Dear New, Overwhelmed, Slightly Worried Middle School Parent,
When I spoke to you today, I saw the familiar signs in your face and heard them in your voice. Around your friends you are putting on a good front. It's not all an act; you are excited, and you trust your child. If you are fortunate, you feel good about the school and all of that. But you're still worried. Even if you've had an older child, you realize that every child is a whole new experience. Maybe this is your first middle schooler and you hear the jokes and murmurs of other parents. "Good luck surviving middle school...." that sort of thing.
I want to tell you something: It's going to be okay. It really is. I say that as a teacher with many years under my belt, and as the parent of one current adolescent and three recovering adolescents who show every sign of productive, happy adulthood.
Your child is going to grow this year. If you can accept growth rather than ease and comfort, you are all set.
Your child will have some wonderful triumphs; your child will also mess up royally. That's okay because, if you let it, this experience will teach her something. That really demanding teacher will take points off the project, but your child will learn! It might take a few times, but having learned it in middle school, she'll not need to learn it when it's a project for her college professors or boss.
Your child will likely connect to a teacher on a meaningful, life-changing level; chances are, there will be at least one teacher who your child will not like. This teacher will seem arbitrary and unfair and unreasonable and...the reality is that this teacher will probably end up blessing your child's life as much as the more likable one. Truly. I'm not saying it's fun or joyful, but learning to deal with someone who is difficult now will be immensely valuable to your child as he goes out into the world.*
I can almost guarantee you that your child will have some social issues this year. Friends will inexplicably change and do unpredictable things that will baffle and hurt your child. This brings us to one of the most challenging aspects of middle school: it's filled with middle school students, and these children are going to be every bit as insecure and unstable as your child will be at times, and will thus act, not like mature, kind adults, but like immature adolescents. Sadly, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Malala, and Abraham Lincoln are not on the friend menu. Your child, I fear, is stuck with other children, each of whom brings their own doubts and insecurities, not to mention an evolving mind, body, and set of social skills to the equation. But it will pass. The inevitable plate tectonics of social relationships will end up helping your child develop stronger, better, deeper friendships. It will help her develop herself as a person.
I'm not saying that everything about this year will be rainbows and unicorns. What I am saying is that it will be okay in the long run. Your sweet caterpillar has just spun a chrysalis. Your embryonic adult is inside an egg getting ready to hatch. In both of these examples, it is the struggle to emerge that gives the young creature the requisite strength to flourish. A butterfly flies because emerging is difficult. A chick thrives because breaking out of that shell is hard. I can't tell you there won't be tears. There will. But tears are to maturity like sweat is to hard work (I realized I'm using a lot of images and metaphors. Humor me. You think first days of school are hard on students and parents?)
Don't get me wrong. It's not going to be all struggle and difficulty. There are going to be exhilarating moments of new freedom and new friendships and new opportunities. There will be a lot of stuff that is just plain fun. You are going to get your share of eye rolls, head tosses, shoulder shrugs, and teenage tantrums. You are also going to have new chances to connect to your child in really cool ways. There will be other people watching out for your child, perhaps unexpected mentors and guides.
But what I want you to understand is that even when things seem not to be going well, when there seem to be problems, everything will be okay. Challenges are a feature, not a bug, of adolescence and they will help shape your wonderful child into the masterpiece that she or he is ready to become.
You will feel unequal to the task at times, but I'm telling you that you are absolutely equal to it. The secret is not overreacting. Truly, you don't have to do as much as you think you do. Love your child, but allow them to struggle. Give them empathy and ideas, but don't be the rescue crew, a helicopter or a snowplow.
Please realize that every adolescent is immature. And not just a little bit. I mean, 180-proof, weapons-grade, industrial strength, jaw-dropping, heart-pounding immaturity. That's normal. It's not you. And it's not them. Not really. It's a lack of a pre-fontal cortex and key chemicals in the brain. These will all come back eventually. You need to know that. Be as calm as you can and don't panic. The irresponsibility, forgetfulness, attitude, the overwrought emotions--all of that is normal. If you can mentally put a sign on your child's mind that says, "Pardon our mess while we renovate," you'll be in the right place.
It really is a wonderful time. You have a fantastic adventure ahead of you. It's like a hike--there will be ups and downs, peaks and valleys. And then, you'll get to the summit and you'll have this wonderful young man or woman. Maturity will kick in and you'll be amazed at this human masterpiece.
