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MIDDLE SCHOOL KIDS TODAY: PART I

Transitions are always difficult. And the transition from elementary school to high school–those three or four years we now call middle school–is one of the toughest transitions of all.

Let’s look at a typical middle school child. Oops, that’s one of the problems! There is no such thing as a typical middle school child. They come in a huge variety of sizes and shapes. I looked at growth charts of normal children aged 10 to 14. Children between the 5th and 95th percentiles are considered normal—“on the growth chart”–if they fall between those two lines. So if we wander through a middle school we can see kids between 50 1/2 and 66 1/4 inches weighing between 53 3/4 and 148 1/4 pounds. This is a range of 16 inches and 94 pounds! And they all come from elementary school where the kids don’t differ to such a degree.

Why such a variance? Two reasons: people, including children, come in different sizes and shapes. And puberty happens. But it happens at different times in different kids which means that some kids are having their growth spurt while others are standing pretty still in growth. My twin grandchildren just turning 12 are a good example. The girl twin is spurting in growth while the boy is not. She is one of the tallest girls in her class, he is the shortest boy in his class.

Because peers are extremely important to kids this age, looking different can be troublesome. The fact that there is such a big difference in normal middle-schoolers and that EVERYBODY worries about how they look is not much comfort.

What’s going on in the brains of middle-schoolers? Lots! There is an enormous amount of intellectual maturation in both this period and late adolescence. The concrete operations (understanding that there are rules and other people in the world) that Piaget describes in younger children matures to formal operations. This means that what characterizes earlier thought morphs into being able to think in terms of possibilities and deal with things that are not observed. This new flexible thinking means the child, can begin to explore ideas and values, look for and find alternatives, separate actual from possible, and cope with hypotheticals. Abstract thinking now begins but is not fully developed until the 20s (though teens of 18 can drink, vote, drive, and go to war).

There are big emotional swings in adolescence. Young adolescents have their own brand of egocentrism. They no longer think of themselves ad the center of the universe the way an egocentric preschooler does, but they are painfully concerned with themselves and how their peers view them. There is always an imaginary audience to worry about. Everybody at school will laugh at everything—the zit or clothes or haircut. These kids process an imaginary fable in their heads with themselves as unique and they have fantasies about what they will become from president to a rock star. It takes a while for them to realize that these fables are not reality and meanwhile there are areas of emotional misery like looks (size, acne, a real or imaginary deformity), peer relationships, and fears they are not pleasing their parents.

Relationships are of prime importance to middle-schoolers. Peers are paramount but these kids vacillate between wanting to fit in so they won’t be noticed and wanting to stand out so everybody will notice them. Aren’t you glad you’re not a middle-schooler?

As for relationships with parents. Middle-schoolers need two things from their parents. They need to know–even at the very moment they are being most obnoxious (“Motherrrr, everybody is going!’)–that their parents will set limits. And they need your full attention when they need you. Those days of having your own daydreams while pushing a stroller are long over.

In Part II I will tell you about the developmental tasks or missions of these children.

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