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.
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.
I spent most of last week with new 8th graders. I was with them at meals, chaperoned a cabin at night, and supervised them at work and play. Why yes, I am a saint. Ha! Just kidding. I enjoyed most of it. They are fascinating little creatures, these adolescents and the opportunity for extended fieldwork was valuable. Yes, dear reader, those are the kinds of sacrifices I am willing to make to bring you my weekly commentary on the feeding and care of middle school kids.
I have a few thoughts in random order. I'll probably expand on most of these in future posts.
Also, these apply specifically to 8th graders, but I think they are generally applicable to most adolescents.
1. You have to be specific with adolescents. Adults talk about concepts like "kindness" and "leadership" and "responsibility" and kids nod and we think we've connected. A very few kids will hear that and translate those concepts into specifics. Most, however, won't. I've learned, and am re-learning, how important it is to give concrete details and examples. "Kindness means more than just not being actively unkind. It means when you see someone sitting alone, you invite them to join you. It means that when you see someone who needs help you help them. If someone is sad, you ask them what's wrong and offer to help." Etc. Generalities that make sense to adults often don't really translate well to kids. I am convinced that this is a huge source of adult/adolescent misunderstanding.
2. When properly taught and motivated, adolescents are capable of great kindness, empathy, and leadership. However, these traits are not natural to them. They have to be taught, modelled, explained, and reinforced. They can follow your lead beautifully, but will not do this on their own. It is not the natural order of things, the default setting. It takes time and effort to bring about this kind of behavior. Like any other kind of intertia, unkindness can only be overcome through sustained energy. But if you are willing to make the investment, you can see some lovely results.
3. No matter what their attitude conveys, I think most kids crave adult approval. Being an adult whom they respect enough to value the approval is the work of a lifetime, and a task in which we should all be engaged.
4. Many, if not most, social problems are self-inflicted, or at least self-complicated and enhanced. This is hard to admit sometimes, but it's good news because it means there is a fix!
5. Most adolescents really want to do the right thing but find it incredibly hard given the hormonal changes, social pressures, and other crazy things going on in their lives.
6. Most parents, even very involved ones, have very little idea about what happens at school, which is the majority or at least plurality of their children's lives. I don't mean grades, I mean about the lived experience of their child. It's not their fault--adolescents don't talk much. But there is a side of these kids that really emerges when they are with others in their pack. This is not good or bad--just something I've observed, but it has implications.
7. I am convinced that even very involved parents do not fully appreciate the things that their children know about, hear about, think about, and even do because of the culture to which they are exposed. Good kids from good families routinely hear music and see movies/TV shows that mention and advocate actions and values that the families would reject forcefully if the same actions or values were proposed to them without the context provided by popular culture.
Have a good week! Oh--by the way, I got word that the publisher is running a special promotion for my book, The Kindling. Next week, it will be available to download for the Kindle for the astonishingly low price of .99 cents!
So, before I get into the meat of today's post, for those just tuning in after the weekend, I wanted to let you know that Chapter Three of The Kindling is up here. And, for my blogging friends, I'm happy to announce a pre-order special--you can get the book for $9.99 plus shipping! More details here. (Incidentally, this book has NOTHING at all to do with today's post in case you just stop by randomly).
Now on to today's post. I debated whether or not to post this. Normally, I try to keep things fairly cheerful and light around here. This is a sensitive, highly-charged subject and I'm not really anxious to start a flap. I learned from the response to my book, The Road Show (which dealt with porn addiction) that we do not have a cultural consensus about whether porn is good, neutral, or a serious problem. Pornography is a hot-button subject because it touches on people's views about morality, religion, sexuality, politics and other very fraught topics. If, after reading this post, you want to disagree with me or another commenter, that's fine. But please be civil.
I've been watching and observing kids now for 25 years now, and I've seen some things in the last few years that worry me and I think we, as parents and teachers, give this some more attention.
I ask you to put aside your preconceived notions for a few minutes. I'm not going to argue about the larger issues here. I'm not talking about what adults do, nor am I proposing legislation. I'm not even talking about morality. For now, let's think about porn and how it might impact adolescents and what parents should know and do.
Some parents I know seem to be totally unaware or unconcerned about their child's potential to access porn. Others I know are uneasy with it, have the sense that it's wrong, or at least distasteful--something that isn't really a good idea. But, don't have a strong feeling about why
it's not a good idea
Of course, there are any number of reasons people might object--from religious grounds to more secular ones.
