Remember that story about the ugly duckling? It’s a good metaphor for a lot of middle schoolers today. Between the time they emerge as little chicks and the time they finally grow into swans, there is that awkward middle period where they are not quite sure who they are or where they fit in. Symptoms of this difficult age might include the rather gangly arms and legs they haven’t quite grown into yet, or baby fat they haven’t quite outgrown, voices that range from squeaky to scratchy, acne, and personality changes that seem to come and go in your child on a daily basis.
We have all experienced this “ugly duckling stage” (if you need proof, go ahead and pull out your old yearbook). But this awkward and clumsy period in your child’s life may be more important than you remember from your own childhood. Now more than ever, the middle school years are crucial for developing into a healthy teenager and adult. Not very long ago, the average age of the kids who came to Heartlight was 17 and 18. Now the average age of the kids at Heartlight is 14! And nearly every kid who walks onto our campus tells me that middle school is where the trouble really started. One teen told me he started smoking pot in 6th grade. Another told me she became sexually active on an 8th grade school trip. It seems the issues and challenges facing teens in high school are now being introduced to kids in junior high, or even before! In today’s world, parents need to foster and build a healthy relationship with their kids in the formative middle school years, because that is when they need it the most.
It Starts In the Brain
To understand why the middle school years are so foundational, you have to get inside the mind of a junior higher (scary, I know). From birth to the age of two, the neural pathways in the brain of a child are wide open. Information is speeding through these pathways, allowing your child to develop speech and behavior patterns at a lightening fast rate. It’s like a high-speed Internet connection; your little babies are downloading knowledge into their brain at an astounding rate. After two years of age, those same neural pathways in your child begin to constrict and clog. What began as a high-speed Internet connection turns into a dial up modem. The window of opportunity babies have to gather all the information they need to develop gradually closes. It’s a “use-it-or-lose-it” time in the brain.
However, those neural pathways open up wide again in another period of your child’s life. Any guesses as to when? Around 10 to 14 years of age. That’s when tweens and teens have the potential to voraciously download masses of information into their growing brains. But once again, if that window of opportunity is missed in middle school, the brain will fall behind in developing the necessary skills needed later in life.
What does all this science mean for mom and dad? Simply this; before they even reach high school, your son or daughter needs you to invest in their lives. A child’s heart, and especially mind, is thirsty for wisdom, training and insight. Though it may not seem like it, your middle-schooler is a sponge, soaking up bits of information from whatever surroundings they find themselves in. And they desperately need mom and dad to ensure that their environment contains all the necessary ingredients for a healthy and productive life.
If the tween years are some of the most influential in a child’s life, the question is, how can we use this time to make the greatest impact? Without hesitation, I would say that parents can have the biggest influence on their middle-schoolers by giving them undivided attention. Focusing attention on your child is like investing in Google stock. It has great value now, and will only keep growing. When you drop what you are doing to listen to your daughter talk, you are demonstrating that she has worth and importance in your life. When you set aside time every week to take your son out to dinner, you are indicating that time with him is precious. There is no substitute for the undivided attention of mom and dad in the life of a child.
Youth groups and school have their place. But they are poor replacements for a caring parent. There is a temptation to think that junior high pastors or middle school teachers are better equipped and better trained to speak into the life of your kid. But that’s not true! That youth pastor is a great ally, but can never take the place of a parent. That 6thgrade teacher may be a role model, but cannot be your child’s greatest influence. It is vital that moms and dads grasp their unique position in relation to their tweens and actively engage with their children.
Another way parents can positively impact their child’s formative tween years is to let go of those unrealistic dreams and expectations for their kids. It is very natural to have plans for your child. We envision what our son will look like, talk like, act like. Our daughter will play volleyball, go to college, get married, give us ten grandbabies.
However, often times our kids don’t turn out the way we thought. Perhaps in these middle school years, your junior-higher puts on a little weight. Your son shows no interest in sports. Your daughter would rather play the accordion than the piano. Your middle-schooler wants to be a forest ranger instead of an architect. It is safe to say that the things you envision for your child may not come to pass.
Instead of pushing your expectations upon your children, use the middle school years to build your relationship. Let go of your dreams, and work to understand and appreciate the person your son or daughter is becoming on their own. Show an interest in what interests them. Ask good questions that display your desire to know about their lives. Cheer them on in their successes, and help pick them up in their defeats. The majority of conflicts that happen in the home are the result of our expectations shattering. But when we focus on relationships and learn to appreciate our children for who they are, the struggles between parents and tweens diminish, and the home becomes a much more peaceful place for kids to grow up.
Lastly, parents can invest in the lives of their tweens by frequently employing the use of two phrases; “I’m sorry”, and “I forgive you.” When we as parents make mistakes (and we do), we need to be the first ones to apologize. And when our tweens make a mistake (and they most certainly do that!), moms and dads need to be quick to extend grace. By asking for and offering forgiveness regularly, you’re imprinting on young minds the importance of forgiveness and the understanding that there is no sin or blunder that will ever stop you from loving each other. There’s great freedom for a child in knowing that no matter how goofy, clumsy, moody or unruly they become, they are still loved.
Take advantage of these middle school years and begin shaping your child into the responsible and mature teenager and adult they will become. The ugly duckling stage doesn’t last long. But it’s a powerful time period where your child needs your undivided, gracious attention more than ever.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director ofHeartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and 4 grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, 2 llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy. His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with over 2,700 teens, has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.
You can find out more about Heartlight at www.HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.