
It's important for all of us--parents and students--to realize that these kids are works-in-progress. They are developing at a dizzying rate. It's also important to realize that because of this, their personalities are not fixed. It's far to early to decide that someone is mean or good, that someone is a villain.
I've seen adults do this frequently. Most often, it occurs when child A has a conflict with child B. Usually, almost always, in fact, that conflict is two-sided. But our human tendency to cast everyone around us as heroes and villains leads the parents of the children to cast their own child as the hero/victim and the other child as the villain. The parents elevate immaturity to malice and even evil. I note that it's easy to do this with your own children as well.
The reality is that very good kids make very poor choices. Often. And it's important not to fix on a series of those and overlook the other things they do--especially when their personalities are as fluid as they are at this age. You don't want to typecast a kid--people who are typecast have a way of learning to play to type consistently.
I read an interesting new book, The Key of Kilenya by Andrea Pearson. It's a fantasy aimed at middle grade readers. Pearson has a vivid imagination and this is one of the first truly unique fantasies I've read in quite sometime. The world she imagined as well as the inhabitants of that world were all fresh and interesting. It also had strong characters to appeal to boys, which is a good thing since they tend not to read as much as girls (yes, I know there are exceptions).
If you like this genre, you might want to check it out. I will say that it was a bit long for me. There were parts that I thought could have been condensed or cut out altogether. But that aside, it was an interesting book and a good way to spend some relaxing hours.
You can find out more about this book at this link. It's in both ebook as well as traditional printed forms.
(Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review).
One of the most painful things I've ever seen happened a few years ago in my class. I had a student who was funny and gregarious and lovable. Everyone loved him. He was sort of like a big golden lab puppy. He was funny and athletic and a good actor. He was confident and friendly. Pretty much had it all.
He did something goofy in class--I forget what it was, but it was not all that funny in objective terms. But when he did it, everyone laughed and laughed--myself included. A few seconds later, another boy imitated him.
This boy was a nice boy. I liked him. But he didn't have the same social standing as the first boy. He wasn't all that funny and he wasn't quite as gregarious or lovable. He wasn't exactly disliked, but he wasn't really popular either.
He imitated the first boy and the class reacted with indifference to hostility. It wasn't funny. In fact, to be honest, it was annoying.
Same action--two different people. Two different responses.
I've thought a lot about this. Most middle school students, whether they acknowledge it or not, are on a personal quest for the Holy Grail of Adolescence: Popularity.
The desire to be liked and appreciated is human. It's normal. During the awkwardness of adolescence, it is one of the things that most (as always, there are exceptions) students want deeply and urgently. When they say, "popular" they don't mean it exactly in the literal sense. That is, they use the word in a way that denotes not only having many friends but also being seen as cool
Because this is a big deal to my students, it's a big deal to me. By that I mean that dealing with students who want to be popular and are struggling to be popular--and all the issues that it raises--is a big part of what I do on a daily basis.
I've watched this for a long time now and thought a great deal about it. I was not popular, myself as an adolescent. Now, I teach (and try to love) the popular and the unpopular.
But--back to the story I opened with. I have learned that there is a reason that popular kids are popular. For whatever reason, nature has endowed them with a winning bouquet of traits--they are often good looking. They are often articulate, or at least funny. They are often athletic or talented in other ways.
It's sort of not fair. But it's the way it is. A popular kid can do something and it seems funny. A less popular kid can do the same thing and it's obnoxious. It's not fair. But it's the way it is.
As far as I can tell, one is either popular or not. I've not ever seen any long-term mobility in this way. You've either got it or you don't. It can't be developed or gained.
Is that depressing? Sorry. But there is good news.
I have not seen unpopular kids become popular. But I have seen them earn the respect and even affection of their peers. That is the good news.
The best thing a child can do--I know this is old news--is to be his- or herself.
Year after year, I see kids in 6th grade who are on the outskirts. They are proverbial ugly ducklings. Some of them embrace it and just follow who they are without worrying too much about the crowd. Inevitably, by 8th grade, they've earned the respect of their peers and are often even beloved.