Essentially I want to make the non-religious case for why I think parents ought to be concerned about porn. Far, far, far more concerned than most parents seem to be. I should note that I am not the only person raising this alarm. A recent article on CNN by two psychologists made this case and got a lot of press. You can read it here.
My case is grounded in what I have observed about child development. Let me begin with a few general points about some of the things that teens are dealing with at this time in their lives.
To begin with, most teens are working out patterns of relating to people that will be with them for the rest of their lives. This is a huge part of adolescence and the social skills and patterns set now will be their default setting for the rest of their lives.
Most teens are also defining their identities--who they see themselves as being, who they want to become, and what they want to do. This includes their sexual identities.
They are starting to learn, for the most part, that good things in life come with work. They begin to understand that if they want a good part in the play or a good spot on the team or good grades, they have to make some effort. This is something that many teens struggle with. They know this logically, but it is not something that is habitual or instinctive yet.
Most adolescents think the world revolves around them. They are incredibly egocentric. They have a difficult time controlling their impulses. Delayed gratification is something they are starting to understand in concept, but it is not an easy lesson and takes years and years and a great deal of experience.
They struggle, by and large, to deal with tumultuous, hormone-driven emotions and desires. They have to learn to use intellect and reason to control their immediate wants. This is true as many of them start to think about eating more healthy foods, about exercising, about controlling their tempers and so on.
It seems to me that in every way listed, porn is going to send them exactly the wrong message at exactly the wrong time and is going to actually get in the way, either overtly or in more subtle ways, of their healthy development.
We need to understand that most kids have been exposed to pornographic images on the web by the time they are 13, with some reporting it as young as 10. I read all kinds of statistics about how many kids have been exposed to porn and saw anywhere between 42% to 90%. I imagine this is the kind of thing that is difficult to track accurately--but if you have kids, chances are pretty good that they have been exposed to porn at some point. From conversations I've heard over the years, if they have a smartphone, or friends with smartphones, I'd say that it's more likely than not.Even if your child has not accessed it, the chances are high that their peers have, which means that they will probably have heard about it.
I would add that this is not a problem for boys only. While it is certainly more prevalent among them, there seems to be a rise in girls accessing porn as well. (I say that based on my own observation, things I hear from other teachers and parents, and things I hear students discussing, not on the basis of any empirical evidence.) I'm using the male pronoun "he" in this because boys are the most prevalent users, but we need to give some careful thought to girls and how they are involved.
One of the things I've learned as a teacher is that children know far, far more about this kind of thing than parents (and often teachers) would ever imagine. I think most parents would be truly shocked if they knew what kinds of things their children have heard at school, in the locker room, at parties, and so on.
So, why is this a big deal?
It's probably a good point here to acknowledge that there have always been magazines and pictures that cater to this impulse. But the internet has made this kind of stuff far, far more accessible that it ever has been before. There are no limits now--both in terms of quantity and extremity of content. In fact some researchers posit that online porn is different because there are no limits. It is endless and on-demand actually ends up causing a sense of gorging that can eventually rewire the brain and prevent a man from being able to desire or engage in normal physical relations.
I also think that the ability to access porn has allowed kids to get it at younger and younger ages--ages at which they are probably going to be more susceptible to being more influenced by what they see.
Consider all of the developmental benchmarks I mentioned earlier--the things that adolescents are struggling to learn. And then consider how porn might effect those.
Think about how it effects a boy who is figuring out social relationships to be accessing porn. How is that inevitably going to make him think about girls? Will he value them as friends and companions? Will he see them as peers? Will he even be able to see them as people, or will he think of them as objects? Will he able to interact with them in a normal way--as a co-worker or friend?
Here's another question. Will he even want to go hang out with friends or be with families? What is more exciting? Sitting and looking at porn in his room is going to have a lot more dopamine-induced excitement than going out with people and learning how to socialize. Why would he ever want to go do normal things we've typically done--date and dance and hang-out?
Think of the fact that porn conforms to an adolescent's demands. It is what and where and how he wants it. That reason, more than perhaps any other, is problematic. At this most formative time in their lives, adolescents involved with porn will learn that they can have everything exactly the way they want it. That is not a recipe for healthy relationships.
