A little over one year ago I wrote about The Bridge between childhood and adolescence. Back then, I found myself somewhere in the middle of that bridge, longingly looking back towards the childhood side yet hopeful as I moved apprehensively towards the adolescence side.
Well, it appears my bridge was an express bridge.
Here I am; on the other side.
You know what's here? Cell phones, mustaches, adam's apples, deep booming voices, attitudes, challenges to limits, and boys who suddenly stand at eye level to me.
You know what else is here?
Meaningful conversations, random tight hugs, trust, and young men who are mostly kind and learn from their mistakes. Surprisingly, it's sort of nice over here; albeit a bit smelly and messy. On this side of the bridge, I am the parent of a young man, not a young boy, and I get to start taking a step back to let him take some risks on his own.
One of the first big events on this side of the bridge happened today: the first day of middle school. Or, as my son's new principal told the parents last week, Day 1 of the 540 school days of his middle school career.
In some areas of our life, 540 seems like a lot.
But, when we are talking about time in middle school, 540 days is nothing. It's half the length of time he spent from Kindergarten through 5th grade (1080 school days for math dorks like myself). That period of time went by in the blink of an eye. Surely these next 540 days are going to fly by even quicker!
So, how do we, as new middle school parents, survive these next 540 days?
Well, I know how I spent the days leading up to Day 1 - letting the middle school version of me find her way to the surface. I color coded binders, folders and schedules, circled rooms on maps, plotted out the best way to organize his backpack, role played some scenarios, and had a nightmare that I was him and I couldn't find my math class on Day 1. I just wanted his middle school experience to not be awful like my own.
But, then I stopped myself. (Because, seriously, a nightmare??)
Adolescence is messy and painful. It's supposed to be awkward. It's supposed to be emotional. It's supposed to be challenging. Some days are supposed to feel awful. And, aren't middle school and adolescence synonymous?
Like most challenging, uncomfortable and unpleasant things in life, when we look back on them later, we can see the good they brought to our lives. They are the catalytic events and change agents that shape our lives. Although I would never want to relive my own 540 days, I do see how they helped to shape me into who I am today. I see how some of the people I still care deeply for today are friends I made during those 540 days. I can see that in those 540 days were where many of my interests were born. My 540 days were certainly not filled with unicorns and rainbows and butterflies, but maybe I should be thankful that they weren't.
As my middle schooler hugged me goodbye today, I tried to tell the middle school version of myself to settle down. I know many of his 540 days will be filled with some tough decisions, hurt feelings, hard lessons and uncomfortable moments. I know there will be lots of times where he feels just as I did during my 540 days. His 540 days will not be filled with unicorns and rainbows and butterflies.
So, how am I going to navigate my own 540 day journey as a parent? I am going to realize that in many ways the parental journey of 540 days mirrors the student's journey. These 540 days will be challenging for me as a parent. If adolescence is awkward and painful, so to is parenting an adolescent. For parents, many of our 540 days will be filled with some tough decisions, hurt feelings, hard lessons and uncomfortable moments too.
It has been suggested that the most influential people in a teen's life are not his teachers, coaches, parents or professional athletes. It turns out that for many teens, their peers are the most influential presence. Middle schoolers need each other. I suspect that this holds true for middle school parents as well. Parents need other parents.
My plan for surviving the next 540 school days is simple: lean on my peers, be kind when mistakes are made, learn lessons where they can be learned and remember that this time is going to fly by. While I am not in any rush, I look forward to seeing who we all are on Day 540.
Only 539 more days to go...
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How did we get here?
Weren't we just filling out beginning of the school year forms, buying and labeling folders and school supplies, picking out first day of school outfits and gleefully sending our kids off to a new school year?
Now here we are, thickly in the midst of end of the school year activities. Concerts. Plays. Performances. Field Days. Graduations. Field Trips. Summer camp registrations.
This year is different, though. This year is my oldest baby's last year of elementary school. As this school year comes to an end, this chapter in his life is closing.
I thought the only way I would make it to this point would be by someone dragging me unwillingly as I clung desperately to the thought of my baby staying in elementary school. Just 9 months ago I watched him get on the bus for his first day of 5th grade and I couldn't believe middle school was coming. This point in time seemed so far away then. It was completely on the other side of The Bridge. But now, when I send him off to school each day, I think "He's totally outgrown elementary school." He's ready. His friends are ready. I'm ready.
Or so I thought,
Last week he took the stage in his final elementary school talent show in a group number with over 40 of his 5th grade classmates. When at the end of the performance, the students grouped themselves together so that their shirts spelled out "THESE WERE THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES." I let out an audible gasp and then cried for the first time about him leaving elementary school.