Then she'll head to college. But that's another post.
For now, it's going to be okay.
Note: I know it's not really Monday. Middle School Mondays is a series of blog posts I do dealing with raising and teaching adolescents. It used to happen on Monday, but now, every day is Middle School Monday if the inspiration strikes. You can read past posts here
One of the most difficult challenges students face during adolescence is a feeling of being excluded. Social media has made this even more potent, since they not only hear about events they missed, but they can now see proof in living color on Instagram.
Sometimes exclusion is intentional and malicious. That is a very real, very painful experience and requires a unique approach.
However, before accepting that conclusion, I would suggest something else first. When your child feels excluded, I would start by looking carefully at the activities in which he or she is involved, and see if there have been any changes lately.
Over the years, I've noticed something that has a profound impact on the social lives of middle school students, but is often minimized or completely ignored by adults. In my experience, this is to middle school social experience what Newton's laws are to physics, and is at the heart of many, if not most, social struggles.
The groups to which students are assigned, or the groups in which they voluntarily participate, have an enormous impact on their social activities. Current activities will almost always trump pre-existing friendships. Teens will generally form friendships with those to whom they have the most proximity. Let me explain and give a few examples.
A few years ago, one of my children lamented that she didn't have any classes with her friends. I somewhat naively told her that wasn't a big deal. She could see them at lunch, snack, between classes, and so on. It wasn't as if class time provided a lot of great opportunity for socializing anyway. Despite my clearly reasoned explanation, she remained devastated. And, she was right. That year, her social relationships and friendships definitely shifted--largely as a result of this structural change.
I've seen this happen over the years more times than I can say. Two children are best friends. One of them tries out for the school play, the lacrosse team or joins the robotics club. The other doesn't. Very quickly, the relationship starts fading. One of the children feels hurt and left out; her parents worry about exclusion.
Where I went wrong with my daughter--and where I think many other parents do the same thing--is in realizing how definitive these groups are for adolescents. My best friend the world is not a teacher. He does not live terribly close to me. In fact, we don't see each other much at all unless we make it happen. But that's the thing--we can make it happen. I can drive over to his house. We can meet for lunch. We can invite his family over for supper. External barriers of schedule, time, and place don't mean much to adults because we have the means to work around them.
A young adolescent who can't drive, have limited funds, and is dependent on an adult for everything does not have these options. So, the people with whom they spend their days are the people with whom they will develop bonds.
Beyond that, it's a normal human response to develop relationships based on shared experience and proximity. But it's especially potent for teens who have no other options.
There is another aspect that is important to understand, also not something I think most adults quite understand. I define myself in many ways. I'm a husband, father, teacher, director, author, singer, Mormon, son, brother, on and on. All of these are aspects of my identity.
Most adolescents I've known are far more concrete. They are far less able to acknowledge multiple dimensions in their identities. They are more likely to say, "I am an athlete," or "I am an actress," or "I am an artist."
Because so much of their lives revolve around trying to build and maintain an acceptable identity, they cling to these somewhat narrow visions of themselves with great force. Their identity makes them see themselves as only one thing, and those who are not part of that same thing may seem far enough outside of their experience that they no longer see that they have much in common.
This is either caused or magnified or both (not sure) by the tendency most young teens have of being rather exclusive in their friendships. I've noticed that many girls have a best friend relationship that almost echoes a dating relationship in later life in terms of the exclusivity of it. Boys do it as well, but in my experience, they seem to be more oriented to small groups than a specific best friend.
The good news is that these categories are not terribly durable. They are keenly and fiercely felt, but not always deeply rooted--they tend to change as circumstances change. I've seen kids who became new best friends because they were both leads in the fall play. They were fully in the drama tribe, that was their identity and their social marker, they were sworn to eternal BFF-ness, had turned their backs on their former friends--and then the next play came. The casting meant that they didn't have parts that put them together. One started swimming and re-connected with all her old friends, the other started getting involved in writer's group or something.
The other good news is that, over time, these experiences and new friendships tend to mellow the personality a bit, providing a more balanced perspective: an openness to new experiences and people.
The bad news is that while this process is happening, it is very easy for a child to experience exclusion. If, for example, your child is the one who is doing hockey and everyone else is swimming, or you are in travel soccer and your child's peers are all in the play, then your child can quickly become excluded.
