As part of my job, I meet frequently with prospective Kindergarten parents in an admissions setting. With great pride, many of these parents tell me that their pre-schooler is reading. They look at me with obvious excitement and await my equally enthusiastic response.
This is always a bit awkward. While there may be some exceptions, pre-school children generally do not read--if you define reading to mean the ability to look at unfamiliar words and decode their meaning. Rather, they have quick memories and keen minds, so with some teaching, and a bit of practice they often learn some words. But the ability to recite a favorite book, or even recognize some common words by rote does not make them readers as most of us would understand that term.
But that's okay! Pre-schoolers aren't supposed to read. They aren't ready to read. Cognitively, they just aren't at that stage yet. They can learn and recognize letters and write their names and all kinds of great things. But they aren't reading--and they aren't meant to.
Here's why it matters. If you accept the premise that they are reading and don't teach them the basics in Kindergarten and First Grade, they will generally encounter problems as they get older and the material gets harder.
I bring this up in order to frame a similar phenomenon I see with middle school parents. They frequently think, with a great deal of pride and affection that their child is mature. When I hear this, I worry a bit. I know it's sincere and I know it's based on love. But the reality is that most middle school kids (there can always be exceptions) are not mature any more than the pre-schooler who memorized Green Eggs and Ham can read.
I'm not trying to be snarky here and I'm not making fun of these parents. It's a very easy mistake to make. Middle school kids can look mature. They can talk maturely. They can even act maturely at times. I love them. Individually and collectively. Dearly and deeply. But they aren't mature and it's important to remember that.
Kids today are pretty savvy and sophisticated. They know a lot more than we did back in the day and it's easy to be fooled into thinking that they are mature. But they aren't. You simply can't treat them like small adults. To do so is as incorrect and, I would argue, potentially damaging to them. Just as three year olds weren't meant to really read, adolescents aren't meant to be adults.
I like to think of them as skilled adult impersonators--they have learned some ways to appear mature without actually being mature--they've got the externals down, but not the internals. .
They don't do this to be sneaky or malicious. It's just what they do. Just as a bright three year old will go through the motions of reading, adolescents will go through the motions of being adults. Sometimes very convincingly.
As a parent, it's wonderful to think this because it makes your job easier. And if you are fortunate to have an adult impersonator, then enjoy the fact that they do some things maturely. However, maturity in one domain--doing their homework, for example--doesn't mean they are mature in other domains.
I once had a student who is quite mature in many ways. Extremely dependable, reliable, and so forth. But I asked her to reach out emotionally to a student who was having some social problems. My student was simply unable to do this--she just didn't have the maturity to conceptualize what needed to be done, let alone make it happen.
The danger I see in a false sense of maturity is that some parents, convinced of their child's maturity, will then let them start making decisions and controlling their own lives in ways that requires more maturity than the student has, and sometimes these decisions have serious consequences. Don't get me wrong. Responsibility is a great thing--but it has to be given in carefully measured doses, calibrated with what they are realistically capable of.
Here are some ways that middle school students are generally NOT mature no matter how they seem on the outside.
Most adolescents I see are not ready to make major decisions in a thoughtful way, and even if they are ahead of the curve, they have to be carefully supported in the decision making process. They generally are not able to truly think in the long-term. Intellectually, they understand the concept of long-term thinking, but they don't really get it on a visceral level and they often lack the self-discipline to fully implement it.
I see this every year in a theatrical context with even my most experience and mature performers. They know that the play is coming up, but they just can't give it their complete focus and energy until the audience is almost there. They go through rehearsal mostly going through the motions. Until the audience is there. Once that happens, they do brilliantly, but they have to have an external event to sort of compel them to focus. Long-term, abstract thinking is simply beyond most adolescents.They can conceptualize abstract thinking like I can conceptualize math. I know it's there, I know that you can use it for various things. I know some people can do it. But I still have to really work hard at even very simple problems. I use my fingers and a calculator.
Some do better than others, some can be a little more self-motivated, but none of them really can generate this on their own. At least that I've seen in doing this for 25 years.
Another element of maturity that adolescents, even sweet, wonderful kids lack is empathy. Adolescents are generally very egocentric. Not bad, not egotistical, but egocentric. Their worlds revolve around themselves. This isn't a put-down. It's the way they are. They see everything through the lens of their own feelings/needs/wants. Even very sweet children are quite self-focused and narcissistic.
Adolescents tend not to have a very clear sense of their limits. They feel invincible and often will overestimate their abilities and underestimate the difficulty of a given challenge or task.
They tend not to be able to think through details very well. They think in broad terms. I can't tell you the number of times I've talked with very bright students who are struggling slightly in school about what they are going to do to improve in a class. "I'm going to do better," is usually their idea of a plan. Pressed for details, they really have to think and be coached into sitting by someone who won't distract them, turning in their homework consistently, turning off their phone while they study and so forth.
Finally, adolescents are not very adept at recognizing the consequences of actions, nor are they very good at anticipating those consequences. They will do the same thing over and over and then be genuinely surprised when they get the same undesirable result. It can be almost comedic to watch this.
There may be some other areas, but these are some major places where I don't believe most adolescents are mature--no matter how poised or socially at ease or fluent or reliable they are.
So, if you buy into the premise that they are mature, then you start treating them like they are small adults. You give them all kinds of responsibility (which is great) and let them make decisions (which can be good). However, they are not ready for this responsibility past a certain point and if you let them go too fast and too far in this regard, you are putting them in a position where they might make a decision where the stakes are high enough to really do some damage--but they aren't really able to understand that at the time. If nothing else, you risk burn-out. If they become adults too soon, then they will become overwhelmed and unhappy. They need time to be children before growing up and having the responsibilities attendant on adults.
This is why I am so against fashions in dress or behavior that emulate adult fashions. It blurs the lines and it leads both parents and children to mistakenly believe that the children are mature. Even if they manage to avoid serious consequences from bad decisions, I am convinced that a lot of the emotional problems we see comes because kids are being treated too maturely too quickly.
If you sing an aria when you are a child, you can damage your vocal cords. If you try to powerlift weights, you could damage your muscles and bones. If you try to assume the responsibility of an adult when you are still a child, you are going to burn out. You're going to become stress and anxious and depressed.
Now, this is not to say that some kinds of responsibilities in measured doses are not good--they are very good. But I believe you have to be careful with this. It's one thing to let an adolescent have a chance to learn and grow in a carefully structured environment. It's another to treat them as an adult in most ways. I'll talk about some of the differences as I see them, next week.
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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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