I’ve been doing most of my “blogging” on Facebook, plus I’ve been really busy, but I thought it might be nice to use the blog to feature some books that don’t get as much attention. So today I’m posting a bit from MY LIFE AS A MIDDLE SCHOOL MOM, which is really a primer on middle schoolers and their age characteristics. I hope you enjoy its A-to-Z format!
A is for . . .
In a somewhat ironic twist, your tween’s brain will begin to develop in new ways just as his interest in academics begins to wane. Researchers have shown that schoolwork becomes decreasingly significant as tweens progress from elementary and middle school to the ninth grade. Meeting parents’ standards about good grades is relatively unimportant to early adolescents, though they do focus on their schoolwork in the later high school years—just in time to prepare for SATs and college entrance exams.[i]
In one study of tweens, researchers found that ninth grade girls spent far more time talking about their friends than about school. And of all activities done at home, ninth-grade girls spent more time on personal grooming than anything else, including homework.
So if your straight-A student brings home a few B’s in the eighth grade, don’t get upset. Her focus is merely shifting for a while.
Your emerging adolescent may find that his face breaks out often or only occasionally. If your child has a persistent case of acne, don’t assume that avoiding chocolate or fried foods will solve the problem. The cause is rooted in hormones, not food, and a dermatologist can work wonders for your child.
Don’t let your child suffer through taunts of “Zit-face” or “pimple picker.” Take him to the doctor.
Once I picked up the phone and heard Phyllis’ worried voice. “I need help,” she said, her tone flat. “I don’t know what to do. My daughter went into her bedroom last Friday night and came out a different person. She’s moody, she’s grumpy, and she’s selfish. What happened?”
Nothing that hasn’t happened to all of us. The tweenage years—sixth, seventh, and eighth grades—have arrived and brought with them a confusing array of conflicting emotions, habits, and friendships.
Tweens are too old to ride their bikes, and too young to drive. They’re too mature for Ronald McDonald, and too immature for dating. They’re caught between the innocence of childhood and the sophistication of high school.
Strictly speaking, adolescence begins at puberty, and puberty arrives earlier today than it did when we were kids. According to a study published in the October 1999 issue of Pediatrics, most girls today show signs of puberty before the age of ten. At the turn of the century, puberty didn’t begin to arrive until age fifteen.[ii]
Each child encounters adolescence on his or her individual timetable. More pervasive than a biological clock, however, are the influences of older teens and television. Kids who are years away from puberty will still be influenced by the rites of passage between childhood and maturity. Marcel Danesi, author of Cool, The Signs and Meanings of Adolescence, says that children are “becoming teenagers much younger and they’re staying there much longer. The cultural aspects of teens are picked up much earlier now than the physical ones.”[iii]
What cultural aspects are tweens adopting? According to Elaine Carey of The Toronto Star, “they all want cell phones but pagers will do in a pinch, although they don’t seem to know why they want them. It just looks cool. . . . The girls wear makeup . . . and they never have enough money.” One tween told Carey, “I’m going to marry a really rich guy, then divorce him and marry for love. But first I’m going to have his kids so I get child support.”[iv]
I can only pray she was kidding.
The Alarm Clock Curfew Solution
When your tween or teenager has a late curfew and you’re so tired you just know you’re going to fall asleep, settle the problem of monitoring with an alarm clock. Set the clock for the time your tween or teen is supposed to be home, and tell him to turn off the alarm when he comes in. Then allow yourself the luxury of sleep. If the alarm goes off, however, and the wandering child is not home, you’ll be up, awake, and watching the door!
One caveat: one mother told me that she knew of a situation where the teens went home, turned off the alarm, and went back out again. If your child has proven less than trustworthy, better have a backup alarm under your pillow!
I’m a big believer in not giving or accepting something for nothing. During our first year of marriage, we accepted an offer from a vacuum company—for just listening to a demonstration, we were supposed to get our living room carpet cleaned. So we invited the salesman over, slid our mismatched furniture out of the living room, and sat back to enjoy a freshly cleaned, sweet-smelling carpet.
You can probably guess what happened. The man came over, showed us his handy-dandy machine, and then offered to give us more for our old vacuum than I had paid for it six months before! The shiny new machine did everything but balance a checkbook, but the price was way out of our budget. Not to be dissuaded, the salesman called his boss, who (so graciously!) allowed him to offer us an even better deal.
We still couldn’t afford it. Not to worry; the salesman got back on the phone and arranged for the sweetest financing package ever offered on the face of the planet. Overwhelmed with feelings of unworthiness, we signed on the dotted line, then noticed that it was nearly ten p.m. Noticing the late hour, the salesman left, promising to come back another day and shampoo the living room rug.
Our carpet stayed dirty, and about forty-eight hours later we realized we had swallowed bait, hook, and the longest line imaginable. After that, Gary and I decided that we’d never again accept a free in-home demonstration. There is almost always a string attached.