Everything becomes focused on the activity shared in common by the majority of the group: inside jokes, lunch conversation, Instagram pictures, on and on.
Often, this exclusion is not malicious or intentional. But that doesn't make it any less painful.
Still, if you understand the cause, it can be addressed. Arranging activities with friends your child wants to connect with is helpful. One-off things are great, but if you can find a way to have them do something together on a regular basis, that is probably going to be more effective. This might not always be the case, but it is the place I would start. Sort of the equivalent of taking some ibuprofen for a headache before you get an MRI.
None of this is perfectly predictable. When you deal with adolescents you take every possible human quirk and variation and blow it up by several orders of magnitude. You add hormones and insecurity and lack of clear, rational thinking--things get crazy quickly.
One other thought: sometimes changing social situations can be beneficial. It's very painful to have your friends go a different way. It happened with one of our children. A friend of many years suddenly just went off a different direction. There was no malice in it, but our child was still hurt. Honestly, though, that friendship was a bit one-sided. The fact that it changed gave this child a chance to find a new friend, one who was just as invested in the friendship and seemed to care just as much. In fact, this friend seemed to be actively looking for new friends as well after experiencing some tectonic social change as well.
As always, empathy and love will help. Patience is a must. Your child has no life-experience to draw on, nothing to reassure him that this will ultimately be okay. So, that is an important--even critical--thing for you to bring.
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 have a new policy with my voice students. I am no longer going to tell them they are singing flat or sharp. I fear that the stigma associated with being out of tune might crush them and keep them from wanting to be singers. And that would be tragic.
I've decided also that when the boys in my classes sing loudly and off-key I will totally ignore it. Again, I'm afraid of crushing those delicate feelings--and you never know if correction of a flaw might be hurtful.
Yes, those above two paragraphs were satirical. I was being ridiculous on purpose because I wanted to point out the absurdity of letting a problem continue because corrective feedback is not given. That's the whole point of being a teacher.
Now, let me make one thing very clear: I do not believe that we should call children names, and one has to be careful in how corrective feedback is given. Have I been clear? Good. Because if anyone makes a comment that ignores that basic premise, I'm going to delete you.
Here's where I'm going with this. A new campaign of very influential women and organizations (Sheryl Sandberg, the Girl Scouts, Beyonce, and Lifetime TV) have started a campaign that aims to ban the word "bossy." The reason is that being called bossy hurts a girl's feelings and prevents them from becoming leaders.
I think this is a terrible idea, and I take issue with it for several reasons--but mostly, because I think it hurts the very girls it seeks to help. I'll get to that in a minute.
First of all, leadership is not being bossy. No one likes a bossy boss. We don't like bossy, overbearing men or women. We just don't.
To conflate being assertive and exercising authority with bossiness is a huge mistake. The two are not the same thing at all. We are not nurturing leaders by hiding negative traits and confusing leadership with bossiness.
In my theatre program, I actively mentor girls. Every year, I have two or three young women who are stage managers, choreographers, or production assistants, and in these positions, they have real authority and real responsibility. They manage other students, and run a huge production.
I've seen girls be leaders without being bossy. I have seen assertive authority and I have seen bossiness and the two are nothing alike. Moreover I really don't think most kids have a problem seeing the difference. That is, I've not usually seen anyone incorrectly label the authoritative actions of a girl in charge as being bossy.
And if they are bossy? Well, then we work on that. That's what parents and teachers do. All of us have things we have to work on. Those girls I work with every year? The ones who have so much authority? Well, some of them are shy and I have to help them be more assertive. Some are bossy and I have to help them learn to phrase things differently and be more sensitive to other people around them. Some are forgetful and I have to help them learn to write things down. And on and on. Each child who comes into my care is unique and my job is to help them meet their fullest potential by overcoming the weaknesses that will most likely inhibit their success. Including bossiness.
Girls are small humans. As humans, they have tremendous, almost infinite potential. They also have the whole range of flaws and weaknesses inherent to humanity. Being a girl does not somehow magically make one perfect. They have flaws and weaknesses which will hold them back. It is the job of parents and teachers to help small humans, boys or girls, see their potential and then help them develop that potential.
