Last week I learned an important lesson about middle school students--one I want to pass on because, as I think about it, this particular trait has some big implications. Of course, perhaps I'm the last one to figure this out and everyone else already knows it.
The other day in class, I quoted something from Napoleon Dynamite. I expected them to laugh. Instead they just looked at me--they didn't think it was lame, they just didn't get it. I was intrigued by that. It didn't register at all. Yet, a few years ago, the kids all wore "Vote for Pedro" t-shirts and quoted the movie often.
But that was a few years ago.
To an adult, for whom life is relatively static and stable and consistent, a few years ago is not that long.
To an adolescent, it is an eternity--a different lifetime, in fact.
They are growing and changing so fast that these years are almost literally like dog years to them.
A few years ago, I was slimmer and had less gray. There are a few other things that were different, but not all that much has changed in my life since then.
A few years ago, these kids--who are now interested in clothes and boys/girls, movies, new music and so forth--were third graders trading Pokemon cards and still watching PBS. In three more years, I'll be fatter (well, hopefully not, but I'm being honest), grayer and will hopefully have written another book or maybe two. My life will be, probably, essentially the same. Differences are likely to be in degree, not in kind.
On the other hand, in three more years, they'll have left the school they've known for most of their lives, entered new social groups, and will be driving, dating in earnest, deciding whether to drink, take drugs, engage in serious relationships, figuring out where to go to college and other major, life changing events.
The rate of change that takes place in an adolescent's life in the same time period is far, far greater than what occurs in an adult's.
A year does not mean the same thing to them as it does to us. Their worlds changes both more substantially and much more frequently than ours.
It's important to remember this because it has many implications, both small and profound. I see at least four.
First: In times of dynamic and major change, humans tend to focus on existential priorities like survival, not on other things we view as secondary or superficial. Your adolescent is going through their personal, internal version of the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, or World War II--all their resources are being invested on staying afloat in a time of great change. That means they have less energy and resources to devote to secondary things like civility, cleaning their room, doing their homework and so forth, just as during WWII, the focus was on doing whatever it took to win, not on beautifying communities or other worthy goals.
This does NOT mean that you just smile and let them get away with everything. They will learn to focus on these important but secondary things as you consistently, over the course of years, stay on them and hold them accountable. But just realize that many of their deficiencies are not lack of character or laziness--it's a perfectly natural response to a major stimuli.
Second: Given the rate of change they are going through, they have far, far shorter attention spans. When your life does not change much over the course of years, then you can be patient. You can practice delayed gratification more easily. You can take the long view. But when your life will be qualitatively different in a year or two, when even your body will be vastly changed in six months, when two years means you will be a totally different person, things aren't quite so serene. This has implications in everything from their attention spans (almost non-existent) to the way they make decisions (impulsive, short-sighted, immediate gratification). Again, you don't just blithely let them do whatever they want. But you understand the forces at work so you can help them make the necessary adjustments--just as you would adjust for wind speed when throwing a ball.
Third: This very important. The way they see you will change. A few years ago, you were everything to them. Now you are, in many ways, a serious obstacle to doing what they want to do. This is good. If you are not a serious obstacle to them doing everything they want to do, then something is wrong--either with them or with you.
What they mean to you has not changed--it will not change. But what you mean to them has changed significantly. It will continue to change. It will come back to a place where they appreciate you. But not for a while. This is normal!
It used to hurt my feelings a bit that students I love and care about--students on whom I poured time and effort and attention--graduated and moved on emotionally to the point that I was no longer a big deal in their lives. A few come to visit once or twice, most don't.
It learned that this was not ingratitude, nor did it mean I messed up somehow. It's just the way it goes. I was in their lives at a specific point. When that point ended, and they grew up and moved on, my relationship with them changed as well. There's no malice or lack of gratitude. But my relationship was with a particular 8th grader. That 8th grader is gone totally--changed by the accelerated pace of maturity and development. I don't, can't, and shouldn't mean the same thing to them.
And that is how it should be.
It's a different with parents since the relationship is closer and deeper and more lasting than a teacher and a student. But the point is the same--they are changing at light speed, and their relationships are changing along with them. That includes your relationship with them.
Fourth: You cannot stay contemporary with your kids. They change much too quickly and their lives are devoted to the coolest clothes, music, movies and so on. I see some parents who gamely (or pathetically, it depends on your view but I'm trying to be positive) struggle on, trying to be cool and keep up with their teens. Don't. You can't do it anymore than you'll be able to race and win your grandchildren when you are 75. You will quote a movie you think is relatively recent. They will either have no clue what you mean or will think you are lame.
I've learned that kids don't expect adults to be "cool." In fact, I have noticed over the years in a number of schools that the teachers they most genuinely respect and love are not necessarily the youngest, coolest teachers--although sometimes they are. Kids respond to genuineness, to authenticity and reality. They also respond to those who are concerned about them.
They would rather have a sincere, well-meaning slightly crotchety old man than someone who is actively trying to be cool by imitating their modes of speech, dress, and music. Unless this is natural for you (and it is for just a few of us) then it's best not even to try. If you try and don't pull it off, you are lamer than lame in their eyes. Much better to just have them respect and love you by being an adult than trying to go down to their level and be a big teen. As we tell the kids so often--be yourself.
I'm sure there are many other insights as well that can be drawn from this. Feel free to share in the comments. I'm going to keep thinking about this because I feel like this has given me some new understanding of these fascinating little creatures that I spend my life trying to connect with, inspire, motivate, discipline, coach, and teach.
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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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