I spent the last two weeks writing about how important it is not to coddle and over-protect your child (here) and then suggested some times that it might be appropriate to intervene (here). Before I move on and leave the subject altogether, let me offer a cautionary tale from some years ago that, for me, puts it all into perspective.
This is really a tragic story and it makes me sad to write it, but I think it's important because it can prevent other people from suffering the same fate. It's a story I've pondered often in my own parenting efforts.
I once had a student who was a wonderful child in many ways. The student was talented, bright, and full of possibilities. This student had loving parents and the parents were enamored with their child. Everything the child did was celebrated and the parents worked hard to create a wonderful life for the child.
During the child's later middle school years, some small, problematic behaviors began to occur. Nothing major, but some less-than-ideal things. This is normal--it happens with every child as they work through puberty and the attendant stresses.
However, the parent made a critical mistake. Parent began to intervene. Instead of listening to the teachers and others who brought the behaviors to light, Parent became argumentative and felt that teachers were attacking Child. Parent began running interference for child--celebrating every achievement and ignoring the less-positive feedback.
Child began to grow entitled and felt untouchable and started to make some even less-desirable choices. Child eventually took some actions that led to more formal discipline by the school. Still nothing major--a serious talk and detention hall.
Parent was outraged. Furious. Felt it was unfair, unwarranted, and so on. Fought it every step of the way.
It will not surprise you to learn that Child grew up with a strong sense of entitlement. This had an impact on the way Child acted--more and more spoiled and disagreeable. Whenever natural consequences came, Parent intervened, seeing every disagreement in which the Child was involved as a conflict between justice and injustice. Even formerly trusted sources and advisors were shunned because they gave advice and counsel that was too hard and direct to be listened to and did not sufficiently celebrate Child.
Fast-forward a few years. Child struggled in high school. Teachers were impervious to parental pressure. Peers shunned Child, who had now become spoiled and engaged in self-defeating social behaviors and was unable to keep or maintain friendships. Worse, every action Parent and Child took to rectify the social situation actually made it worse.
But here is the tragedy: Parent was totally and completely unable to help Child. Parent couldn't see what was going on because Parent had become habituated to running interference and protecting Child from every blow. Parent saw every adversity as an injustice to be fought and a personal attack.
Child was bitterly unhappy, unable to function successfully and no one could help because those closest didn't see the problem. And Parent had effectively taught Child not to listen to or take criticism from anyone else. So Child was stuck and kept making choices that made the situation worse. I remember watching and thinking, "How can you do that?" but, like others, I was no longer a welcome source of advice or feedback so my hands were tied. It was very frustrating to watch and see--and not be able to help.
Everyone around Child could not believe Child or Parent could be so blind. No one could help, though, because those who cared enough to be honest were shunned and seen as the enemy.
This may seem an extreme situation, and I agree that the outcome is not common. However, it started out with very normal behaviors and giving in to very normal parental temptations. Those behaviors then became habits and it grew and grew.
This is something I try to keep in mind in my own parenting. In addition to the list of warning signs I posted earlier, I have thought of an additional sign: if you hear something from a teacher or coach, or the parent of a peer, listen. Sure, maybe they hate your child and have an axe to grind. But in my experience, that is fairly rare. Listen and watch. Maybe what they say is unfounded. But if you hear the same thing from multiple sources, you do your child no favors if you ignore it.
First of all, if you haven't yet, go down and see the pictures from The Little Mermaid. To me, it is pure middle school magic! Also, click here to find out how you can win an advance copy of Penumbras, the sequel to the Kindling.
Now, with that out of the way, I want to address an important and serious subject. Over the years, I have had students I feel very confident will succeed and students about whom I worry a great deal.
There are two or three things that really make me worry. One of the top worries I have is about over-protective parents--a setting which seems more and more to be the default. These parents seem to see themselves as portable shields, designed and required to run interference for, shelter, and protect their children from any disappointment, danger, harm, or even unpleasantness and mild inconvenience. I really believe this sets up the child for a lifetime of serious problems, and that's why I'm writing about it in very candid terms.
Many of these parents have considerable resources and are able to do a very good job of being shields. And that is the tragedy. They shield their children from these things, but in the end, they shield their children from growth, challenge, achievement, and the ability to solve problems.
Life is hard. It is a constant challenge. Most of us have to spend our lives figuring out how to make it work, how to get by, how to solve our problems. The older we get, the more challenging life becomes, and the larger and more complex those problems are.
I've seen this in my theatre program over the years, although I have heard similar stories from coaches and teachers of all disciplines.