Being bossy in a girl is a huge social liability. I see girls every year who alienate large sections of their peer group--mostly girls, incidentally--mainly because they are bossy. Kids do not like bossy kids (incidentally, I disagree emphatically that we somehow encourage boys to be bossy. Boys today are under enormous pressure in every realm of their lives to control their alpha maleness and be more collaborative. But that's another story). At times, bossiness can walk a very fine line with bullying.
If we want girls to be leaders, then we should help them learn how to be the kind of leader people want to follow.
In other words, banning "bossy" doesn't do any good. Let's say we end up banning that word. Imagine a bright, motivated girl who is also bossy. But no one ever says that because this campaign is successful in banning that word. So, she drives everyone crazy, but no one ever tells her. Anyway, she goes through school and graduates and wants to take on the world. But the problem is, no one can stand her. She gets passed over for promotions. She runs for Congress but no one will vote for her.
How exactly have we benefited this child? How have we helped her reach her vast, human potential.
Some boys are domineering or overconfident. Should be ban those words too? A ban on the word "cocky," perhaps? That can hurt a boy's feelings. After all, brashness or cockiness is often just the protective coating on deep insecurity. What if a boy needs to start wearing deodorant? Should we risk hurting his feelings by telling him? What if a girl mumbles and looks at the floor?
I believe it is far more productive to look at a young human and know them enough to understand what they can do to meet their fullest potential. And then love them enough to tell them, and invest the time to help them learn more effective ways.
Beyond that, there is the troubling trend to ban words. I can think of a few words that are so awful that they shouldn't be repeated. But every group is going to be offended or put out by something. As our society becomes more fragmented and segmented, this will only increase and I don't think it's a good thing. But more on that later.
I recently had an experience that helped focus some thoughts I've had for a while now. Let me start by describing the experience.
Our big school musical was the week of Valentine's Day. During that time, I saw some wonderful things, both on and off-stage. But there is one particular that moment that sticks in my mind.
During our final dress rehearsal, one of the performers gave what I can only describe as a flawless performance. It was simply perfect, from the inflection in her lines to her choreography, to the energy and feeling with which she infused everything she did.
Watching her brought me such joy--partly because I was proud of her, but partly because she was in her element. She reminded me of an otter swimming or a bird flying. She was doing what she was born to do, and doing it with joy and verve. It was a wonderful thing to watch and it had a profound impact on me. The audience loved her, and she enjoyed great success--in addition to the internal satisfaction of a job well done.
As I watched her, I thought back about the journey that had brought here to that point.
She had come to a summer theatre camp as a rising 6th grader. She had a nice, sweet voice, and at the end of the week, I suggested to her mother that she start taking voice lessons, and she did.
For the next three years, this student and I worked almost every week. During our lessons, I corrected her breathing, the placement of her vowels, and posture. We worked and worked worked. She practiced, came and got critiqued, practiced some more, got critiqued again...and on and on.
This student worked on her vocal technique and she continued to come to theatre camps. In fact, she attended just about every camp she could. She worked and worked and worked. For years. And years.
This student put in hours that cannot be counted, and gave a consistent effort that cannot be calculated. Hard work and effort turned talent into skill, and skill into instinct.
Beyond her hard work, she showed a consistently good attitude. She was cheerful and focused, never causing any problems, or drama in any way (nor did her parents, and that's quite important as well). She was part of the team, never showing any kind of attitude or entitlement. She supported her peers and always gave 100% to whatever she part she was given. Large or small, she performed it as if it were the most important role in the play.
In fact, when we had try-outs for this part, she wanted a different role, and wanted it badly. I know she was disappointed when the casting was announced. But she had formed habits over those years--habits that now directed her actions.
And that is what I want to focus on. Her tremendous success was the result of years and years of hard work, and of hundreds of good choices made consistently. These choices and work created habits that made her success a natural outcome.
And so, part of my joy was seeing her succeed so beautifully. Part of my joy was that of a teacher seeing a student succeed. But part of my joy was seeing how years and years of effort and good choices had paid off.
To be clear, hard work and good choices are not always rewarded with such great public success. However, great public success does not ever seem to come without them.
This is going to be short because the big musical is this week. Dress rehearsals followed by performances, so that's occupying most of the bandwidth here at bradenbell.com.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a "Love and Logic" seminar by Dr. Charles Fay. This was really good. Most conferences/seminars I've gone to were lame to "meh." This was exceptional. It has already changed my teaching and parenting.