Others react--and this is very human--by trying harder and harder and harder. Each attempt to fit in more actually makes the whole situation more awkward. Middle school kids, for all their focus on appearances, are keen judges of authenticity. They can smell a fake like a horse can sense fear. They will almost always respond better to an authentic nerd than a counterfeit cool kid.
There is something that parents can do to help this--and something they can do to hinder it.
The worst thing parents can do is to try to make their kid popular. I see parents do this all the time. They take their child's social standing personally and actively work to try to improve this. It takes many forms, but it's always--ALWAYS--unsuccessful. In fact, it usually makes things worse.
A wise parent, when helping their child work through social difficulties will not push. In fact, a wise parent will not become involved beyond offering love and support and advice. I know that sounds obvious, but you'd be shocked at how many otherwise good and intelligent parents go a little crazy when it comes to their child's social status.
This is hard as a parent. It's really, really hard. In fact, it's painful. But the best thing you can do is to help your child be true to who he or she really is. It won't solve everything. But I guarantee it will be far better than trying to force coolness or popularity.
I've had the most amazing week this week and I wanted to blog about it while it was still fresh. First of all, it was the week of my play. I don't know exactly now to describe how busy and demanding this is. The best way might be to compare it to Tax Season for an accountant. It's just incredibly busy in terms of time and all-consuming emotionally and mentally.
On Monday, our first dress rehearsal was extremely rough. They always are--and the play always ends up turning out well. But still, this one was unusually rough and I was pretty discouraged--and worried. I can't express how stressful this is. In theatre, you're only as good as your last production.
Meredith and I do a lot of praying the week of a play and sometimes I wonder if I direct as much as I sort of pray things into being. But the second dress rehearsal went much better on Tuesday.
I called home on after rehearsal to see how Mere's day had been. She told me she wasn't feeling good. She had the chills and body aches and was also running a fever. I had a bunch of things I had to do at school but when I got home it was clear she was pretty sick. She said she was just tired, but it was obvious she had the flu.
The next day she wasn't any better, in fact, she was worse. I felt bad to leave her, but there was no way I could miss work that day.
We had another pretty good rehearsal--it wasn't quite at performance level, but it was close enough that I felt like the play would be in acceptable parameters the next night. I got home late, pretty tired. I did a little laundry and got the little boys to bed so Mere could rest.
At 1:00, our 4 year old started crying. I staggered out to his bed. He was clutching his chest and saying that breathing hurt and that his heart hurt. After a few minutes it didn't go way, so I got dressed and woke my 17 year old up to go with us to the ER. Mere wanted to go with us, but I didn't think she should go to the ER with the flu.
We drove about 30 minutes to the nearest ER. I was going 80 mph on these twisty, turning country roads, with Jeffy crying and clutching his chest the whole time.
Mercifully, the ER was empty--no one but us, so they got us in quickly. It turned out that he had pneumonia. We got back home at 4:00 in the morning.
That day was the first performance. It went well--but by the time I got home, I was so sore and tired I could barely move. I was afraid I was coming down with Meredith's flu. But, I woke up the next morning and felt fine.
Last night, after the last successful performance, I was driving home and I realized that in objective terms, it had been a really difficult week. The sickness, the lack of sleep, the stress of the play--all of those were reasons that I should have been distressed and depressed. But neither Mere nor I were.
I had the feeling all week of being carried a long, above the storms. The Bible talks about how God will carry us as if on eagle's wings. That was a very real feeling this past week. Since it's Sunday, I wanted to take a moment and acknowledge it. I am keenly aware of how much the Lord blesses me, day in and day out. I'm so grateful that I can lean on His strength when I have none left.
I try to avoid politics on this blog. I do that because I have dear friends on both sides of the aisle and in between. These friends are good and sincere people and I value their friendship and don't want to be incendiary. I also question how much good talking about politics really does. I mean, having a calm, reasoned discussion is almost impossible. People believe what they believe and I don't think posting things is going to change opinion--but may get people mad. Which accomplishes nothing.
But I am really disturbed by something going on. I've waited for someone to say something and a few people have, but not too many, and I don't want to be silent about it.
