The All Important Middle School Years

For adults with children at home. If that doesn’t describe you, consider forwarding the link to a parent friend.

I’m not God’s gift to parenting, I’m sharing my story in the hope of provoking conversation and proving helpful in some small way.

As a young parent I had a hunch. My adolescence and gut told me that the quality of my daughters’ close friend decision-making would go a long ways to determining how they’d turn out as young adults. Consequently, we talked about it a lot and both daughters processed our teaching, but in very different ways.

Social scientists are finding out what many parents already know, siblings are often remarkably different one from another. In fact, they’re finding out they’re almost as different as a random sampling of children.

Our daughters’ close friend decision-making stories are illustrative of two things: 1) how different siblings often are, and 2) how true my initial hunch was that the nature of children’s close friend decision-making greatly influences who they become as young adults.

In this regard, the sixth to eighth grade time period seems especially important. Near the end of fifth grade Eighteen announced that she wanted to go to a small, independent, academically oriented middle school. “But all your friends are going to Washington Middle School.” “I’ll make new ones.” There were 32-34 people in her sixth grade class and the girls subdivided into two groups of eight or so. For some reason I can’t quite explain, Eighteen had no interest in working her way into the “cool” group. Instead, she became very good friends with other girls who were perfectly happy being the “geeks at a school for geeks”.

Individually and collectively they were unusually secure in themselves for twelve and thirteen year olds. Consequently, they unwittingly denied the “cool” group their primary leverage, elevated social status. Social status is only a competition when two or more groups willing enter into competition. Eighteen and her friends opted out of the competition altogether. It was a beautiful thing. They did well in school, they did meaningful community service, they excelled in music and athletics, they encouraged each other academically, they avoided the pitfalls of drugs and alcohol, and then they expanded their circle two and three-fold in their large, comprehensive high school. Now they’re doing well in excellent colleges across the country.

The GalPal and I could have been forgiven if we thought “This is cake.”

When Fifteen was twelve, she decided to attend small, independent, academic middle school too. Similar class size, similar subdivision of girls, totally different outcome. Fifteen wanted in the “in” group. The alpha cool student quickly picked up on this and from the get go took advantage of it by being friendly one day or week and nasty the next. The rest of the inner circle followed the alpha cool student’s lead, so socially, sixth and seventh grade was a hellish time. In an effort to try to fit in she compromised her true values and sense of self. Fortunately, she did this before the “in” group had access to drugs and alcohol.

By eighth grade, she gave up trying to be accepted by a group that she began to realize she didn’t really want to be a part of anyways. Socially, she spent most of the year alternating between making friends with seventh graders and hanging out by herself. Throughout this time, her mom and dad were impressing upon her the importance of befriending people who bring out the best in you, who make you a better person than you otherwise would be. She was tired, frustrated, sad, and very receptive to our teaching at that point.

High school has been redemptive. She has wonderful friends who share her values of doing well in school, respecting oneself and others, being physically active, and she’s healthier and happier than ever. She has a bright future.

She returned from a party the other day where she caught up with a middle school friend who attends a different high school. She learned the alpha cool student has fallen off the straight and narrow and no one from that inner circle is friends with her anymore. I feel badly for her and Fifteen probably does too. Her middle school meanness seemed rooted in insecurities that no doubt have gotten the best of her.

Post-party Fifteen reflected that she’s “so glad” she went through social hell when she did because now she has a better feel for who she is and how to choose and make close friends that share her values. Mutual friendships, friends that willingly accept one another’s quirks, friends that continuously welcome other people into their circle, friends that inspire.

That chapter of our family life was anything but cake. It was hard to watch without swooping in, but had we helicoptered in, we very likely would have shortchanged the personal discoveries and growth Fifteen experienced.

I couldn’t be more proud of her and grateful for her great leap forward.

2 thoughts on “The All Important Middle School Years

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