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The Importance of Middle School

Three questions answered—screens, the talk, and more.

I’ve never run into a person who yearns for their middle school days
- Jeff Kinney

Becoming a middle schooler is a big deal. Not just because you change classes, oftentimes get a locker, and have more freedom—although all of those are important—but because you’re really growing up. Things are changing. There is massive uncertainty, the pressure to fit in, and even physical changes that appear out of nowhere.

But in today’s world that is full of pressure (academic, social, peer) and bigger choices, I recognize the complexity of raising a middle school-aged child to become healthy and whole (upcoming blogs will discuss).

Earlier this month, I connected with a colleague, Phyllis Fagell, author of the new book, Middle School Matters, to share with us her thoughts on screens, why it's important to have the “sex talk,” and how to best connect with these tweens or middle schoolers in our lives. Here goes:

  1. Question: Many parents struggle to connect with their middle schoolers. Any tips for parents who want to connect but struggle with how?

    Answer (Fagell): Look for common interests. You can write down three things you like to do and think your child would enjoy, then flip it and ask them to brainstorm three things they like to do and think you would enjoy. That can be a good starting point for shared activities. Ask them to teach you a new video game they like or talk to them about a book you know they’re reading for fun. With the video game, the added benefit is that eye contact is optional, and neither of these topics is particularly personal.

    Middle schoolers can find seemingly innocuous questions intrusive, especially if they’re not sure of your agenda. We tend to pepper our kids with questions at the end of the school day when they’re depleted, but they may not have the energy to interact at that moment. When they are ready to talk, drop what you’re doing and give them your full attention.

  2. Question: Screens become increasingly important at middle school, yet most parents struggle with how to raise their children to have a healthy relationship with their phone, iPad, or another device. Any advice for parents?

    Answer (Fagell): Parents need to understand the potential “side effects” of screen time. When kids spend a lot of time online looking at other kids’ perfectly curated images, it can take a toll on their self-esteem, especially if they perceive that others are having a ton of fun without them. FOMO, or fear of missing out, is a very real thing.

    Screen time also can wreak havoc on sleep, and sleep-deprived kids are more likely to post something they’ll regret later. Research shows the mere presence of a phone, even if it’s off, can have a detrimental effect on kids’ academic performance and studying efficiency. Share this information with your kids.

    The research is still emerging on children and screen time, but we know that healthy kids practice good self-care, and that includes a good night’s sleep. I don’t think middle schoolers should have screens in their bedrooms at all, and I recommend limiting their use. Most studies I’ve read recommend spending no more than two hours a day online. Teach and mentor, which means at minimum spot-checking your child’s posts, reminding them to pause before posting, using mistakes as teachable moments, and making sure your child is interacting with peers face-to-face.

  3. Question: I continually find middle schoolers struggle with emerging out of this developmental period without shame and with a healthy relationship with their bodies. How important is it that parents speak to their children about their changing bodies? Or sexual identities or gender identification? Or is giving their child a book enough?

    Answer (Fagell): Parents absolutely need to be talking about these issues. Kids this age tend to be uncomfortable in their changing bodies as it is, so at minimum, we need to ensure they understand that what’s happening is normal.

    Developmentally, they’re trying to sort out their identity during a phase when they’re most concerned about what others think of them. I recently spoke to a girl who identifies as bisexual, and she was reflecting on the moment she shared that with her parents in seventh grade. They responded, “But how can you know? You’re so young.” She said to me, “Can you tell parents not to say that? Just tell us it’s okay to try on different labels until we find the one that fits.” I think that’s profound advice.

    Give your child the vocabulary around sexual and gender identity, talk to them about puberty, be careful not to criticize their body or your own (which research shows can have a detrimental effect on kids’ body image), be positive when talking about LGBTQ+ issues and sexuality in general, and have the courage to initiate these conversations.

    It shouldn’t be a “one and done” talk; fold it in when relevant, whether there’s a news story about a sexting incident or you read a statistic about the percent of middle schoolers who have viewed porn. If they’re too uncomfortable to engage with you, provide them with books and other materials and let them know you’re there to answer questions. If you don’t, they’re going to get their information (or misinformation) from the Internet and other middle schoolers.

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