What are your memories about middle school? Most adults I know wouldn’t want to repeat their two (or three) years of middle school for anything. Those years when you are too grown-up for the teeter-totter, yet too young to drive can be full of anxiety. Do I fit in? Do my peers like me? Are my pants too short? Such are the questions brewing in the mind of a middle schooler.
So what happens when the tables are turned and you suddenly find yourself as the parent of a middle school student? Michelle Icard, also known as “Michelle in the Middle”, is a noted speaker and author on the middle school years, and she even developed a curriculum that’s been used by more than 250 teachers. In her book, Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years, Icard shows parents how the key to surviving middle school as a parent isn’t about loosening up or clamping down—it’s about doing something different, about reframing expectations.
Why a Makeover?
From the very start of the book, Icard makes it clear what her intentions are—change the perceptions of what middle school will be like for your child and you can change his experience. “We aren’t supposed to like the fact that our daughters are becoming interested in boys, that our sons are cutting up in class to make girls laugh, that makeup and deodorant and feminine hygiene products and cell phones and expensive sneakers are littering already too-messy rooms,” she shares in the first chapter. She has a valid point: Is it possible that, by moaning and groaning about how difficult the middle school years will be, we set our kids up to experience it that way? “We pretend misery loves company when what it really craves is a new perspective,” says Icard. This is where her idea for a middle school makeover comes into play. In order to parent our middle schoolers, Icard says we need to discard the baggage of our own middle school years.
The Middle School Brain
Who knew that middle school kids actually have different brains? Icard starts early in the book by laying the groundwork for the “why” and “what” of middle school behavior—and a big part of that whole mix is in their brains. “At the start of middle school, major brain changes begin happening,” she shares, “and this can generate some wacky behavior in both genders.” Icard likens the middle schooler to a toddler in many ways, yearning for growth and learning to toddle away from us, but still not capable enough to truly go it alone.
What’s different about their brains, though? Icard has a whole chapter on middle school brains, and it has to do with development (or lack of) in the prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain responsible for critical thinking, impulse control and moderating social behavior. In your middle schooler, it’s not fully formed. This is why parents need to help their kids manage their behavior—without hovering—because the manager of their brain is out to lunch, or at least not fully there.
They Need to Become Independent
Wait, what? It’s hard for parents to imagine that they must support their child’s need to be an independent being— separate from their parents—as early as sixth grade. “Your child’s primary job beginning in middle school is to develop an identity apart from you,” Icard shares. Granted, the process will take place over a period of about 8 years, but it starts in middle school. Icard’s suggestions for handling situations—and easy way of relating to how parents feel about this transition—make her book an easy read, and a great resource for navigating this cruise towards young adulthood.
Great Resource for Parents
Think you are the only parent dealing with the specific issues your middle schooler has? Icard doubts that, and she includes chapters on these hot-button issues (and more):
Social media: Why you might reconsider your “no” answer to some social media outlets.
More advanced sex questions: Beyond the birds and the bees, middle schoolers have questions—often awkward for both of you.
Girl friendship problems: How to help your daughter wade through the minefield of girls gone mean.
Boys who aren’t into sports: How to help him make connections with friends in other ways.
Bullying: How to help—whether your child is being bullied, or is doing the bullying.
Clothing battles: How to handle the battles over what to wear, before they even start.
Dealing with cell phones: When should your child have her own cell phone, and what are the boundaries in using one?
Sibling issues: How to keep the peace when the middle school child can’t get along with siblings.
Dating: Are they really dating? What’s going on at this age on a “date” anyway?
Got Middle Schoolers? Get this Book!
Having navigated the middle school parenting waters—and survived to the other side—I can say that I found Icard’s book to be a great reference for parents who are stepping into those waters with their own child. Even if you’ve been there, done that with your first child, no two middle school experiences are exactly alike. Icard’s common-sense advice is easy to interpret, without a lot of psychology phrases thrown in. Sometimes when you’re parenting, the most important thing is to realize that you aren’t alone—and this book shows you that you’re right there in the trenches with the other parents of middle schoolers.