Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Three Reasons To Love Middle Schoolers

Middle schoolers get a bad rap

Middle schoolers have a bad rap.  

Think back on all the popular articles you've read about teenagers—and middle schoolers in particular. How many of the very first paragraphs start off with something along this line?

  • Everyone hates middle school but...
  • We all know that adolescence is a time of storm and stress but...
  • Middle school is miserable...

When I say I love early adolescents, most adults I know roll their eyes. "Why, for heaven's sake?" they ask.  

Here's three good reasons:

Middle schoolers' thinking is much more sophisticated than children's. Jean Piaget described middle schoolers' thinking as formal operational. Children can think in complex ways about real things that they can see and manipulate. As they enter adolescence, however, they develop the ability to think about abstractions as well. Middle schoolers can:

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  • Think about possibilities, not just about what is real. Thus they can think about possible future selves or about different ways of doing things.
  • Think about abstract things. Children tend to describe themselves concretely—"I'm good at sports" or "I like to draw." Adolescents start to describe themselves in abstract terms—"I'm artistic or sensitive." 
  • Think about thinking. Adolescents' metacognitive abilities are much stronger than those of children. If you ask a younger child to memorize a list of words, they will glance at it briefly, confident that they will be able to recite it back. Adolescents know better and are much better aware of strategies that help or hinder their ability to perform tasks well.  
  • Think multidimensionally. Children will tell you that they are more or less shy. Adolescents can tell you that they are shy with strangers but outgoing with friends. They contextualize things and can see multiple aspects of a complex situation. Multidimensional thinking also allows them to understand sarcasm.
  • Think relativistically. Children see things in absolute terms—"I'm good or bad at violin."  Adolescents—again, contextually—think of themselves relativistically. They judge themselves relative to others of their level. And, because they can also think multidimensionally, they can describe both the strengths and weaknesses of their playing.

I love these cognitive advances, because it makes talking to teenagers a lot of fun. Middle schoolers have so many ideas and can play with new ideas in exciting ways. But it can also make them frustrating. Adolescents get much better at arguing—and they can enjoy it. But they often lack the knowledge or wisdom to ground their arguments in the real world. I've discussed this issue before in What Middle School Parents Should Know: Adolescents Are Like Lawyers.

Middle schoolers are emotionally labile. I know what you're thinking. Emotional lability—going from joy to tears—is one of the problems of middle schoolers, not one of the good things. But I love that in these kids. First, a few basics.

  • Careful diary and time monitoring studies comparing the emotional lability of adults and adolescents clearly show that adolescents experience faster and more mood swings than adults do.  
  • Emotional volatility isn't caused by wild swings of hormones. In fact, hormones have little to do with it. What does matter is what we do to adolescents. In particular, we make them go to school. Adolescents go from gym to math to social studies to the cafeteria to hanging out with their friends to guitar lessons to soccer. And often we ask them to adjust to those very different social contexts (kickball to algebra) in under an hour. Adolescents often have no control over their schedule. The many different changes and demands we make on adolescents results in much greater variability in their emotional state. If we did what they do, we'd be emotionally labile too.

The downside of lability is that middle schoolers tend to ride emotional roller coasters—and their lows can be pretty low. The good side is that they bounce back quickly. When parents and adolescents argue—which isn't all that unusual—the parent will often brood over it for hours or even days. But the middle schooler will move on in a few minutes.  

Lack of sleep—teens need to sleep more, not less, than their younger brothers and sisters—tends to make them even more volatile. Just like adults, kids gut grumpy when they're tired. (See What Middle School Parents Should Know: Adolescents Are Like Toddlers for an extensive discussion of the physical demands of growing teens.) But a rested middle schooler is usually a happy one.

Middle schoolers are social. I remember going to my eldest son's middle school orientation. His science teacher went on and on about how impossible it was to teach kids that age because all they wanted to do was chatter. I love that about middle schoolers. They have lots of ideas and they want to share them.  

  • Middle schoolers become much more peer-oriented, expanding their social world from a primary focus on the family to a shared focus on family and peers.
  • Partly because of their expanded cognitive abilities, middle schoolers love to talk and explore new ideas.
  • Middle schoolers are also more self-reflective.  Because they are changing so fast, they are interested in sharing information about those changes. Changes often makes us want to reach out for support. For example, as we become new parents or go to college for the first time, we reach out to others to see how our experiences match those of our peers. Middle schoolers are the same. Give them a chance and they will talk forever.  

Although middle schoolers become more peer-oriented, they do not abandon their parents. Rather, parents often abandon their middle schoolers. Kids want to talk and they really like their parents to listen. In fact, not spending enough time with parents is one of the most frequent complaints that young adolescents make about their family. But they want to talk, not just listen. And that can be hard for parents. Somehow it seems much more interesting to play blocks with your toddler than to listen to a seemingly endless discussion of Dungeons and Dragons or which hairstyle looks best on a pop star you've barely heard of. But both are equally important.

The downside of adolescent sociability is that middle school is when conformity tends to peak. Ninth graders place more importance on being just like everyone else in the crowd than their older or younger siblings.  

This is where that multidimensional thinking can come into play. One of the things that middle schoolers start to notice as they move into high school is that popularity and values are multidimensional as well. And what is cool or acceptable in one crowd can be wrong or bad in another. Kids who are popular in one group can be seen as unlikeable or mean in another. The ability to see popularity and values contextually—one of the great achievements of adolescence—can help young adolescents  find out who they are as individuals and help them strengthen their own values. It helps them find others who support them in becoming the people they want to grow up to be.  

And that makes them more wonderful still.

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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