In addition, adolescents are not good at setting boundaries. I suppose one could argue that a responsible adult can view porn in moderation, like social drinking. I happen to disagree with that, but I can grant the point. But teenagers are not like that. They do not self-regulate or set boundaries--especially as young adolescents--the age they are when they are first exposed to porn. They will not generally say, "Okay, time to do homework. I need to turn the porn off now."
It is well documented that porn has an effect of desensitizing those who view it. They need greater doses of increasingly hard-core stuff to get the same excitement. If someone starts viewing this at 12 (or younger) that means by the time he's 18 he may be immersed in truly ugly and offensive things. He may also lose the ability to have a normal, loving relationship with a real woman. There is an article that discusses some recent research here.
Now, let's assume that I am a blithering idiot and that porn is no big deal. Let's assume that there will be no deleterious effects at all. The kid slavers over his iPhone under his covers during puberty and then grows up and lead a happy, normal life.
I don't buy that, but I'll just grant it for the sake of argument. Assuming that's true, let me ask you this: Is anyone going to make a serious case that porn is important? That it is so critical to healthy development that not having access to it will cause harm?
So, worst case scenario, a kid doesn't consume porn as an adolescent. What's he or she lost? I would argue, nothing. They've actually probably gained a few hours of time to be with family and friends or do homework or get some exercise.
The point is this: I think there are lots of reasons to avoid porn, serious reasons with major implications. But if I'm wrong, and it's not all that harmful, then nothing important is lost.
The next question becomes: what can a parent do about it? There are no easy answers. You can get various software and apps that monitor your child's phone use, filters for home computers, and so on. I think these are all logical steps. But they are incomplete at best. In today's world, a kid who wants to access porn is going to be able to find a way.
I think this is where teaching comes in. Talking. Telling them it's wrong, explaining why it's harmful. Telling them you expect them not to get involved in it. Following up. Spot-checking. All the stuff that parents have historically done. It might also mean limiting some access for a time. I don't know. I don't have all the answers, or even very many.
But I do know it starts with a conversation--with parents who make it clear that this is not okay behavior and then work to help protect their kids. It starts with parents talking to other parents and supporting each other. Establishing some boundaries that will not be subject to change by conventional wisdom, pop culture, or simple lack of vigilance.
Well, as the school year wraps up (at least here at bradenbell.com) we are thinking about exams and graduations and so on.
May I make a suggestion? If a teacher has touched your child's life this year, she or he would probably appreciate a note or an email telling them so. Most people choose to teach because they hope to make a difference. Heaven knows it's not for the money or the social status. So, if your child's teacher--or if you had a teacher who touched you and you've never told them--it would be a generous and gracious thing you might consider as the year comes to an end.
Now, since the students are all studying diligently to prepare for exams, I thought that this might be a good time for a quick exam here. I'm actually planning on posting over the summer as well, but as the release date for The Kindling creeps up, I might get a bit sidetracked.
1. The worst thing that can happen to your child is:
a) Encounter difficulty and adversity in middle school
b) Not be treated fairly in everything
c) End up cosseted and pampered and unable to face the difficulties that come with maturity and life.
2. If your child has problems with a teacher:
a) The teacher is an idiot
b) The teacher is evil
c) The teacher is a flawed and fallible human being who is probably trying to do the best they can.
3. In light of "2," when you disagree with something that happens at school you should:
a) March directly to the principal
b) Take to Facebook and Twitter and denounce the teacher, the school, and Western Civilization.
c) Decide if the stakes are really all that high and whether it warrants a response at all.
4) If you carefully weigh all the options and considerations and decide a reponse is warranted (realizing that this is probably going to be the minority of occasions) than it would be best to:
a) March directly to the principal
b) Take to Facebook and Twitter and denounce the teacher, the school, and Western Civilization.
c) Email the teacher (or call) and ask if you can set up a time when you can talk.
5) Adolescents are different than adults in that they:
a) Have very little ability to make good decisions in the moment.
b) Respond well to force and compulsion
c) Are aware that they are quite immature.
6) Most adolescents respond well to:
a) Incentives and rewards
b) Threats and punishments
c) Calm, reasoned discourse.
7). With adolescents it is important to:
a) Fight to the figurative death to make sure they do everything you want them to.
b) Decide on a few priorities and then be unyielding, while being flexible on everything else.
c) Be willing to let most things go.
8) Adolescents look a lot like small adults. Therefore,
a) They should be encouraged to dress, act, and talk like adults.
b) They should be given lots of privileges and freedom.
c) It is important to constantly remind yourself that they are not adults and are very different creatures.