One of the concepts Dr. Fay discussed really resonated with me. He talked about considering whether our word was "garbage" or "gold." Garbage means that your words are empty threats. "You kids stop that right now or you're going to be sorry!" as opposed to "If you are unable to sit in the backseat without fighting we will turn around and go home, instead of the going out to eat."
Specificity, clarity, detail all help with making sure that kids know your word is gold. And then, of course, follow through. This is the one that is hard for me. But I tried an experiment and did a few things in my classroom where I set forth an expectation and the consequence. I realized as I did, that I had been inconsistent with the application of consequences. I just really love my students and don't like coming down on them.
Here's the thing. I already know this principle. It's a very basic principle. I know it, but I had slipped and become sloppy. It's easy for that to happen.
But as I thought about it, I realized that my word was garbage. At least it was pretty muddy. So, I've made a few efforts.
1. I don't say anything unless I really mean it.
2. All my consequences are specific and clear.
3. Whatever I say, I do. And no amount of tears, puppy dog eyes, or promises of future reformation sway me.
In the last two weeks that I've been doing this at both home and school, I've noticed an enormous difference.
Things are crazy here at bradenbell.com which is why we haven't been around much. Our big winter musical opens a week from Thursday, so there is a lot going on. Sets are being built and painted, costumes are being sewn, props are being finished, programs are being printed and so on.
I always send out a letter to the parents of the cast at this point, based on over 25 years of directing this age group. At any rate, this is specifically addressed to parents of students in this play. But I think it is equally applicable to other activities in life, so I thought I'd pass it along for whatever it may be worth.
As we go into these last two weeks, let me thank you for the hard work so many of you have already, or will be devoting to making the play wonderful for the kids. These next two weeks are always magical as all the elements come together.
They are also stressful--at least historically speaking. So, I'd like to just toss a few thoughts out.
As the play gets closer, it will apparently fall apart. It always does--and then it comes back together. Please don't make a fuss about this as it will stress your child out even more.
You will likely see tired, and stressed children, especially in middle school. They will wonder how they'll get their assignments done and there might be tears and angst--and then it will all be over and everything will be just fine.
As a parent, I went through this with my daughter for three years and six plays. There were some times that she didn't do well on quizzes or assigments the week of the play. But she still got into high school.
Now that it's over, some fatigue and a lower score on a few assignments really don't matter. In fact, the lessons she learned about resilience and about toughing it out continue to bless her life.
Even more, the memories she has of those plays are wonderful treasures for her and they keep giving. As a parent, I think the growth that came from these experiences was worth a few minor sacrifices--although that doesn't mean it's easy at the time.
One of the biggest differences between adults and adolescents is that adolescents have virtually no emotional depth perception. That is, they generally don't have the experience to be able to discern if something is a big deal or if it's just a momentary snag.
Consequently, one of the greatest services adults can do for them is to provide them with perspective: "Yes sweetheart, I know you are tired. I know you are stressed. And yes, you might get a B on this quiz. And life will go on and everything will be just fine."
By opening night, the adrenaline generally kicks in and everything ends on a high note. Before that, they will get tired and discouraged and grumpy. You can do them a great service by helping them not blow small struggles into major crises. You can also do them a great service by not trying to make their life easy. Developmentally appropriate difficulties help develop strength, resilience and confidence.
On that note, I'll remind you about what we talked about in the parent meeting: please do not ask teachers to make accommodations to homework, academics, and attendance expectations because of the play. Being in the play presumes that the student agrees to keep up with their academic work and we need to be very careful not to put the cart before the horse.
I'm excited to see the kids bring this all together and emerge triumphant, stronger, and wiser very soon!
If you have an adolescent, chances are that they see nearly everything as an opportunity for a negotiation.
"Can I go to the movie?"
"But, I promise to....everyone else...." and on and on. What seems like a simple, declarative sentence to you seems like an invitation to an extended debate with an adolescent. It can be exhausting.
Over the years, I have come up with various ways of addressing this at home or school. One of my favorite lines came from my boss. He simply said, "You're mistaking this for a discussion. The answer is 'no'."
I always liked that, but I found one lately that works beautifully. I've tried it at home with younger kids and at school with my adolescents. I got it from Lynn Lott and it is so easy. When the child comes back at you, you say, "Did you ask that already?"
