In the past, I had a student who was undoubtedly the social center of her entire grade. She was outgoing and energetic, athletic and friendly. Her peers genuinely respected her and, to an outsider looking in, she would have been the clear Queen of the grade. The faculty universally agreed that she was the dominant social force in the grade and to state that in a staff meeting was incontrovertible. In twenty-five years, I don't think I've ever seen such a clear-cut case as this.
So I was surprised when, sometime later, I had a conversation with her mother. She told me all about how her daughter was not really all that popular, and was on the "B" list as opposed to the "A" list and was generally on the social periphery.
I was shocked. What she said contradicted three years of what I watched every day.
So who's right?
Well, in a sense, I suppose, the faculty are right in that we were impartial observers who watched up close for many years. However, it doesn't matter how popular the teachers think you are if you don't feel it in your own heart.
And that brings us to the rub. NO ONE feels popular in middle school. Period. Even the ones everyone thinks are wallowing in popularity.
Yes, that might be obvious--why do I bring it up?
Because I recently finished two days of parent/teacher conferences and almost every parent expressed concerns about how their child was doing socially. And, more than anything else, this is probably the main concern I hear from parents all year long. The parents know that 7th grade is an awkward time for everyone, but they feel that their child is suffering uniquely and it's very difficult.
(Incidentally--if you are a parent and you are worried about helping your child navigate a difficult time and emerge as a confident adult, that's good. If you are worried about their social status on it's own merits, or based on how it reflects on you, then you may have a problem and need some serious self-examination, possibly therapy).
Because our children's emotions hit us in such visceral ways, I think it's helpful to be reminded that nearly everyone else at this age is going through the same things (and if they're not, they either did it early or haven't hit it yet). One of the most interesting things I've observed in my experience at school is how socially awkward almost all of the kids feel.
In another year (different from the one I mentioned above) I was talking to the mother of a vibrant, popular girl who appeared to be the social ruler of her grade. Our conversation went something like this. "Oh, I don't know what to do. Philemina (not her real name) is having such a hard year. She just doesn't fit in. The other girls are so mean to her especially Bertha (not her real name, either)."
Bertha, you see was another very popular girl--always surrounded by friends, very much a Queen Bee.
A few days later, I was talking to Bertha's mother who said, "This is such a hard age! Bertha is really having a hard time. Philemina and Honoria (not her real name--can you see a pattern here?) are really mean to her. She just doesn't have any friends."
And on and on it went. That year, I had similar conversations with Honoria's mother, as well as Violet's, Louisa's, Marianna's, Myrtle's, and Deborah's.
All of these girls were, to any observer, popular, well-liked, and in a position of social authority in the grade. And yet, none of them felt like they were "there." They all felt like they were on the outside looking in and were, at best, very tenuously placed socially.
The moral of the story is that in middle school no one--and I mean NO one--feels confident or secure. Everyone feels like they are on the margins. Everyone feels vulnerable.
This means that they perceive the least little things to be BIG deals. Garden-variety unkindness or even thoughtlessness is perceived by students and parents to be intentional bullying because they assume that the offending party is "cool" or "popular" and is picking on their unpopular victim. That does happen occasionally, but less than you might think. More often, it's two kids, both of whom feel insecure and are convinced that they are on the social margins doing immature things. That's important, incredibly important, to remember when coaching your children through these problems.
Usually, this all gets better with time and maturity. Until then, it's rough. Just know you are not alone.
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