I once had a parent call me to tell me their child, who was quite talented, could not come to rehearsal. It was an important rehearsal and I asked why the child would miss. Well, Child didn't feel well. Was there a fever? No, but the child was kind of snotty and the throat was a bit irritated, just didn't feel great. Turned out the child had allergies. I had to explain that the child would need to come to rehearsal. The parent seemed truly stunned.
Another time, a student hurt his/her finger before rehearsal. It was not broken, no medical attention was required. Nothing could be done but wait for it to get better. Unpleasant, even painful, but not materially or functionally not useable. We had a major rehearsal that day, but the parent insisted on taking the child home.
Guess who I can never trust with a major role? I say that not out of malice or pique, but rather because that child is now very weak, not having had chances to push through problems and grow stronger.
Sometimes I see very talented kids who are emotionally weak because their parents have coddled and cosseted them so much, always running interference. These kids, talented though they may be, will never get more than a very minor role because they can't handle the stress. Sometimes the most mild criticism, or even a small snafu like a costume problem will send them off into tears. There is no way that they could handle the stress of a leading role. It would be cruel to them--they would buckle and break under all that pressure.
Ideally, if you are lucky, you have parents who prepare you for this by letting you grow and develop your problem-solving skills. Ideally, parents let you fail and fall. They keep you from serious danger, but they allow you to trip and skin your knee. They don't intervene when a friend is unkind, or when you don't make the team. If you get in trouble at school, they ensure you are fairly treated but don't push teachers or administrators to make changes for you.
If you are lucky, your parents seem themselves as coaches who help you navigate problems, not as shields who will protect you from the problems. The exception, of course, is if a child has some kind of special need, for which persistent advocating may be needed. Even then, I do think that the more autonomous they can be, the happier they will become. I'm not talking about those situations, however.
The flaw with the shield approach is that no parent will be able to protect their child forever from everything. Eventually, problems will break through. And that child, no matter how old, will be ill-suited to deal with them.
Here's the problem, though. When I explain this to people, they nod and agree. What I'm saying seems obvious and makes sense to most parents--and it's easy to spot in other people. However, many of those people who do the nodding then turn around and coddle and shield their child in the most obvious ways.
Of course, as a parent, our instincts are to jump in and protect our child. And there are times we have to. That's our job. So, how do we know if we are being appropriately protective, or too much of a coddler?
I don't have all the answers, but I've been observing parents now for a long time, both as a teacher and as parent, myself. Here are a few thoughts I have, these are symptoms that you might be too much of a shield and not doing enough supporting and coaching. I use these questions to perform my own regular self-analysis. As I wrote these out, I saw a few areas where I need to pull back a bit.
1. Who has the most contact with your child's teachers/coaches/other adults? You, or them?
2. If your child has a problem getting homework done or preparing for a test, is your response to ask for an exception or to help your child see the bad grade as a lesson learned?
3. If you do ask for an exception, who asks--the child or you?
4. How often do you find yourself asking for exceptions to policies (school, team, classroom, etc.)?
5. When an exception is warranted, who does the asking, you or the child?
6. If your child does not get enough playing time in their sport, or a good part in the play, or a desired grade, etc., is your reaction to focus on the teacher/coach/director and their choices, or to analyze what your child may or may not be doing?
7. If a discussion is warranted, will you have the discussion, or will you prep your child to have it?
8. Do you feel that your child deserves the best, regardless of his or her efforts?
9. When your child is upset, do you spend more time giving comfort or more time helping examine the extent to which their actions may have contributed to the problem and looking for ways to prevent similar problems in the future?
10. Do you spend a lot of time managing, directing, or intervening in your child's social life?
11. Do you take personally the amount of friends that your child has?
12. When your child has a social problem, do you assume it is the other child's fault, or do you have a sense of your child's weaknesses and how they might contribute?
13. Do you see your child as a wonderful, nearly perfect gift, or as a lovable but flawed human in need of frequent guidance and correction?
14. Do you feel that your child's success in elementary and middle school is very important and a high priority?
15. Is your job to protect your child from problems or to coach them through challenges?
16. Do you frequently let your child miss or go late to school or other commitments so they can sleep in because they seem a little tired (not talking about being sick)?
17. Do you frequently find yourself feeling that your child is just not valued by multiple people in their lives? Coaches, teachers, etc.?
18. Are people out to get your child?
19. Do teachers, coaches, and others frequently fail to see just how gifted your child is?
This isn't a scientific test, but these are some warning signs. Answering some of them may just mean you are a cautious parent. We all do some of these things at times. I think the persistence of behavior is important. If these things happen a lot, then it's possibly a problem and calls for careful self-reflection.