9) We should:
a) Celebrate how wonderful adolescents are, tell them they are amazing, and encourage them to be themselves at all costs.
b) Love them and help them understand that they are works in progress who have great, but unfinished, potential.
c) Lock them in a tower on short rations until they are 21.
10) It is good to:
a) Be actively involved in your child's social life and be one of the girls (or guys), in the know about the latest gossip.
b) Use lots of current phrases and cool terminology to relate to your teen.
c) Have your own life and be aware of what is going on in your child's life, while maintaing your status as an adult.
11) Dealing with failure, adversity and grappling with the consequences of bad decisions will:
a) Stunt an adolescent's soul and turn them into warped, frustrated zombies.
b) Destroy their chances to get into a good college.
c) Help teach valuable lessons that will contribute to a successful, happy life.
12) The overall goal in raising an adolescent is:
a) Getting them to be productive, happy adults who can have meaningful relationships and do good work in whatever endeavor they chose.
b) Having as little conflict as possible.
c) Reliving your own youth.
d) Making sure they encounter as few difficulties and obstacles as possible.
13) When your child has social problems the most productive thing to do is:
a) Take to Facebook and rage about how mean people are.
b) Talk to the other parents about how mean so-and-so is and see if you can lead a campaign to get that child excluded from social events.
c) Help them assess honestly and see if they might be contributing the problem somehow, if necessary, seeking the opinion of objective observers who might have some thoughts.
d) Tell your child that they are wonderful, it must be entirely the other person's fault.
14. When you are frustrated and want to scream about your adolescent remember:
a) The law takes a very dim view of justifiable homicide.
b) These years will pass and when they do, your child will be leaving home, probably for good (unless the economy doesn't getter in which case they may be with you for a long, long, long time to come. However, also remember that you may one day depend on them to provide a home for you when you are elderly).
c) If you do the best you can and use a little judgement and wisdom, your child will probably turn out to be a wonderful adult.
14. Adolescents have more going on in ther brains, bodies, emotions, and psyches than we realize. Consequently we should:
a) Cut them lots of slack.
b) Be unyielding and firm and endlessly loving and forgiving as the limits of our own flawed humanity will allow.
c) Beat them with willow switches, wooden spoons, and hairbrushes.
(Extra Credit): I am pleasantly surprised by the large number of people that end up reading
these posts. I've never met or heard from many of you, but you show up in my traffic report. If you have found a particular post or thought interesting or helpful or thought provoking or anything at all, I'd love to hear from you in the comments :)
Q: Guess what the best thing about 7th graders is?
A: They turn into 8th graders.
Hah! It's a joke to lighten things up. And chances are, if you have a 7th grader, you will need some lightening up. Remember, this will pass and things will be normal and happy again.
7th grade is a rough time. In my opinion, it is the most difficult age to live through on your own, and also as a parent. Yes, there are exceptions, but in my experience, the vast majority of kids really struggle with this year. Let me offer some generalizations, based on my observations, about the problems and then some possible strategies.
The reason it's so difficult, I think, comes down to one word: change.
First of all, their bodies are changing in ways that may be frightening, confusing, and exciting--all at the same time.
Consider the cliche, "I know something/someone like the back of my hand." We say that to make the point that we know something or someone deeply, thoroughly, completely. The saying draws it's power from the commonly accepted idea that our bodies are fixed points of reference, things we know perfectly and understand.
So, imagine how you feel when that point of reference is changing. The way you look, the way you sound. One day your voice squeaks or you trip over feet that are larger than they were. Your face begins to break out. You are taller than everyone else. Or shorter than everyone else. You have hair on your legs and don't want it. Or, you have don't have hair on your legs and do want it. You start to smell funny and feel different. Changes come in areas and systems that have traditionally been incredibly personal as well.
Not only is your body changing, but worse, everyone can tell it is! So you go through these uncomfortable changes in full view of your parents, teachers, and worst of all, your peers. It is a humiliating thing. And, not having the confidence or balanced view that comes with a few more years of experience, you assume that everyone notices far, far more than they actually do.
Being a 7th grader is, I think, to feel always on the outside looking in. It is to live each day with self-doubt and a feeling of awkwardness and discomfort. This feeling keeps you always feeling like you are the outlier, the strange one, and so on. You feel insecure and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you see two friends talking, you assume they are excluding you. And, without maturity and lived experience, you probably act accordingly--snubbing them in return, or at least being deeply hurt.
