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December 7, 2023
By Brian Lamont, Director of the Middle School
7 Tips for Supporting Your Middle Schooler Without Getting in Their Way
If we were given the opportunity to go back and repeat any period of life, I don’t think many of us would choose the middle school years. Clumsy social interactions? Embarrassing voice cracks? The feelings, changes, and smells of puberty? No thanks! (Please note that the choice to spend my life with middle schoolers should not be mistaken for an interest in reliving the experience.)
We know as parents and as educators that young adolescents need more independence, but it can be difficult to find the right balance of support and space — particularly when we all want to see them succeed short- and long-term. Your role is not to be completely hands-off and let your child fend for themselves in every way, nor is it to write a graduate-level English essay for them to prevent anxiety and “ensure” a good grade. Finding that sweet spot will vary by child, but here are seven suggestions that I have found to be helpful over the years as an educator and a parent.
1. Recognize that the pathway to successful adulthood (out of your house and off of your payroll) involves incremental steps, guided by you.
Think about the skills that all humans need to function successfully on their own — the ability to work with others; communicate effectively with “superiors;” get ourselves up in the morning; plan tasks and follow through; be fiscally responsible; self-advocate; bathe occasionally — and the list goes on. None of this magically happens when we graduate high school or college. At home and at school we need to consistently raise the bar and shift the balance of what is our job versus the child’s, giving them practice, ownership and small successes — whether it involves tying shoes, picking out clothes, getting themselves up in the morning, or doing laundry — all the while conveying to them that we believe they are capable. It is important to maintain your awareness of what that next task or step looks like in order to keep them moving forward.
2. Appreciate the middle school years as a wonderfully low-stakes training ground.
When was the last time you had to produce your middle school transcript as part of a job interview? Unless you are in a peculiar line of work, the answer is never! The middle school years are an incredible opportunity — a practice round for academic and personal skills that doesn’t “count.” This is the time of life for our kids to figure things out and try new strategies to learn what works for them and what doesn’t. Your appreciation of this messy and imperfect journey is critical.
3. Focus on (and praise) processes rather than outcomes.
Most schools will report out letter grades in middle school but, as noted above, the grades are not the point. Force yourself to focus on the journey, noticing effort and progress while avoiding the fixation on grades that can limit growth. The students who will be the best prepared at the end of their middle school experience are those with a growth mindset, who have focused on figuring out how to manage time and responsibilities, what approaches and study strategies work well for them, how to advocate for themselves, and how to recover from stumbles. These students (and parents) understand that an emphasis on grades or “perfection” tends to limit risk-taking, creativity, deep learning, and resilience. Encourage your middle schooler to engage in reflection and goal-setting (“What is working well?” “What isn’t?” “What will you do differently next time?”) and spread the word to your well-meaning friends and family members to not ask whether they are getting straight A's in school.
4. Keep your hands off their homework, even when it’s awful.
If we as parents can recognize the need for growing independence, see the middle school years as low-stakes practice, and focus on the process rather than the outcome/grade, it stands to reason that we can also keep a safe distance from our child’s homework. However, this is where many parents stumble — whether it’s a desire to “rescue” a child who is struggling or to dress up a graded assignment (or, as one parent once told me, “I had to do it for him; he was too sick.”) Keep in mind that poorly done or incomplete homework is not a reflection on you, and over-helping conveys to your child that you don’t believe they are capable. Focus instead on the important parts of the homework process that are your responsibility. Carve out time for homework in your child’s schedule. Ensure there is an appropriate workspace — common areas are typically better than bedrooms. Set reasonable time limits and stick to them. If they get stuck/frustrated/emotional, coach them to send an email to their teacher, noting that they had trouble with ____ and asking whether they can check in with the teacher tomorrow at ____.
5. When there is a question, help them ask it.
Continuing on the topic of making sure you are doing your job and not theirs, there are many important opportunities for middle schoolers to get comfortable communicating with teachers — clarifying a homework assignment, asking to do a re-take, seeking extra help on a topic, questioning the grading on a test, etc. Giving them the tools and space to practice self-advocacy and take ownership of their experience is essential. It can also feel scary, so you can help by coaching and practicing with them. Depending on the nature of the question or your child’s comfort level, you can also do some backchannel communicating with the teacher — whether to alert them that your child will be coming to them (nervously) or to check that the right message was delivered.
6. Consult with teachers and administrators (and advisors and counselors).
For this middle school journey to be successful, it needs to be a partnership between home and school as we check our egos at the door, communicate openly, and use each other as resources. The only things more complicated than being a middle schooler are teaching or parenting a middle schooler. In many of the scenarios above, I am suggesting that you sit on your hands and give your child space to figure things out. Other times, such as questions about unhealthy social dynamics or fair treatment, you will need to be more directly involved and it can be helpful to consult with the professionals at school for guidance. If you aren’t sure or it just doesn’t sound right, check in with someone you trust at school.
7. Get ready for it to be messy, and STAY STRONG!
Once we feel confident with the game plan, we need to be prepared to weather the storm. Be ready for eye rolls and annoyed sighs; for monosyllabic responses and loud screaming; for laughter and tears; for accusations that you are the only parent who _____; and for every day to be described as the best ever or worst ever with no in-between. Middle schoolers need our structure, guardrails, and love. “Messy” and “imperfect” are accurate descriptors of the middle school years for both children and parents. Cut yourself some slack. You can do it!
Brian Lamont is the director of the Middle School at Flint Hill. He has been a middle and high school administrator for almost 20 years and loves the messy adolescent years. Brian is also the humble parent of three wonderful kids and enjoys sports, hiking, and Chipotle.
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