It hit me in that moment - not only were these the best years of his life (so far), they also have been the most influential. It was there, in classrooms, recess playgrounds, cafeterias and hallways that he learned how to build solid friendships, how to be himself, how to learn, how to play, how to manage independence, how to ask for help and how to give help. It was here that he transitioned from a short, squishy, shy, self-conscious 6 year old to the tall, athletic, outgoing and confident 11 year old he is today.
As I tried to see through my tear-filled eyes, I looked around the stage at our 5th graders and then at some of my fellow 5th grade parents. From here on out, we start letting them go a bit more and trusting that the foundation they built during their elementary school years is strong enough for them...for us.
Recently my Timehop showed me a picture of my current 5th grader as a 5 year old, preparing to transition into kindergarten. We were at a "Touch a Truck" event and he had excitedly climbed onto a big yellow school bus with me. There on my Timehop was a photo of me and my baby, peering out the school bus window, both of us filled with excitement about the years to come in elementary school. If I could go back in time and interview that version of us, I don't think either of us really had any idea what the elementary school years would bring us - moments of pure joy, fear, laughter, sadness, new friendships born, old friendship broken and mended and immense amounts of growth.
These years of elementary school weren't always easy.
But, you know what?
They truly have been the best years of our lives.
One of the best things that happened to me in my early educational career was that I only had to go to Middle School (or Jr. High as it was known back then) for two years - not the typical three years. I spent a hellish 6th and 7th grade at the Middle School in my home town and then our 8th grade class became the first class to start the 8th grade year in the High School. Woo hoo!
If you were anything like the Middle School version of me, then 6th and 7th grade probably were awful for you too. You couldn't pay me enough money to relive those years: the constant physical, mental, social and emotional changes; teasing, bullying and general drama; boyfriend/girlfriend issues; and overall awkwardness. I'm fairly certain that 8th grade me flipped my Middle School the bird and yelled "Peace Out!" on my last day in that nightmarish period of my life. When they knocked the building down a few years ago, I felt no sadness. None at all.
Thank God we don't have to ever relive those years.
I have come to realize over the past few months that we never really do leave Middle School for good. For those of us that become parents and get to experience the super awesomeness of parenting tweens and teens, it's like going straight back to Middle School. It's like a time machine that sends you back to the worst period of your life. Totally cool.
Middle School is no different the second time around. Actually, I think it might be worse the second time around. Instead of ME being the target and the one going through all of the changes, drama and awkwardness, it's my child going through it and I feel it all. All of it. When he gets made fun of, I feel it. When he struggles with complex emotions and difficult decisions, I'm there with him. When his heart gets broken, so too does mine. (The psychotherapist in me wonders if maybe this means I'm too connected to him. Probably. But, I'm still standing on The Bridge. I need a little more time.)
So, aside from diving head first into a nice bottle of red and some Netflix bingeing, here are some tips to help you survive your second go round with Middle School:
1. Monitor screen time
Today's tweens and teens are growing up in a society where there is instant gratification and complete interconnectedness. While these technological advancements can be exciting and certainly quite useful, they also make it a bit of a challenge for social skill development. Monitor your children's use of social media. Read their texts, tweets and posts. Tweens and teens have become very skilled at bullying over social media and their parents often have no idea that it is happening. Spend some time researching secret apps that teens are using now. In this instance, Google is your friend.
2. Create space for honesty
It's fairly unlikely that your 12 year old is going to come home from school everyday and pour his heart out to you. But, you can consistently send your children the message that you are there for them. You want to hear them. You want to support them. Sometimes the end of the day/bedtime is a good place for these conversations to take place organically. Sometimes, though, it's places like the car where tweens and teens open up with their parents. Something about staring straight ahead at the road and not into their parent's eyes seems to make them more comfortable. So, make some time to just drive around and see what comes up in conversation.
3. Model appropriate behavior
Full disclosure here. Adults acting like Middle School students is one of my pet peeves. It's hard to explain how wrong bullying and teasing is to our children when so many adults in their lives have themselves become skilled at bullying others on social media. Think twice before posting that passive aggressive meme about a peer. Would you condone your child posting such a meme about his peer right now? How would you feel if someone posted it about your child? Watch how you talk about other parents and peers in front of your children. They pick up on way more than you think.
4. Think twice before getting involved
There are many times when I want to march myself into my children's school, bus or sports teams and give one of their peers a piece of my mind or sit them down and mediate a discussion for them. In the vast majority of those situations, getting involved would only be about me and wouldn't do anything to help my children or their peers learn how to successfully and responsibly handle conflict. Take a step back and let your tween and teen figure it out. Role play scenarios and conversations with them and support their efforts to problem solve on their own. And, of course, advocate when needed and consult with other parents when able to do so.