In 1838, the early Mormons were living in Missouri. Because of theological, cultural, and political differences between them and the Missourians, tension turned to friction, which ignited violence.
As things got worse, the governor issued what has become known as the Extermination Order. Citing Mormons as a menace to the peace, Governor Boggs said, "...the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State" (link here).
And they were. Mormons had their homes, farms, and businesses burned down. They were whipped, tarred and feathered, beaten, raped, and murdered because they were Mormons.
Not people. Not men and women with feelings and hopes and dreams and fears. Not humans who could feel pain on the flesh of tormented bodies or the pain of broken dreams and cruelty. Not children who cried from hunger and died from exposure. No. They were Mormons.
That is all. Just a word. One word to sum up everything they were--a true word, but a reduction of their humanity into on strange and sinister term. Mormons. Enemies. Killing them or wounding them would have been much easier to do because they weren't people.
One young boy survived a massacre at a settlement called Haun's Mill. When the attackers came in the stockade where the men had barricaded themselves, they found this young boy. "Nits make lice," one of the mobbers said, before pulling the trigger and blowing his thigh away. (Link to reference here).
How easy it is to reduce others to a name, a term. To see them, not as humans, fellow travelers here on this earth, but as the Other. Someone who is not quite human. Not like us. And once this reduction has been completed, how easy it is to be inhumanly, unspeakably cruel.
The Nazis did this to the Jews. The Holocaust didn't happen overnight. It happened only after years of demonization, as Jews were portrayed as infernal, evil, and sub-human. Once the propaganda was spread far enough, the actions followed.
A group of Mormons did the same thing to a wagon train wandering through Utah to California. They heard they were from Missouri and suddenly, instead of families, instead of men and women and children trying to get a better life, they were Missourians. Enemies. They were massacred.
If history teaches us anything it is that we can be grossly cruel to each other and such cruelty seems to be the default setting, not the exception. We can fight against this impulse--but it is a fight. It requires constant vigilance and unremitting effort. We are never past the point where our society could quickly unravel and tribal affiliations flare up into violence. If we think we are past this, if we think we have somehow evolved or progressed beyond this, then we are dangerously and foolishly naive.
And so, I watch with tremendous concern the demonization of groups of people. The Rich are doing this and that. Wall Street Bankers are stealing from you.
Not humans. Not names and faces. Not people who live and love, who die and bleed. Others. Rich people are greedy. They are oppressing us. They are stealing from us. Wall Street Bankers. Fat cats. And so on.
Note that these are vast and generalized terms that are true--but reductive and imprecise. Is everyone who is rich bad? At point does affluence or prosperity become evil riches? $1 million? $500,000? Do the rich get a chance to prove their innocence? If so, what is the process for this? To whom does one submit exculpatory evidence? Is everyone who makes a living on Wall Street greedy?
Terms that make them the Other--a problem that must be solved. The barrier to our happiness and prosperity. The rich are the problem but for whom everything would be good and peaceful. I also note that all the examples I've pointed to are with basically unsympathetic people. It's rather clever. Who's going to go out on a limb to defend rich people? Or, slimy Wall Street people.
Well, I think we all should.
I'm sure there are some crooks on Wall Street and some really nasty rich people. If they broke a law, they should be prosecuted. Period.
But do we really want to live in a society where we can prosecute people we don't like, people we disagree with, or people didn't commit a crime beyond being slimy? Do you want to live in a world where a group of people decide they don't like you or what you did and so call for you to go to jail or be killed just because they don't like you? Or because you were irresponsible? How about just stupid?
It's quite different to criticize a person for specifics. To say, "The President's proposal would have this result..." or "Speaker Boehner's policy actually causes this problem...." It's even different to criticize voluntary, specific groups. "Republicans's policy preferences are wrong because...." or "Democrats are incorrect when they assume ...." (I do think we ought to be specific, not general, and not hyperbolic. I hate it when people do that).
If we want to criticize the way that the government and some corporations work together--fine. That's specific. If we want to discuss the merits or demerits of different policies, legislation or philosophies--great. I love spirited discourse.