And this leads to a second major change. Not only is the body changing, but social groups are, too. 7th grade is a social Rubix Cube that is suddenly twisted and turned all over. Friendships that existed since Kindergarten are suddenly over. Your best friend now wants to hang out with a different group. You have different interests. If you mature more quickly, you find the former activities lame and childish. If you mature a little less quickly, you're not sure why your friend suddenly cares about teenage things like boys/girls, etc. You still want to play with Barbies (secretly) or legos--and your friend suddenly has a Facebook account and is "going out" with or "dating" someone you both thought was gross a few months earlier.
And that leads to the third change. Many, not all, and maybe not even most, but many, adolescents will start having romantic interests at this point in life. They aren't totally sure what it's all about but they may become infatuated with a boy or girl. Their friendships with members of the opposite sex may change completely and become more flirtatious, or more awkward. Most of them experience romantic relationships in extremes--the very awkward and the very obsessed. There tends not to be a great deal of middle ground, although sometimes they are savvy enough to pretend that their is and they put on a show. Inside, their emotions are not very stable.
All of this is going on because of the hormones that are flooding through them. These hormones make them unusually emotional. They might be weepy, depressed, angry, and ecstatic within short periods of time. Their behavior will change, often, based on where they are and who they are with. For peers, they will put on a happy face in spite of nearly anything. For parents, it can be the opposite.
On that note, the influence of their peers and a desire for peer approval can become a paramount consideration at this time. You may see your own relationship change as they pull away and assert some independence.
They see things in heightened emotional terms and there may be a lot of drama. If it's not outward, then it's probably still there, roiling below the surface and you wonder what's going on.
Their judgment is impaired and they will make bad decisions. Repeatedly. Simple things you took for granted, like doing their homework or cleaning their room, may become epic battles now.
We had a speaker at school a few years ago who told us something I have found invaluable. He was neuroscientist, and said that with the onset of puberty, the brain ceases the production of serotonin, which mediates decision-making. It just stops. Completely. This, he said, leaves a teen with the functional decision-making skills of an adult drunk driver.
So, a 7th grader might be forgiven for having a rough year. In fairness, there is a whole lot going on that they have to deal with.
So, what do you do?
To be honest, it's not easy. Every year I probably am frustrated more by my 7th grade students than any other group. At the same time, I get a lot of genuine satisfaction and happy surprises from them as well. They can be surprisingly sweet still, and they can do very good work when properly motivated and structured. While not adults yet, they will have glimmers of moments when they can show a lot of maturity.
The biggest thing that helps me is to manage expectations, to remember who I am dealing with. I have to constantly remind myself that they look like adults--but they are far, far from it. I need to manage my expectations accordingly. I have to remember how much they are dealing with. To them, most of their daily energy is consumed on surviving and not becoming a social outcast. They spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about this.
I've found it helpful to think of them in these terms. I'm simplifying, this is not supposed to be medically valid. They basically have the bodies and hormones now of adults, with none of the life experience, practice, or self-discipline that adults have developed.
Their job now is to learn how to be an adult, just as a toddler's job is to learn to walk. And the only way a toddler can do that is by trying and falling. Many, many times.
Your 7th grader is going to try to be an adult and they will be about as good as it as a toddler is at running marathons. It will take practice and time and patience.
You can help them, I think, by doing a few things.
1. Consistent limits. As the world goes crazy, they will value (although they won't tell you until years later) a firm, consistent grown-up in their life. They need stability, structure, consistency, and order more than ever before. Set limits, say "NO." They will rage and fume, but will appreciate it deep down. They are like engines with no brakes and no steering. Your job is to be the steering wheel and brakes. You might also think of them as little saplings. The winds are fierce and you don't want them bent. So, you get some rope and a peg and provide stability to keep the tree straight. Once it's a little stronger, it can stand on it's own.
2. Pick your battles. Within the limits you set, preserve the relationship. The ups and downs will end, the tempest will cease eventually. But your relationship, and the quality thereof will still be there. Sometimes you have to beat a strategic retreat in order to save the relationship rather than winning a battle and losing the war. This might come with expectations about homework, about cleaning a room, whatever. Save your ammo for the things that are really important. Let the rest go. Pick a few priorities, hold to them with adamantine firmness, and then let the rest go.
