A few years ago, on a return flight from some random conference, I was settling in to read my Time magazine with Sheryl Sandberg, when the passenger next to me begged to read it when I was through. This beautiful Indian woman and I spoke for three hours, breaking all my inflight rules.
I learned her and her husband were highly specialized doctors who had a 10- and 13-year-old. She learned that I was thinking of going back to school, but I wanted to wait until my kids were older and not so dependent.
Then, I got the best advice of my young parenting life.
She told me to go back to school NOW because my kids will need me present even more as they grow through adolescence. My advocacy for them might change form over the years, but it does not dwindle.
Her words have had many implications for me since, especially now that my eldest is in middle school. I finished that masters last year, following her advice. And, thank God I did.
The Trouble with Middle School
Generally, the goal of elementary school is to arm every student with the critical fundamentals to learn. High school is to get you successfully to college or a career. But there is a problem with middle school. It’s the forgotten years, undefined by a big ticket purpose or direction academically.
To make matters worse, there’s a developmental firestorm, both physically and emotionally, happening during the years of 10 to 15. It is unmatched by any other growth stage. How our kids move through this time has lifelong effects on everything from social interaction to earning potential. Yet, this is the period our kids fall into the educational black hole of…Middle School.
During this time, the entire school-going experience changes for both the parent and the student.
Parent-teacher conferences happen only when requested. Daily afterschool programs are practically non-existent. Report cards no longer give us benchmarks. We don’t have to sign off on homework assignments each night. Even uniform policies relax.
Most noteworthy is how we consolidate kids moving into the 6th grade. We condense several elementary schools into a single middle school. In Broward, we have less than a half the number of middle and high schools combined, compared to elementary schools. My daughter now has to wear a badge around her neck everyday to identify that she belongs.
This sends a pretty clear message: kids are on their own and parents are no longer needed. But the opposite is actually true.
So, I Made a Deal with My Middle-Schooler.
Since early adolescence is also a great time of exploration while figuring herself out, I challenged my daughter to try as many new activities as possible. I didn’t care if she loved it or hated it. If it interested he, she could try it. Her end of the deal, of course, was to keep her grades up.
This was one of those moments my passenger-friend had warned me about. My advocacy job now was to keep her fascinated with learning. Our institutions are simply not built to increase individualized attention for our kids, helping them navigate increasingly important life decisions. Like it or not, that’s where we must be extra present and step in to fill the gap.
My daughter has discovered she’s a very good baker and, last summer, started her own business to fundraise for her passion–horseback riding. She tried track and failed miserably. Now, she’s eyeing woodshop.
As parents, we have to be present to talk through the annoying, sometimes amazing, but always important decisions in their I-am-figuring-out-who-I-am years. We have to stand right next to them, not over them, as they discover their strengths, and hold the mirror up high so they can see themselves clearly.
This post originally appeared in Faces of Education blog.