But when we stir up resentment toward people in vague, unsympathetic categories, we are playing with fire, I fear.
Revolutions are ugly things, generally. The American Revolution worked out pretty well for us. But the French, Russian, and Chinese (and other more recent, smaller) revolutions were ugly, ugly things that caused suffering far and wide, and ruined the lives of millions and millions of regular people.
Fires, once started, can spread quickly, and are difficult to put out. We live in difficult times and there's a great deal of dry timber in the body politic. I pray that all of us can consider what we say, and whether it's wise and good and helpful--and whether our comments will be sparks that could light a fire that none of us will really want.
I find that possibility chilling. God help us.
Last week I talked about the visceral, elemental, almost life-or-death struggle an adolescent goes through to not look lame and how looking lame is, for some of them, almost worse than death.
Today, I want to discuss a corollary to that. I'm sorry parents, but you won't like this. The reality is that, during your child's adolescence, you are not cool. In fact, as far as your child is concernend, you personify lameness. You are the very incarnation of all that is lame, uncool, nerdy, and mortifying.
As always, there can be some exceptions and outliers, but this is pretty consistent.
It does not matter how beautiful you are, or how cool you are in your own world. You might be the Queen Bee or the Alpha Male in your own social context. You might be buff and beautiful, witty, or wealthy. You might be the toast of the town. You might be all of the above. It doesn't matter. To your child, you will be a source of embarrassment.
This was brought home to me forcefully when my own child went through the middle school where I teach. In 6th grade, she thought it was kind of cool that I worked there. In 7th grade, every day was a long, slow, humiliating death for her. Remember Prometheus, the Titan who was punished by Zeus? Zeus chained him to a rock and then sent an eagle to eat his liver every day. Overnight, it would regenerate and the torment would start again the next day.
This was my daughter's life during all of 7th and part of 8th grade--terrible tortures every day as she had to watch me interact with her peers. She'd endure the day, managing barely to survive. And then, it would start all over the next day.
I'm a reasonably well-liked teacher at my school. My daughter's closest friends actually liked me quite a bit.
It didn't matter. My presence was a millstone around her neck. And that was just from existing. If I ever said or did anything--like use a funny voice in class or do anything at all out of the monochrome, monotone ordinary--it sent her into paroxysms of shame and mortification.
I don't blame her. I felt the same way about my parents growing up. Ironically, my dad was beloved as our bishop (the leader of our congregation) by nearly everyone--young and old alike. Except me. I hated it every time he got up to say anything (which happened a lot, given his role). He was, to others, young and cool, an attorney about town, driving a sports car.
I just wanted him to go away. Now I love and honor him and think he's the most amazing man in the world.
Now that she's in high school, my daughter is not reflexively allergic to my presence. Don't get me wrong--she still doesn't welcome it exactly, but the mere thought that someone she knows will see me is no longer enough to send her into hives or convulsions.
My older son is a junior in high school. He actually introduces me to people he knows.
So, this will pass. But you have to let it pass on it's own--kind of like a kidney stone.
Give your child some space. By all means be involved in their life enough to know what's going on. I happen to think you need to know their friends and know what they are doing. But do this as minimally as possible.
It hurts, quite frankly it hurts a lot, to realize that your child thinks you are socially toxic. It can really bother you when you consider all that you've done for this ungrateful twit who is now ashamed to be seen anywhere near you.
But bite your tongue. Swallow the hurt. It will pass.
At several school dances I chaperoned, I had to pull back--way back--from things I normally did--just goofy things that students usually liked. But I had to pull back and give my daughter room to enjoy her friends without me embarrassing her.
This bothered me. But I did it anyway.
One thing I've noticed about this--when parents just endure this with good humor and let it pass, it passes more quickly. If, for whatever reason, you fight it and insist that your child is being ridiculous, it will go on much, much, much longer than it needs to.
The other thing you should NOT do under any circumstances, is try to be cool or "fun." This is probably the worst thing you could possibly do.