3. Allow them to experience the consequences of their actions. Babies don't learn to walk without falling. You wouldn't catch your toddler every time they fall. Let your teen fail. Let them flounder. This is how they learn to be an adult. If you intercede for them, you rob them of growth and you weaken them later in life.
4. Don't let them waste their childhood by growing up too fast. They are not adults yet. They don't have maturity or judgment. They have very little perspective or emotional resilience. Our culture is pushing kids to do things that used to be adult behaviors earlier and earlier. At a minimum, this spoils the fun later. I think it also damages kids, robbing them of critical time to grow and learn about themselves, and bringing them into situations they are not yet prepared to deal with in healthy ways. Protect your child's childhood. I know of no adults who wish they would have grown up sooner. I know quite a few who wish they could go back to those innocent, carefree years. They will have plenty of time to act, dress, talk, dance, and have relationships like an adult. Their days of being able to do those things as a child are fast leaving.
5. Be the adult. Know where they go and who they go with. Tell them when they will be back. Don't descend to their level. Don't try to be cool. Cool parents are fun for a little while, but at some point, your child will need an adult to guide, comfort, or help. Insist that they treat you with respect, not matter how upset. Their professors, coaches, and bosses will not be tolerant with rudeness and they need to learn that now. Or they will later.
6. Don't be bullied. They will try to coerce you into letting them do what they want. They will say, "Everyone else's parents let them..." or "I'm the only one who doesn't get to...." Ignore it. There are an astonishing number of bad parenting choices in our world today. It is almost breathtaking how misguided some people are. The fact that they have made bad choices is no reason for you to do the same. It's easier to give in. Don't. Your kids will thank you for it later. If you want them to resist peer pressure (and you do) then you have to model it.
7. Laugh and have fun. Laugh with them when they do laugh, and when you are frustrated, laugh at them behind closed doors. Gallows humor can go a long way for your sanity during this time. Try to have fun with them. This might be hard because they might not want much to do with you. Or, their idea of fun might not be yours. Pizza and snacks will go a very long way, especially late at night.
8. Reward them when they do something good. If your'e a good parent, you will have to be on their case a lot during this time (unless you have a perfect child). So, reward them with as much gusto as you discipline and correct them.
9. Love them. Look for those glimmers of maturity. Hold on. Don't confuse their behavior for who they are. They need to know you are on their team. Don't allow yourself to say things like, "Don't be a brat" or "Stop acting like a baby." You will be amazed at how deeply those things can cut, even when they don't admit or show it.
And, above all, remember: it will end and they will become 8th graders. More on that next week.
Does your teen argue with you about everything? Do they debate the smallest rules and requests? Take heart. According to a new study, that means he or she is more likely to be able to resist peer pressure. You can read about it here.
This confirms one of my deeply held beliefs. I firmly believe that, just as the seed has everything in it that will need to grow into a healthy plant, children and adolescents have what it takes to grow into healthy adults IF WE DON'T MESS IT UP.
Adolescence is an important and painful part of that process--and it's painful for both parent and child. But this study confirms my belief that the very messy, painful process is part of what makes it happen--a necessary ingredient, not just an unpleasant side effect. A butterfly who doesn't have to fight it's way out of the chrysalis has stunted, weak wings and cannot fly. You can only get teeth by cutting them. Growing pains accompany the inevitable lengthening of limbs. Unfortunately, the growing part of adolescence requires pain for both the grower and the close observer. Your teen is the tooth being cut, you are the gum.
This study suggests that the clashes we have with our kids are also part of that dynamic. That it is the very clashes we lament that make our children stronger for facing the outside world.
Now, I do note that this study was about teens who argue with their mom. Teens who argue with their dads are just nasty, ungrateful, ill-mannered louts who should be spanked soundly and sent to their rooms until they are 21.
I add what I think is an important caveat to this: in my opinion, this does not mean that we just blithely tolerate disrespect. Arguing is part of the natural process of growing up--and this article suggest it is not only natural, but healthy. But another part of growing up is learning to moderate your emotions, modulate your tone, and communicate in constructive ways. My own bias is that a teen ought to be able to talk about anything with his or her parents, to say anything they want--but that it needs to be in a respectful tone, in a discussion, not a tantrum. To allow anything else is one of the ways we mess our kids up, I believe.
I am also firmly of the opinion that once the teen has been fairly heard, the parent makes the final decision--and everyone abides by that decision. It seems to me that these two important caveats better position the teen for future success in life.
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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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