As a middle school teacher, I assure you that the modern day middle school experience is every bit as awkward as yours was. Since you’ve probably blocked out those memories, here’s a refresher on the five essential activities of the middle schooler:
1. Finding out some piece of fascinating, yet terrifying, knowledge about sex.
Elementary school playground talk bordered on the silly and patently false; no one freaked out when Cindy McClanahan told everyone that sex was when a girl and a boy licked each other’s butts, because no one thought that was actually true. Same when Billy Gibbs said that all the families in the neighborhood had two kids because wives got pregnant by eating one of their husband’s testicles. But middle schoolers are seeing more mature films, having more unsupervised time online, and hearing more from their older siblings, so their sex talk has the air of authenticity.
I’ll never forget the slumber party conversation during which I first heard of a blow job. Purely speculative, of course—my cadre of friends and I were still trying to get boys to notice we existed—but I was dumbfounded. What? People put… that’s a thing? So make sure you don’t talk about anything sexy around middle-schoolers. They’re already traumatized.
2. Being hopelessly, obsessively in love with someone.
Middle-schoolers are notorious for being fickle, but what their affections may lack in duration, they make up for in intensity. The Adored One may be someone your child has never interacted with, doesn’t currently interact with, and will never interact with. He or she might also be a giant fuck-up and the last person you’d ever want to see your child wed. Don’t sweat it. Once high school comes, he or she can move on to more terrifying people who might actually impregnate, or be impregnated by, them. You’re welcome.
If there’s one thing that defines a middle-schooler’s existence, it’s this senseless, aching passion known as a “crush.” My seventh-grade crush had long hair and an earring and smoked cigarettes behind Turner’s Bowling Alley, where I saw him every Saturday morning for Youth Bowling League. I would follow his movements with my eyes while Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” evoked in me a curious feeling I now know as “sexual awakening.” In my journal, I lamented the impossibility of our union; he was a rebel, I was a nerd, and we’d be forever fettered by the labels society had imposed upon us. He had a longtime girlfriend whose bangs were formidable in both size and stiffness. In 1989, this meant she was an alpha female. So I stayed to myself, drawing hearts on the cover of my journal with nail polish and obsessively calculating and recalculating our compatibility using a time-tested formula based on how many letters our names had in common.
For most of my middle school career, though, my crush was my academic rival, whom I inexplicably failed to woo by beating him twice in the school spelling bee. Although he lived in my neighborhood, the only time I ever came close to talking to him was when my parents drove by his house one summer day and he was outside shirtless mowing the lawn, whereupon I screamed and ducked behind the passenger seat. We did finally share a painfully robotic slow dance at the eighth-grade formal, but were “cut in” upon by a popular girl. She finished the dance with My One True Love while I went home to pack for the National Spelling Bee. The local paper ran a full-page photo of me with a mouth full of braces and my arm around an unabridged dictionary, which I’m sure made me irresistible to every boy in the eighth grade.
The moral of these stories is, there’s nothing you can do as a parent to control or even mitigate the vicissitudes of love. Just remember not to talk about anything sexy, ’cause it’s gross.
3. Contending with some sort of physical calamity.
There are so many of these in pre-adolescence—acne, orthodontic torture devices, changing in the locker room, the first menstrual period, random classroom boners. But what I remember most are the fashion calamities. At no other time in life will people look as completely ridiculous as they do in middle school. The evolution of my fashion sense in middle school went something like this:
Sixth grade: Hmm, my parents are largely picking out my clothes for me, but these hand-me-downs from a slightly older family friend obviously are not working out. You know what will fix that? A giant bow on my head for picture day, and silver shoes from Payless Shoe Source. There. Now you’re stylin’.
Seventh grade: Buy me whatever anyone else is wearing. I don’t know why people are doing this with the bottom of their jeans; just leave me alone. Yes, I need two pairs of socks. In contrasting colors.
Eighth grade: Now that I’ve almost got this figured out, it’s time to switch things up a bit. A skort in a loud, hideous print? And a matching one for my best friend? All we need is matching t-shirts decorated in puffy paint. I think we all can see who’s the trendsetter here!
Boys, at least, don’t have to contend with makeup. One day in eighth grade, I put mascara on my eyebrows. I have no idea why I did this. The boy who would later become my best friend, with a candor I’ve come to appreciate, said, “Oh my God — what did you do to your eyebrows?”
I shrugged. “Just something different, I guess.”
He continued to stare at my face. “You look like a vampire.”
Your parental responsibilities on this one are pretty light. Let your kids wear whatever. If you have to go to the mall, just walk far behind them. That’s what they want anyway.
4. Struggling to navigate a barely navigable social hierarchy.
If you have a middle-schooler, he or she is probably being threatened or socially excluded somehow. And chances are, he or she is threatening or excluding someone else. I don’t necessarily mean “threatening” in an overtly physical way, the way I was threatened by the biggest girl in seventh grade, nicknamed “Beef,” who vowed every day to beat me up in the locker room. She also enjoyed torturing me by putting my ink pens down her pants, which I had done absolutely nothing to warrant. (Except, I suppose, being a small, timid overachiever who named her ink pens. But that’s neither here nor there.)
“Threats” in middle school can be, and often are, unspoken, leveraged by those with social power. And since middle-schoolers most desire most social approval, those unspoken threats can be very compelling. Daily, middle-schoolers are getting thousands of (sometimes conflicting) social messages: If you do this, people will like you; If you do this, people won’t like you. Above all, the object is to conform, to blend. Not to stand out, and not to look weak. Middle-schoolers need to be babied sometimes, but they can’t risk letting anyone see it.
With such enormous social pressure, is it any wonder that middle-schoolers sometimes feel that pressure from their parents will take them over the edge? Parents want them to be mature, but not to grow up too fast; some kids are given the responsibilities of adulthood before they’re given the rights, some vice versa, and some are given both way too soon. I’ve seen enough kids cry in conferences to know that many do want to please. They just can’t please everyone, enough, all the time.
5. Worrying about being normal.
This is one thing you, as a parent, can do something about—nonverbally, verbally, whatever way you can. Middle-schoolers need reassurance that they’re OK. And that it’s all going to be OK, even if it seems weird and horrible right now.
In fact, that reassurance may be the single most important thing you can give. So give it liberally.
But don’t talk about sex. That’s gross.