May I repeat some thoughts about adolescent social problems? In fairly direct terms?
I know I've been hammering on this topic for a while, but I see it over and over. As a teacher, it seems so clear to me. As a parent, it's much murkier because it hits emotional buttons that make it hard to respond objectively and rationally. Because of that, I'm going to speak as directly as I can--but I don't mean to sound harsh. Imagine this being said in a soft voice with a gentle, but concerned smile on my face.
I believe that dealing with social problems in middle school occupies nearly as much teacher time as academics (that will vary from school to school--I'm making a generalization). I am convinced it occupies far more parent time and energy than academics and I KNOW it occupies vastly more student energy and thought than academics.
In some cases there may be a genuine good guy vs. bad guy situation where a pack of mean bullies victimizes another child. I know that happens, but I really believe that these cases are in the minority. This post is not about students who are being legitimately bullied. At the same time, I believe most parents generally assume that this is what is happening when their kids encounter social problems.
However, barring very solid evidence to the contrary, I suggest that parents should assume that their child's social problems are not caused by other people, at least not fully.
Let me give you an example. I am well acquainted with a young man who loved marching band, chess, Star Wars and legos. Especially marching band. He expressed frustration with the fact that none of the other boys in his peer group at church would talk to him about marching band. All that they wanted to talk about was football.
He had a few choices at this point. A) Insist that he was going to be himself no matter what and keep trying to interest the other boys in marching band B) Change totally and give up what he loved. C) Rant and rave at the fundamental unfairness of the universe. Or, D) retain his own interests, but learn enough about football to carry on a conversation.
As we explored the various options, he wisely decided to try option D. He started to watch football--something he had no interest in. He asked questions. He memorized stats. He learned player names.
Something miraculous happened. At first, he had to pretend, to feign interest and his interactions were awkward. But the more he persisted, he developed the ability to really chat about football. He found that he enjoyed football. And, his conversational skills improved as well. He still loved marching band. That didn't change. But he gained a new hobby, better social skills, and a more comfortable social situation. That will benefit him for the rest of his life.
I feel like our pop culture has created this romantic image of the underdog and the outcast. We have popular notions of mean jocks or venemous cheerleaders tormenting helpless but sweet nerds. Again, I'm not saying that never happens. But as with most Hollywood legends, there is more complexity in reality.
If your child has social problems, consider that your child might have some responsibility for the situation. I'm sorry, I know that sounds harsh. I don't mean it to be. But we often assume, by default, that our children are right and good and virtuous and the others are at fault.
I've been watching adolescents now, for over 25 years in different contexts and I really believe that most social problems are not good-guy-vs-bad-guy-situations.
Consider this: your child might not have very good social skills. There's no shame in that! It's not an insult. In fact, it's very normal. Most of us aren't born with good social skills and have to learn them. That's part of what adolescence is about. But if your child is struggling, this is the first place to start. Help your child assess and monitor their social skills. If needed, you can get some professional help. Ask the teachers what they see. Watch them carefully in social settings. Helping your child learn to be self-aware and analytical is painful. And one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was that they saw me as being an incomplete, immature, unfinished work in progress who needed to be taught, pushed, moulded, and motivated. They gave me feedback. They told me when I did things badly. My dad saw some pretty lacking social skills and he worked with me on it. I didn't like it at the time. At all.
Now, I'm deeply grateful. To be honest, I'm still pretty uncomfortable in social situations. I don't think I have a lot of social grace and ease. But my dad's coaching and criticism improved it and helped me get better at least.
I have learned that the "popular" kids are usually popular for a reason. Everyone likes them because they have good social skills. There might be some other factors, but I've noticed, repeatedly, that the kids who are most generally popular are usually that way because they have learned how to interact well with others and have social currency--things to talk about and discuss.
If your child is being excluded, consider carefully why that's the case. Do they dress or talk or act vastly different from everyone else? That's their choice, by the way. If someone wants to be a very obviously unique soul, there's nothing wrong with that. But you can't choose to be an individualist and then complain that you don't fit into the crowd. They might need to learn some sports stats or listen to some contemporary singers.
Or they may choose not to. That's fine, too. But realize that social status has a price. You have to pay that price if you want the status. If you don't want to pay the price, that's fine. But you can't complain at the outcome.
I have seen so many children over the years who make no effort at all to get to know their peers, to understand their interests or reach out in any way. In fact, it becomes an almost perverse point of pride--they are almost defiantly different and detached. But then their parents complain about "cliques" or talk about how no one reaches out and so on.
This drives me crazy--it is fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul. If your child is left out, a natural parenting response is to comfort them by saying that everyone else is wrong and doesn't see what a treasure they are. That's a lovely thought. It's also totally unhelpful in terms of changing the situation for your child.
It is fundamentally against the order of the universe to insist that you can be and do whatever you wish while simultaneously insisting that everyone else around you responds in exactly the way you wish.
I'm not saying that kids have to give up who they are and just blend in with the crowd. That's not going to work. But I am saying that they may need to learn a second language as it were--like the boy in the example above learned about football. Like learning a language, they will be awkward and hesitant at first. They will make mistakes. But if they persist, they will eventually become bilingual. This will not hurt them, nor will it mar the integrity of who they are.
And let's be honest. Adolescents aren't done yet and shouldn't be seen as finished products. They're, well, adolescent. Juvenile. Even the best of them are incomplete. I get a bit annoyed when I hear parents talk about their adolescents as if they are special, amazing, fully-developed humans worthy of emulation and celebration. They're not. They're immature. They need many more years of development, growth, and experience. They are caterpillars. Some are very charming caterpillars. But to see them as being complete is to rob them of the chance to become butterflies.
At some point, your child will have to learn to adjust to a college roommate. A boss. Co-workers. A spouse. In-laws. And so on. Helping them now learn to assess what they can do better and focusing on their choices and their actions will be so much more healthy and helpful for them in the long run than grumbling about cliques and exclusion. To do otherwise is to condemn the child to a lifetime of social frustration.
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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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