Don't change--be yourself. Be the parent. Don't surrender--but consider doing reconnaissance secretly. Just realize that your child will be deeply embarrassed of you for a good 18 months to 2 years. They'll be moderately embarrassed of you for a while after that. Then, they'll suddenly start introducing you to their friends.
Endure it bravely. It will pass.
P.S. My show is this week, so things are a bit crazy here at bradenbell.com. I'll ask your kind indulgence with typos, misspellings, grammatical errors and the like. It may also take me longer than usual to answer your emails and comments. But I'll be back! And if you have any good thoughts and prayers to send out for me and the intrepid middle schoolers who form the cast of Into the Woods and Aladdin Jr., we'd all love them since it's a stressful week!
A few years ago, I realized something that fundamentally changed the way I approach middle school kids. In fact, if I had to pick one single thing to help explain middle school kids, this would be it (Do I say that every week? Well, this time I mean it.)
When I was in 7th grade, if you had come up to me and said, "I have a loaded gun. Either sing a solo in front of the school or I will shoot you this second," I wouldn't have paused. I wouldn't have thought or hesitated. I would have said, "Shoot me now." I'm not being dramatic--I'm quite serious. I had a morbid fear of singing because I was afraid I would look stupid and be embarrassed and I truly would have chosen death over being embarrassed.
I remember this--and yet, I had forgotten it in dealing with my own students. Many middle school students are like me. They would almost rather die than be embarrassed or look stupid in front of their peers--as they define looking stupid. Different kids will be embarrassed by different things. But embarrassment is a BIIIGGGGG deal to them.
This is a pretty potent motivation and it explains a great deal about middle school behavior. It's at least part of why they are so prone to go with the pack. Talking to a middle school student about standing up against peer pressure is sort of like talking to a lemming about not following the crowd. There are some exceptions, but generally, that is just the way they are programmed and there are some pretty strong forces inclining them to this mentality.
You can fight this, you can lament it, you can curse it--but for most kids, it will not change. To some extent you can try to work around it. But this is a time when it's helpful to understand that you are dealing with a force of nature.
The first year I taught chorus I tried and tried to get the boys to sing things in the right octave. They refused (and often still do). They were convinced that singing anything higher than the range of a gorilla sounds like a girl and they would rather die than be thought of as girly. There is no penalty I can give them that is stronger than that fear. They would rather have an F than to look stupid.
However--I have learned that I can work around it to some extent. For example, they're happy to be silly. So, if I sing in an opera-ish falsetto voice and make it clear that this is silly, not serious, they will follow. Often that's good enough. They hit the note and if enough of the girls are singing, you can't really tell it's the funny opera voice. Also, after a while, they get used to singing the high note and stop doing it in the silly voice. So, I work around it--but I have to understand that on a scale of 1-10, I'm only ever going to get a 7 at best.
Note: a more powerful approach comes if someone tries this on their own just to be silly--it happens frequently. If I pretend I'm slightly annoyed, the rest will start doing it. This kind of back-door approach is generally far more effective than the straight-on option, although that can work, too. You just have to experiment and know your audience. For parents, the sneaky approach will almost always work better. Allowing them to feel like they are just slightly rebellious is a powerful motivator. I grant, however, that this is a tricky thing to do. But over time, you can learn to do this.
I've also found that while there are no penalties strong enough to motivate them, rewards sometimes, but not always, will. Tossing a starburst to a boy who accidentally sings a higher note, or giving them a few minutes of recess for the same reason will often reinforce the behavior I want because those are drives that are even more primal than the fear of looking stupid and being made fun of. Giving an entire group reward is especially good, because no one is going to make fun of the kid who just got recess for the whole group.
Another way to mitigate this is to remove the onus from them. Making clear rules about things that will allow them to say, "My mom's making do this" can be really important. It gives them the cover needed. One year, I had a very socially awkward student. She came to class all alone and sat by herself. No one wanted to be near her since she was socially radioactive. I assigned another girl to be her partner and share music. Once she had been assigned, the second girl was able to reach out and be nice to the first girl. But she needed the cover of being assigned to do it--that way it was all my "fault," and that gave her deniability with her peers.