"And did I answer it?"
"Okay then, asked and answered."
You have to do this one time. After that, anytime they try the same behavior, you say, "Asked and answered."
I read about this on a blog post somewhere and was skeptical that it would work with some of the world-class debaters I have at home and school. But I tried it, and it was really quite amazing. I've been trying it now for a few weeks and it continues to work.
So, I'm very happy to pass this on. Good luck!
I thought I'd post a follow-up to my post last week about the long-term value of disappointment. There are a few important essentials to remember when dealing with disappointment. While I'm coming from my experience as a middle school theatre director, I think most of these principles are applicable in many different areas and endeavors.
First of all, remember that you are seeing this in very subjective terms. You are focusing on your child and how they feel. That's fine, and it's your job as a parent.
But the teacher/coach/director/whomever does not have that luxury. That person has too look at the general welfare of everyone involved. S/he cannot consider personal feelings, dreams, or ambitions.
And the truth is, you wouldn't want him or her to do this. Seriously, you wouldn't.
I will assume the reason your child wants to be in the play, on the team, squad or club is because they enjoy the activity. Keep that in mind. But I will also assume that they want to be in this play/team because the program is pretty good and the child feels that the program can offer them something.
But the program is only good because the person in charge focuses on the good of the program. The moment he or she starts letting personal considerations be the basis of decisions, the quality of the program begins to decline. And then, the very experience you had wanted for your child begins to suffer. Or, should the director/coach make decisions for your child based on personal reasons--but assess everyone else on merit?
So, don't be angry that the person who built a program good enough to interest your child continues to run the program with the same standards and approach that helped build that program. Also realize that if you are upset, you are the one who is breaking the tacit agreement. They've done their job--and unless they insulted your child somehow or were rude, then they've done exactly what they were supposed to do. Note: not casting/playing your child does not count as insult.
If your child gets a smaller role or doesn't start, or whatever, put your natural resentment away. Be grateful your child gets to have an experience they ostensibly love and be a part of a program they want to join. If they don't even get on the team or in the cast, then I have a few suggestions. Talk to the person in charge and find out if there was a reason. Maybe there is something your child can learn and improve in--a particular weakness or deficit that can be made up with time and attention.
Or perhaps not. And that's okay too. Maybe this isn't the hobby or pursuit that is best suited to your child.
But let me give a caveat with that. Every year, I have people come talk to me after auditions and ask for feedback. Some of them are sincere and want to hear what they can improve. Others just want me to give some compliments or to promise them that they'll do better next time. I don't have much patience for the first, and cannot promise the second. Only ask if you truly want feedback. And, also realize that there may not be much you can do.
I can't speak much about athletics, but in theatre, sometimes it's not that a person has a deficit. Sometimes it's just a matter of "fit." One person clicks in the role better than the other. It's just the way it is and it has nothing to do with talent or anything. Think Will Smith and Will Ferrell. Both are talented, highly-paid professionals. But they are not interchangeable. Different roles would fit them in different ways.
Here are a few more thoughts.
It's almost never personal. You and your child might experience it personal terms, but for the director or coach, it seriously isn't. All my life I've heard people say that some coach, some director, some choreographer, some authority figure played favorites. They cast so-and-so because they liked her better, or gave such-and-such more playing time because his dad is their friend, a donor--whatever.
I'm not saying this never happens. But in my experience, it happens far, far less than I hear people say it does. The truth is that most coaches want to win games. Most theatre directors want the strongest cast. It's really pretty simple. I suppose all of us are subject to human error, but I am convinced that these sort of things happen far, far less than I hear people mutter. They might make mistakes, their plans and strategies might go amiss. But I really think most people in these positions are trying to do the best you can.
More likely is that the teacher/coach/director is simply balancing a myriad of factors that most people have absolutely no idea about. And, it may be that your child's best interests are one of those factors. I have had students in the past who had nice voices or good acting skills--but crumpled under even mild pressure or difficulty. Giving such a child a lead would be incredibly cruel
I've learned from long experience that the best way to get through this kind of thing is to trust the good intentions of the person who made the decision--and then move on. My son wanted badly to be the Drum Major in his high school marching band. He did not get that position. I still think he would have been good. But he had a wonderful experience his senior year anyway. What he really loved was marching band. And that is what he got to do.