I carried this lesson into parenting. I didn’t want my children to think money grew on the parent tree, so my kids had to perform a few chores in order to receive their allowance. But, like all moms, most of the time I ended up doing their chores myself because it’s easier, faster, and more efficient to just do it than to nag.
Something was definitely wrong with this arrangement. So Gary and I sat down and talked about what we wanted to achieve with the allowance system. We came up with three goals:
We wanted our children to complete their household chores, do their homework, and not beat each other up.
Once we had formulated our goals, I went on a shopping expedition and searched for poker chips–not the sort of thing that a pastor’s wife buys every day. Once I found them, Gary and I called the kids together.
“The allowance system is changing,” Gary announced. “We will always cover your meals, clothes, and activities—we do those things because you are part of this family. But if you want extra spending money, here’s how to earn it. From this day forward you will earn chips every night. If you make your bed every morning and do your chores, you will earn one white chip worth 25 cents. If you do your homework after school, you will earn a blue chip worth fifty cents. And if you can make it through the day without insulting or hitting each other, you will earn a red chip worth one dollar.”
My children sat in silence, but I could see their mental calculators adding up the numbers. “If you earn all three chips every day for a week,” I added, “you can cash them in and earn $12.25. Not a bad weekly allowance, but you’ll have to keep your part of the bargain to earn the full amount.”
The result? The system worked like a charm until we parents got lazy and forgot to award the chips at the end of each day. When the ceremony ended, so did the chips’ significance, and soon I was finding poker chips under beds and in candy dishes. When we stopped placing priority on the system, so did the kids.
The moral of this story: you get what you honor. Establish a system and stick to it, and you just might see results.
Attractiveness and Popularity
“If you’re not beguiling by age twelve, forget it.” –Lucy (Charles Schulz)[v]
If you’re wondering why your tweenage son and daughter spend what seems like an inordinate amount of time in front of the bathroom mirror, here’s a clue: Personal attractiveness is the most important factor in determining a student’s popularity and success with his peers.
Yes, physical beauty is superficial. Yes, it’s sad that our culture places such an emphasis on outward appearance. But neither of those truths changes the fact that attractiveness counts in the tween world. (And are things terribly different in the realm of adults?)
In a psychological study of 270 ninth graders between fourteen and fifteen years old, students were offered a choice of hypothetical study partners who were 1) attractive with good grades, 2) attractive with low grades, 3) unattractive with good grades, or 4) unattractive with low grades.
The result? Attractiveness was the most important factor in the lab partner’s desirability. When the partner’s attractiveness was high, his desirability was high. When the partner’s attractiveness was low, his desirability was low, regardless of academic performance.[vi]
Studies have also shown that tween girls tend to emphasize their peers’ attractiveness, social skills, and academic success, while boys judge their peers’ popularity by achievement in sports, “coolness” or “toughness,” and success with the opposite sex.[vii] In all studies, attractiveness and popularity go hand in hand.
I’m not including this information in order to foster superficiality, but I do think it’s important that we understand the world revolving around our kids. And if we can do anything to help our children cope—finance the orthodontia, buy the stylish outfit, allow the popular haircut—we’ll be doing a lot to help our tweens survive in a middle school environment. Don’t compromise important standards, but if a little sprucing up won’t hurt, help your child feel as attractive as he can.
You get what you honor. Inscribe that maxim upon the gray matter of your brain, and repeat it every morning. You want a helpful child? Honor helpfulness. You want a good student? Honor the report card. When your tween accomplishes something you want to reinforce, create an award certificate and orchestrate a little family ceremony to present it. Your kid may roll his eyes and cringe at your corny gesture, but he’ll understand your intent.
Positive reinforcement is more powerful than punishment.
[i] B.B. Brown, M.J. Lohr, and E.L. McLenahan, “Early adolescents’ perceptions of peer pressure,” Journal of Early Adolescence, Vol. 6, pp. 139-154.
[ii] Barbara Kantrowitz and Pat Wingert, “The Truth About Tweens,” Newsweek, October 18, 1999, p. 69.
[iii] Elaine Carey, “Tweens,” The Toronto Star, December 6, 1998.
[v] Charles Schulz quoted in The Third—and Possibly the Best—637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said (New York: Atheneum, 1986), number 171.
[vi] Chris J. Boyatzis, Peggy Baloff, and Cheri Durieux, “Effects of perceived attractiveness and academic success on early adolescent peer popularity,” Journal of Genetic Psychology, September 1, 1998, p. 337.
[vii] Chris J. Boyatzis, Peggy Baloff, and Cheri Durieux, “Effects of perceived attractiveness and academic success on early adolescent peer popularity,” Journal of Genetic Psychology, September 1, 1998, p. 337.