Parents can provide a very important service by being scapegoats in this regard.
For what it's worth, there are some gender differences here, I think. All of them, boys and girls are afraid of looking stupid. However, the way they process this, how they react, and what they define as looking stupid differs. I think I'll do a separate post on boys and girls at some point.
This will pass. Most kids begin to get a better and stronger sense of themselves and their own values as they get older--I see this begin to emerge in 8th grade frequently. By 10th, it seems to be much more developed (obviously, these are generalities).
However, for adolescents, it is difficult to overstate this. Looking stupid is literally one of the worst fates they can conceive and they will do almost anything to avoid that. If you can master that concept and work around it, you have a decent chance at success.
Things are tumultuous right now and I don't want to minimize the fact that some people are really struggling. Still, there are a lot of people right now who are speaking with loud voices about how bad things are. Some of these people are sincere, others seem driven by political motives and are stirring up dissatisfaction and dissent for advancement.
But this might be a good time to pause and look around closely.
Go into your bathroom and turn on the shower. Presto! Hot water. Or cold water. Or medium. Whatever you want. And, chances are that you have this set up regardless of how much money you make.
Go into the kitchen. Use your microwave to heat something up. Use your freezer to cool it down. Put your food, which is available for a relatively inexpensive price and requires almost no labor.
Go lay down on your bed and watch your TV. Cold? Put on one of several blankets you can grab. Or just turn your thermostat and get the heater going. Hot? Put on the air conditioning.
Thirsty? Turn the faucet and get clean water that comes to you.
In historical terms, we live in a freaking paradise. Seriously. Even the poorest among us generally take for granted luxuries that would have stunned earlier generations.
In the Great Depression, people were in danger of starving, of freezing. The Great Recession is really bad--but most people who are struggling are struggling with their lifestyle, not their lives.
Poverty in the United States today bears little relationship to what poverty has historically been.
We live in an abundant world, with an ease of daily life that is simply unprecedented. Western civilization, free markets and other things commonly criticized may not be perfect. But they've done pretty well for most of us when you look at where we've been historically.
Yes, let's try to improve things and fix problems. But let's also take a deep breath and look around. We have it pretty good and I think it behoves us to acknowledge that.
As part of my job, I meet frequently with prospective Kindergarten parents in an admissions setting. With great pride, many of these parents tell me that their pre-schooler is reading. They look at me with obvious excitement and await my equally enthusiastic response.
This is always a bit awkward. While there may be some exceptions, pre-school children generally do not read--if you define reading to mean the ability to look at unfamiliar words and decode their meaning. Rather, they have quick memories and keen minds, so with some teaching, and a bit of practice they often learn some words. But the ability to recite a favorite book, or even recognize some common words by rote does not make them readers as most of us would understand that term.
But that's okay! Pre-schoolers aren't supposed to read. They aren't ready to read. Cognitively, they just aren't at that stage yet. They can learn and recognize letters and write their names and all kinds of great things. But they aren't reading--and they aren't meant to.
Here's why it matters. If you accept the premise that they are reading and don't teach them the basics in Kindergarten and First Grade, they will generally encounter problems as they get older and the material gets harder.
I bring this up in order to frame a similar phenomenon I see with middle school parents. They frequently think, with a great deal of pride and affection that their child is mature. When I hear this, I worry a bit. I know it's sincere and I know it's based on love. But the reality is that most middle school kids (there can always be exceptions) are not mature any more than the pre-schooler who memorized Green Eggs and Ham can read.
I'm not trying to be snarky here and I'm not making fun of these parents. It's a very easy mistake to make. Middle school kids can look mature. They can talk maturely. They can even act maturely at times. I love them. Individually and collectively. Dearly and deeply. But they aren't mature and it's important to remember that.
Kids today are pretty savvy and sophisticated. They know a lot more than we did back in the day and it's easy to be fooled into thinking that they are mature. But they aren't. You simply can't treat them like small adults. To do so is as incorrect and, I would argue, potentially damaging to them. Just as three year olds weren't meant to really read, adolescents aren't meant to be adults.
