First of all, remember the big blog hop/giveaway I'm participating in (see here). It ends tomorrow! As I've written before, I really believe that the thing that occupies the most worry and thought of most middle school students (obviously, there are some outliers here) is social status. In the 25 years I've been working with them, I have very rarely heard anyone say "Yeah, I'm pretty happy with my social situation." I don't generally hear that from either students or parents. Again, there have been a few exceptions, but not too many, in my experience.
I've thought before of starting a business where people pay me to walk behind their kid all day long and watch them, giving them coaching on social quagmires via a mouthpiece and headset like those security guys wear. I could watch them and say, "No, stop! Don't talk about how you still like to watch Dora the Explorer." Or I could say, "That was a friendly overture--they don't really want to hear how you are. Say 'fine' and then ask how they are!" Or "No! Too much information! Stop! Stop! Retreat!"
Over the years I've come to believe that there are a few kids who are true bullies. I've come to believe there are a few hapless souls who are the true victims of those bullies. I've also come to believe that the vast majority of kids are in the middle between those two poles--part of a vast herd of awkward, insecure adolescents who are trying to find their way in a group of equally insecure, awkward people who are also trying to find their way. Kids who everyone thinks of as "popular" rarely feel that way. They often feel just as left out, just as awkward. They do things that are inconsiderate, unkind, and even mean, but, I believe that's more because they are trying to find their way.
Hormones, lack of experience, uncertainty, and a great deal of social experimentation make these difficult years for just about everyone. And, it's extraordinarily difficult to watch your child struggle.
The good news is that a lot of this stuff just ends up righting itself with time, maturity and experience. The bad news is that until then, it's rough and just has to be endured.
There are, however, a few suggestions I have that might help a bit. I can't promise silver bullets, but I have seen kids make some common mistakes that enhance, rather than minimizing, social problems. Here, in no particular order are some thoughts about ways to help address these problems.
1) Resist the temptation to see your child as a victim. If he or she really is being bullied, you need to deal with that. But I think there is a greater likelihood that your child will encounter average garden-variety cluelessness and adolescent meanness. This doesn't make it easy, but your response ought to be different. A lot of parents see their child as a sweet, innocent victim and the other children as conniving, malicious, intentionally vicious villains. All we need is white and black hats here. My experience is that this rarely the case. Think of all the thoughtless, insensitive, and even stupid things your child does. Now realize that his or her peers will be the same. Grade inflation is bad. So is bullying inflation because it makes it much more difficult to deal with real episodes and it serves kids badly in terms of their future development and problem-solving ability.
2) Don't view this through the lens of your own insecurities. Many parents still carry some pretty big scars from their own adolescence. You'd be surprised. And often, when their child comes home sad or hurt or crying, they react as a parent, but also as a child and allow themselves to be drawn in. Resist that. Your child needs someone to guide them and coach them through--not someone to plot and scheme with them. They definitely need someone to help them put in perspective, not to stir the pot more and plot retribution.
3) Help your child honestly assess the extent to which he or she may be causing or contributing to this. The old cliche about taking two to tango is amazingly true. One thing that annoys me a bit is when parents proudly proclaim that their child is an individual--free from the silliness and trivial interests of the herd. That's fine. Noble, even. But you can't loudly insist on individuality and then be upset that the herd doesn't include you. You can't have it both ways and it's important to realize that.
4) Help them develop some cultural capital. You wouldn't send them to a movie with no money, right? Well, if they want to participate in the social exchanges then they have to have some currency. They have to be able to talk about a current singer or sports figure or movie or something. I think a lot of our culture is toxic. A lot of the stuff kids consume is harmful, in my opinion, so this is hard. But the fact remains--kids are going to talk about the things they find interesting. If your child has a hobby or interest off the beaten path, that's wonderful! But 7th graders aren't going to celebrate that on their own. Your child needs to meet the peers where they are. If you choose not to do this, that's fine--but if you can't then be upset that your child doesn't have anyone to talk to. I know some very wise parents who forced their bookish sons to play a year of football or baseball or soccer so they would have something in common with their peers. I personally find sports incredibly boring. But I've learned to be conversant with a few players and teams so I can talk for a few minute with other men and my students. (Pretty disappointed, incidentally in the Honey Badger's behavior. He was one of my few safe sports figures I knew about and could talk about. Now he messed that up and I have to learn someone else).
5) Reach out--don't wait to be reached out too. Because the temptation is there to see your child as the victim and the other kids as cool and secure and together, it follows that you then wait for the cool kids to extend invitations to your child. When that doesn't happen, you feel excluded. Well, remember that the cool kids may not feel cool. They are probably not sitting around basking in their coolness, thinking of how to exclude your child. Most likely, they're sitting around wondering what everyone else is doing. Have your child invite someone they like to a movie, the mall, a party--whatever. Help them be active and not passive. Don't wait for invitations--make them. This is a huge mistake I see frequently. Refer to #4 and plan activities carefully. If your child has an unusual hobby, maybe that's not the best thing to invite a potential friend over for on the first visit.
6) Help your child look beyond superficial things. You'd be amazed at how often people talk about being excluded but what they mean is "My child is not part of the crowd I want them to be part of." Helping your child find a friend instead of the "right" (aka cool) group can be a game-changer.
7) Help your child learn to be friendly. They don't have to be friends with everyone, but they can be friendly.
8) Get involved in school activities--whatever is available, get them involved and busy. This makes an enormous difference.
9) Use these years to build up family relationships. It's a great time to teach your kids that regardless of the way the world treats them, they always have their family.
I hope everyone has a great year! I'd be interested to hear your thoughts--what's worked for you and your children? What mistakes have you made?
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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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