A key indicator to me is the amount of intervention you are doing and about what. If you have a folder full of emails to teachers asking for exceptions, explaining special circumstances, detailing why something's not fair--the chances are pretty high you are coddling (assuming your child does not have some kind of special need--that is a different story altogether). This is especially true if you are intervening repeatedly in things that don't really matter--or won't in a few weeks or months (eg, playing time in a game, grades on a test, role in a play, mild disciplinary issues, etc).
If you answered in a way that suggests you are spending a lot of time intervening in your child's life, or if you see them as usually being the innocent in every problem, you are probably shielding them too much. You might serve your child well by reflecting on this. Maybe even talk to someone you trust and asking their opinion (be ready for honesty, though).
I know it's hard to allow your child to struggle and hurt. I hate doing it! But they need the experience now if they are going to be happy and successful. Hard times during adolescence nourish the soul, allowing it to grow big and strong.
A butterfly cannot fly without the strength that comes from its long struggle to fight to emerge from the chrysalis. Without that opposition, it ends up weak and stunted, unable to do more than flutter on the ground a bit. Don't rob your child of the chance to fly!
Learn to say, "I'm so sorry. What do you think you could have done to make that situation better?" or "Why don't we talk about some ways you can fix this problem?" or "You need to talk to Coach So-and-so or Mrs. Such-and-Such. Why don't we think of some things you can say." "I know it's hard, and I'm sorry you are hurting. I love you very much. I know you can work this out. Do you have any ideas..." "This was a choice you made, and it brought a consequence. Do you see what the choice was? If you would like a different consequence, what different choice could you make?"
And so on.
Maybe next week we'll talk about when, why, and how to intervene.
I know it's not Monday. But I've been gill-deep in finishing one play and starting another. So I'm late.
Let me talk about a very difficult subject with a personal anecdote. In high school, I had a friend who was very funny. So was I (at least in my own mind). Together, we were hilarious. Or so we thought. Actually, we were sarcastic and sharp to the point of being quite mean. It's not one of my better times in life. One night, we heard about a party all our friends were having--a party to which we had not been invited.
We are furious and hurt. How could our so-called friends be so cruel as to leave us out? We vented and raged and had our own party, wallowing in bitterness.
At some point, I confronted one of our other friends. He told me that we were had been excluded because we were so sarcastic and caustic that no one wanted to be around us.
That hurt. And it made me mad. And then I realized he was right--and that he had just done me a huge favor by helping me understand what I was doing wrong and giving me the chance to fix it.
It took a while, but with some sustained effort, I was able to change my habits, smooth the rough edges away, and end the year with a very rich and rewarding social life.
I'm so grateful my friend had the guts and honest concern to tell me the truth. He really did me a huge favor.
Okay, let's talk about a very depressing problem that I think most kids (and parents) face at some point in their lives. What do you do if people leave you out of social activities, conversations, etc.?
This is a really painful situation to be in and the cure may seem worse than the sickness at first. But, over the years I have seen people navigate this and come out on top by applying some basic principles.
So, if your child comes home and says that no one likes them, or they are being left out, etc. what do you do?
Sometimes, this might just be in their heads, or at least, not as extreme as they think it is. In 7th grade, for example, no one feels liked. No one feels included. I've written about this before. So, let's leave this aside. Let's assume that your child really is being excluded.
Your tendency will be to see your child as the victim and the others as malicious bullies. Please, for your child's sake, don't do this. In some cases this might be true, but in my experience it is usually far more complex than this.
This is where the cure starts to be a bit painful. You need to try to realistically assess how your child is contributing to the problem.
Over my years in teaching, I have known children who were charming with adults and were really quite nasty to their peers. You need to be open to the possibility that your child is doing something that is off-putting, possibly inadvertently. This is very difficult. It's where you earn your parenting stripes. No one wants to acknowledge that their child might be the issue. But most time when I see social problems, a lot of it rests with the child in question. Peers will vote with their feet. If someone is mean, catty, snide, arrogant, whatever--no one will want to be around them and no amount of parental intervention can ever change that.
How do you find out if this applies to your child? Well, you ask teachers or coaches or, if you feel you can, the parents of their peers. Obviously, this is sensitive and you have to careful in how you approach it. You can't, for example, say, "Hey, your child is excluding my child for reasons I don't understand. Is there something she did to make your daughter act in such an unkind, petty way?" You will need a bit of diplomacy and tact.
You will also need to be prepared for the possibility that they will tell you the truth. And it will hurt. And you will feel defensive and want to lash out or at least defend your child. Don't do this. Bite your tongue. Listen. Nod even if it kills you. And thank them for caring enough to be honest.
I've learned over the years that most people really do not want to hear difficult truths, even when those truths could free them from various problems. I've seen so many difficult situations that could be solved with relative ease IF the people involved could understand the situation and make some changes. But too often, that requires confronting painful realities.