I like to think of them as skilled adult impersonators--they have learned some ways to appear mature without actually being mature--they've got the externals down, but not the internals. .
They don't do this to be sneaky or malicious. It's just what they do. Just as a bright three year old will go through the motions of reading, adolescents will go through the motions of being adults. Sometimes very convincingly.
As a parent, it's wonderful to think this because it makes your job easier. And if you are fortunate to have an adult impersonator, then enjoy the fact that they do some things maturely. However, maturity in one domain--doing their homework, for example--doesn't mean they are mature in other domains.
I once had a student who is quite mature in many ways. Extremely dependable, reliable, and so forth. But I asked her to reach out emotionally to a student who was having some social problems. My student was simply unable to do this--she just didn't have the maturity to conceptualize what needed to be done, let alone make it happen.
The danger I see in a false sense of maturity is that some parents, convinced of their child's maturity, will then let them start making decisions and controlling their own lives in ways that requires more maturity than the student has, and sometimes these decisions have serious consequences. Don't get me wrong. Responsibility is a great thing--but it has to be given in carefully measured doses, calibrated with what they are realistically capable of.
Here are some ways that middle school students are generally NOT mature no matter how they seem on the outside.
Most adolescents I see are not ready to make major decisions in a thoughtful way, and even if they are ahead of the curve, they have to be carefully supported in the decision making process. They generally are not able to truly think in the long-term. Intellectually, they understand the concept of long-term thinking, but they don't really get it on a visceral level and they often lack the self-discipline to fully implement it.
I see this every year in a theatrical context with even my most experience and mature performers. They know that the play is coming up, but they just can't give it their complete focus and energy until the audience is almost there. They go through rehearsal mostly going through the motions. Until the audience is there. Once that happens, they do brilliantly, but they have to have an external event to sort of compel them to focus. Long-term, abstract thinking is simply beyond most adolescents.They can conceptualize abstract thinking like I can conceptualize math. I know it's there, I know that you can use it for various things. I know some people can do it. But I still have to really work hard at even very simple problems. I use my fingers and a calculator.
Some do better than others, some can be a little more self-motivated, but none of them really can generate this on their own. At least that I've seen in doing this for 25 years.
Another element of maturity that adolescents, even sweet, wonderful kids lack is empathy. Adolescents are generally very egocentric. Not bad, not egotistical, but egocentric. Their worlds revolve around themselves. This isn't a put-down. It's the way they are. They see everything through the lens of their own feelings/needs/wants. Even very sweet children are quite self-focused and narcissistic.
Adolescents tend not to have a very clear sense of their limits. They feel invincible and often will overestimate their abilities and underestimate the difficulty of a given challenge or task.
They tend not to be able to think through details very well. They think in broad terms. I can't tell you the number of times I've talked with very bright students who are struggling slightly in school about what they are going to do to improve in a class. "I'm going to do better," is usually their idea of a plan. Pressed for details, they really have to think and be coached into sitting by someone who won't distract them, turning in their homework consistently, turning off their phone while they study and so forth.
Finally, adolescents are not very adept at recognizing the consequences of actions, nor are they very good at anticipating those consequences. They will do the same thing over and over and then be genuinely surprised when they get the same undesirable result. It can be almost comedic to watch this.
There may be some other areas, but these are some major places where I don't believe most adolescents are mature--no matter how poised or socially at ease or fluent or reliable they are.
So, if you buy into the premise that they are mature, then you start treating them like they are small adults. You give them all kinds of responsibility (which is great) and let them make decisions (which can be good). However, they are not ready for this responsibility past a certain point and if you let them go too fast and too far in this regard, you are putting them in a position where they might make a decision where the stakes are high enough to really do some damage--but they aren't really able to understand that at the time. If nothing else, you risk burn-out. If they become adults too soon, then they will become overwhelmed and unhappy. They need time to be children before growing up and having the responsibilities attendant on adults.