We just finished our fall production. As always, I am amazed at what adolescents can do. When I watch these plays every year, and watch the students perform, watch students manage complex scene changes, run light and sound boards, I'm blown away.
However, when I look at the final product and compare it to the dress rehearsals that came immediately before I am even more blown away.
When I first started directing, I got very nervous because dress rehearsals were awful. But somehow the performances always worked.
It took me a few years but I finally realized that I didn't need to panic if the dress rehearsals were bad. Actually not "if"--rather, "when" the rehearsals were bad.
What do I learn from this?
A few things.
First of all, when things seem bleak with your adolescent child--and they will--keep going! Keep hope. Things may yet work out.
But there's another lesson. The question I've come to ask is why it always works out. Is it magic? Lots of prayer? Just luck?
I would not rule any of those out (especially the prayer--something I tend to do a lot of the week of a play!). But I think the answer is more mundane and less exotic. It's the process.
After years of experience and education and most of all--trial and error, my colleagues and I came up with a process that works. It takes a cast of students who have never done a particular play before and moves them from point to point until they are ready to perform. They learn the choreography to one song at a time. They learn the lyrics line-by-line. They memorize their dialogue. We teach them where to stand and when to move. We layer in props, scenery, lights, microphones, music--and boom! The play happens, as if by magic. But it's not really magic. It's the end result of a carefully planned process, honed over years of experience.
It's also not something I dreamed up myself. It's the way plays have been rehearsed, basically forever. I made some adaptations to fit my students and our particular situation. Our process isn't the same as on Broadway. But it's not vastly different, either, and they are differences in degree, not in kind.
Here's where I'm going with this. Humans have raised adolescents for a long, long time now. There is a basic process. It varies from culture to culture and time to time, but there are general patterns to this process. Don't throw it out. Don't reinvent the wheel. Make some adjustments if needed--but don't start from scratch.
Most parents that I see really struggle with raising their children tend to have bought into two philosophies that I think are damaging. The first is that they feel that it's the 21st century and everything is new, so why worry about the traditions of the past? They seem to feel that they can, by dint of their greater enlightenment, figure out how to raise their kids without all the silly old ideas, strictures, and patterns of the past. In my experience, this doesn't work. The collective wisdom of the past is a great asset. There is a reason that we evolved social and cultural norms. Maybe some of them are outdated--but not all of them. And I think we can benefit from considering them carefully.
The worst play I ever directed was when I threw out the tried and true rehearsal format and came up with all manner of clever new ideas. They were brilliant--and they should have worked. But they didn't, and the play was terrible. Happily I no longer live in that state. It was a painful experience, but I learned my lesson. Don't tamper with what works.
The second mistake I see is the opposite of the first--it's making no adaptations at all. It's clinging completely to the past without any regard to unique situations and people. It woud be analogous to me using the same rehearsal schedule they use on Broadway with my middle school kids.
So, I suggest not raising your kids like it's 1956 or even 1983. But I also strongly suggest not buying into all the social changes and conventional wisdom around. I very strongly suggest not getting caught up in trends and following along in contemporary currents.
Create a process. Look at people you admire. Look at people who have children you admire. Look at people with children you don't admire (but do this kindly, not in a judgmental way. You never know how kids will turn out). Look at the way you were raised, look at how cultures have raised kids for thousands of years.
Create a process and then stick to it. Don't panic when, in dress rehearsals, things fall apart. Tweak and adjust as necessary. Do what it takes.
One more thought.
One of the reasons the dress rehearsals always seem to go so badly is because it is the first time the kids have every aspect of the play all at the same time--they are trying to use props while worrying about costume and set changes, handle their microphones and lighting cues and on and on.
There's an old saying in the theatre: Bad dress rehearsal, good performance. It's not always true. But there's a reason it became a cliche--there is a lot of truth in it.
It is often the falling apart in dress rehearsals that provides the impetus and the experience necessary for them to succeed in the performance.
I think adolescence is like that dress rehearsal. There is a lot going on. Lots of layers, many different complex tasks. So it makes sense that there will be some failures. It may be that it is the failures and challenges of adolescence that will provide the impetus and experience for success as and adult.
So, if the dress rehearsal isn't going too well, don't panic. Don't despair. Your child is probably pretty normal--and you have to trust the process.
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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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