- Student Life
I have always enjoyed the columns by New York Times and Newsweek journalist Anna Quindlen. A Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Quindlen’s columns have often reminded me that life is full of lessons at any stage. Most recently, my sister loaned me her copy of Quindlen’s 2012 book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, and I have found professional inspiration in every chapter, and here’s why: she reminds me that growing up, no matter what “up” means for you right now, is a process.
In a recent chapter I read, she talks about the value of good friends. She writes, “When I was sixteen I was too busy telegraphing the fact that I was unique to embrace the notion of commonality.” We know as adults that common interests, reliability, and steadfastness are the bedrocks of friendship. But when you are young, evolving, and finding yourself, the push to create the “You” (note the capital Y) can send you stumbling over those bedrocks.
Tension between “You” and friends is something we see play out every day in Middle School. Often fueled by social media (Snap Chat still reigns supreme in Middle School and no, it doesn’t just disappear), the need to put out one’s opinions, preferences, and stories and then get a reaction is vital to the growth process. What’s harder is when reactions are negative, or, more often,perceived as negative (please note the italics).
Kids in Middle School are not yet mature or socially skilled enough to recognize that a negative reaction might not be about them at all. They fail to realize that a friend’s reaction might have just as much to do with Mom being mad because they did not clean up their room as it does to the latest news about a crush. We know that kids come into the school day with a lot on their minds: homework, sports, music, dance, sleep, relationships, home, and family. But their self-centered nature at this point in their lives makes it hard not to see everything at face value and internalize everything as personal.
As parents and educators, we can help them by putting things into perspective for them. First off, if you know your child is worried about a particular friendship, try to avoid adding to the stress by demanding a daily report about the status of things. Always offer help and support, but daily check-ins can feel really intense. Pick a time to check in when you’re both doing something else, like grocery shopping, cleaning, or walking the dog. Save “having a talk” for when you have something specific to address.
Also, remind your child that no matter how much they share with a friend, there are pressures and issues in everyone’s life that we cannot see. Your daughter may tell you that she and her friend know everything about each other, so a falling out is really confusing. Remind your child that sometimes people lash out at others over frustrations that they can’t articulate. Encourage them to offer a friend a second or third chance. Remember, even in baseball you get three strikes.
Finally, as parents, because these interactions feel so intense for your child, you might have a tendency to blame the offending child. I can tell you from working with the age group for many years that they are all struggling with how to be empathetic, how to apologize, how to deal with hurt feelings. As I like to say, in middle school, there are no saints and no sinners, because everyone is learning how to be in the world and making a good mess of it. If you take a side against an offending child, and the friendship resumes, there is now more pressure on your child to navigate your disapproval along with re-uniting with a friend. Reserve your judgment, be a sounding board, and if you have real concerns about a child, call his or her parents and address it at your level, not at your child’s.
In the same chapter, Quindlen goes on to say, “If a teenage girl had an ancestral crest, its motto would be ‘I am not you.’” As we all know, that stance does not last, but its power in the moment is all part of growing “up” for all of us.