This is why I am so against fashions in dress or behavior that emulate adult fashions. It blurs the lines and it leads both parents and children to mistakenly believe that the children are mature. Even if they manage to avoid serious consequences from bad decisions, I am convinced that a lot of the emotional problems we see comes because kids are being treated too maturely too quickly.
If you sing an aria when you are a child, you can damage your vocal cords. If you try to powerlift weights, you could damage your muscles and bones. If you try to assume the responsibility of an adult when you are still a child, you are going to burn out. You're going to become stress and anxious and depressed.
Now, this is not to say that some kinds of responsibilities in measured doses are not good--they are very good. But I believe you have to be careful with this. It's one thing to let an adolescent have a chance to learn and grow in a carefully structured environment. It's another to treat them as an adult in most ways. I'll talk about some of the differences as I see them, next week.
This post has been percolating for a while now. There's a lot about Mormons in the news right now. There's a major musical on Broadway and two presidential candidates who are Mormons. This has led to heightened interest.
I am the only Mormon that most of my friends and acquaintances know. This leads sometimes to questions that are asked of me. More often, it leads to questions that I sense people want to ask, but don't because they are worried about being offensive.
Most people know some of the "dont's" that guide the lives of active Mormons: no tobacco, no coffee, no tea, no alcohol, no pre-marital sex, and so forth. We are expected to keep the Sabbath holy--abstaining from work or recreation on Sundays. We tithe and contribute money to help the needy and poor.
Beyond that, some people know that we have a lay clergy, which necessitates us to spend a great deal of time helping run the Church in various capacities which could include supervising the nursery to presiding over nine congregations. This takes a lot of time.
All of this seems very restrictive to some people and makes them wonder what in the world we get out of it. Or, why in the world we do all this?
I suppose there are many reasons--perhaps as many reasons as there are Mormons--that people believe and do this stuff. Incidentally, the name of the church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are specific reasons and meanings attached to that name. However, it is a bit of a mouthful. So, we have been given a nickname (this nickname comes The Book of Mormon, a record of scripture we believe along with the Bible. I'm too tired to write anything about it at the moment, but you can find more about it here if you like).
But I was thinking about my answer to the question I see so often in the eyes of my friends and co-workers. Why do I do this? Why do I believe it?
First of all, I truly don't see myself as giving up anything of real value. I don't feel that my teenage and college years were any less enjoyable because I didn't drink or smoke or do weed or have sex. Actually, I feel like I probably had more fun in many ways than others I know for whom those were important features of growing-up. I certainly have no regrets.
It's amazing to me how my life can be so joyful to me, but seem so restrictive to others. So, I thought I'd try to come up with a few of the benefits of my faith--a few of the things I get in exchange for giving up some others.
S0, what do I get in exchange for giving up all that stuff? My faith gives me a sense of security and grounding. I know God. He is real to me, near, and involved in my life. He is a source of strength and guidance, of comfort, solace, and stability. Living as we do in uncertain and troubled times, the reality and intimacy of my relationship with God is precious to me beyond words.
Mormons believe in a God who is watchful and aware of us--a Father who happens to be in heaven. We believe that He speaks through a prophet today--just as he did in ancient times when Abraham and Moses and Isaiah and Elijah and Peter and others walked the earth. That provides more comfort and security as the world seemingly spins out of control.
Mormons believe in the eternal durability of the family--that husbands and wives can be married for time and eternity, partners forever, and that the children who come from their union can likewise continue to be part of their lives.
If you were satisfied, deeply and thoroughly in your soul, that those things were true, and could be yours, would it not be worth nearly anything to have? Jesus taught a parable about someone who spent all he had to buy a pearl of great price. To me, I've not given up anything of much worth. I've simply exchanged some things for something of far greater value.
There are many more things, but those three--the personal presence and influence of God, the blessing of having a living prophet, and the assurance of an eternal family unit--are at the top of my list. They provide me with tremendous joy now and the anticipation of better days to come. They remove completely from me the fear of death and give me peace in chaotic times. It's not easy to live my faith, and I certainly fall short. But the rewards are so much greater than the effort that it's not a difficult equation for me.
So, having access to this joy, I am more than happy to make some very small sacrifices.
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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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