When all else fails and you find yourself cursing these Middle School experiences, take a deep breath and remember that this is temporary. Before we know it, they'll be out of Middle School (and we'll be out of Middle SChool again too!) and they'll be young women and men. Just as quickly as they went from being helpless babies and toddlers to tweens and teens with their own personalities and lives, they'll be out of our house. So, even though it just plain stinks at times (literally and figuratively if you have boys), lean into the discomfort of these times and be grateful that they let us come along for the ride.
P.S. In case you were wondering, we get to experience Middle School one more time in life - when we become residents in nursing homes and long term care settings. Oh boy. It's Middle School all over again. But, that's a whole other Oprah...
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Sometimes I look at my children and I can totally and completely understand what is happening inside their brains. I get them. It's like they are little versions of me as a child, yet slightly different and much improved. Their choices in food, music, television and movies often sync perfectly with mine. The way they approach problems and their interpretations of the world also line up neatly with my own. They are perfect little humans.
Then there are other times where I look at my children and I don't get them. At all. In those moments, I look at their handsome faces, devilish eyes and playful grins and think that surely I gave birth to aliens. How on Earth can they be so vastly different than me? So unhuman at times??
Clearly, the only answer is that I am raising aliens.
If your son approaches the following topics the same way as my boys do, then it's safe to say that you may also be raising aliens:
It's snowing outside, why is it so terrible that I require my children wear pants to school? "Mom!? No one else wears pants!" "Can't I just wear shorts and long socks instead?" Yeah. That's a great look.
Why is it so hard to pee IN the toilet? This is not a problem to which I can relate. (Although I have been in enough public women's restrooms to know that clearly it IS an issue for some women.)
Mornings would be so much easier if my children would put their shoes where they belong each night. But, for some reason, they prefer the very fun game of "I can't find my shoes!" every morning where we pull open drawers, look under beds and couches, and rummage through closets to find shoes as we rush to make it out the door on time. Apparently it's super fun for them to see me lose my mind each morning.
You know what you won't find when you open my closets? Shoes. (see above) You know what else you won't find? Boy's coats. They despise wearing them. They would prefer that I wash their 3 Under Armour sweatshirts daily so they can wear those as coats. I got tired of hearing "Mom!? Why can't I just wear 4 layers of shirts and sweatshirts?" So, I gave up on coats.
Good God. Why can't my children smell themselves? I've lost count of how many times I have walked by my children and had to stop, lean closer, sniff them and then banish them to another shower. "Did you use deodorant this morning?" I always ask. "Oh. No. I forgot. Oops." Every. Damn. Day. How they have friends is beyond me. Perhaps they all smell like dirty feet.
If a ball makes its way inside my house, my boys seem to be programmed by their mother ship to throw the ball inside the house as much as possible and as close as possible to all things breakable. Lamps. Chandeliers. Mirrors. Anything delicate and expensive will be in the direct path of the ball.
I think the Alien Code of Conduct states that all plastic water bottles must be left 1/3 filled to maximize the ability of said bottles to be flipped and capped, bonus points for dabbing after capping it. If you have 15 almost empty water bottles scattered throughout your house or you find yourself shouting “Stop with the bottles!!!” then you probably live with aliens.
Someday I will conduct and publish a study about how the IQ of pre-adolescent boys drops significantly whenever they are in groups. The more boys there are in the group, the lower the group's IQ. Each time they get together, I find myself saying something along the lines of "Remember all those crazy things you got in trouble for last time? Don't do those again this time" and then I try to look at the environment and see what crazy decisions they can make this time. Inevitably I forget something...
So, what’s the best way to approach the difficult task of raising aliens?
1. Don’t try to see the world through their eyes.
You’ll hurt yourself.
2. Pick your battles.
You need to conserve your energy when it comes to aliens.
3. Learn to speak their language.
Yes, this may mean that you need to learn how to flip bottles, dab, juju on that beat, whip and even nae nae.
4. Utilize their communication systems.
You may need to become proficient in things like Musicly and Snapchat so you can monitor their interactions and make sure your alien is not being a jerky alien.
5. Stockpile deodorant.
You never know when your little alien might need some extra deodorant so it’s a good idea to keep a few spares around.
6. Invest in a good washing machine.
You’ll need it to keep up with the alien stench that arises when they forget the aforementioned deodorant.
7. Hold on tight.
Love your little alien fiercely and take advantage of all the moments you have with them. Snuggle them when they let you. Hold their hand when they let you. Lay in their stinky alien bed at night before they drift off to sleep and talk about their day with them. Time moves faster when you are raising an alien – hold onto it before it slips away.
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About Changing perspectives...
I often find myself encouraging people to consider changing their perspective or reframe the way in which they view things. This blog is an extension of that practice and is also an opportunity for me to write from a number of different perspectives including clinician, educator, mother, friend and supervisor. Blog topics are also quite varied and changeable. Topics explored include, but are certainly not limited to, grief, parenting, health and wellness and relationships. Join me and explore a number of changing perspectives!