So, if you are lucky enough to get candid advice, listen and thank them. Then think about it and see if you think there is merit to what you hear. Is your child pushy? Bossy? Full of him or herself? Have they been unkind, etc.
Once you know, you can make a plan to try to fix these problems. But wait, there's more and it's IMPORTANT! Like, All-caps important.
It is human nature when we feel someone pulling away from us to push ourselves towards them. The more they pull away, the harder we push towards them. This is almost always a mistake. You will have to help your child stop. If you're in a social hole, stop digging. Whatever is going wrong needs to be fixed, and the current actions have caused the problem. So, stop.
This is hard because your child will be wanting to see instant results. They might have been arrogant for six years, and then they stop for a week and will wonder why things haven't changed. They'll have to be patient and let the others see that they are changing.
Sometimes, a direct conversation might be useful. "Hey, I realize I've been kind of mean and I'm sorry. I hope you'll give me a chance to show you that I want to be better..." Other times, you just have to let time go by and let people see it on their own.
One strategy that might help is to let some time go by where there is a complete suspension of contact (or as complete as is possible)--a few weeks. During this time, your child does not keep pushing themselves onto the group. This is sort of a demonstration of good faith, a chance to clear the social palate, so to speak. After a few weeks, and yes, this will be a painful and lonely time, they might start reaching out to one or two people, inviting them to do something like go see a movie or whatever--something simple, something with a limited emotional and time commitment, etc. Your child needs to essentially woo them back, showing that they can be trusted.
It's important to resist the temptation to be clingy here, or to rush the relationship--it's very similar to dating, really--the same pitfalls and the same bad consequences, namely being alone.
Yes, this is painful, and yes, it takes some time. But usually, if you don't do something like this, the problem gets worse. I've seen so many kids over the years who just absolutely sabotage their social life by being a bit of a pill, and then, when people retreat, pushing hard. A strategic retreat, some honest self-assessment (with parental guidance) can make a huge difference.
And, the rewards are well worth the discomfort.
First of all, a friend asked me recently where they could find former posts for Middle School Mondays. I was happy that someone wanted to read them. In case that applies to anyone else, there's a now link on the sidebar. If you look at the top of the sidebar to your right, you should find it.
I've mentioned before that in middle school no one feels popular, no one feels like they have arrived socially. As an interesting appendix to that discussion, I saw this little scoop about Taylor Swift. She told Vogue magazine, "I don't ever feel like the cool kid." Think how many people would love, love, love to be Taylor Swift. But she doesn't have a sense of being "there." If Taylor Swift doesn't, then I think it's safe to say the average 7th grader is the same, no matter what your perception is.
This is a much more important insight than most people realize. Because social perceptions inform middle school-age interactions more than any single factor I can think of.
Some time ago, I was contacted by the parent of a student. This student was not fully enjoying participation in an extra-curricular activity because some of the student's peers were not being as nice and supportive of the student as would have been hoped. I don't think anyone was being actively mean--but they weren't working to make it a good experience for this particular student.
I tried to teach this principle and pointed out that the other students felt just as insecure. I suggested that this student take charge and act in the way that she/he hoped someone else would act.
Every time I share this with parents and students, they are surprised and incredulous, but I'm telling you, it's true. The vast majority of kids all feel like they are not cool. Even the kids everyone else thinks are cool.
Because they don't feel cool, they are likely not going to reach out and include your child in the cool group--they don't seem themselves as having any ability to do that since they want to be in the cool group themselves.
The only productive choice you have here is to try to coach your child into doing what makes him or her happy. Coach them to reach out to other people and to be as considerate and nice to others as they hope others will be to them. If they will do this, they may not attain a sense of popularity or coolness, but they will be happy! And they'll start to free themselves from the tyranny of what other people think.
I watched one year as one student did a lot of reaching out to others. The student in question was definitely one of the "cool" kids. However I don't believe that she acted in this way because she was cool. I watched her closely and it seemed to me that she made a choice at the beginning of the year that she was going to be nice to people, that she was going to reach out and be inclusive. She did this by choosing to ignore her own insecurities and focusing on others--not because she was inherently comfortable.
Watching her do this was like watching someone trying to master a new physical skill. At first it was awkward and a bit stilted. She wasn't comfortable or smooth at it. But as she continued, she's became very deft and adept and mad, I think, a real difference for some other kids.
But this was not a modern social equivalent of the lady of the manor comfortably bestowing kindness on the peasants. It was one of many students who decided she wanted to help her class grow closer and instead of waiting for others to act (and complaining when they didn't) was going to make a difference on her own--even if she, like Taylor Swift, didn't feel like she was one of the cool kids.
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