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MIDDLE SCHOOL KIDS TODAY: PART II

Dr. Melvin Levine, an eminent behavioral pediatrician, has listed what he calls the Developmental Missions of Middle Childhood. Middle childhood is the time between preschool and high school so he is talking about children from ages 6-14. But all of these tasks take a while and all of these developmental processes are certainly talking place in middle school.

Because middle school can sometimes be such a challenge to kids, parents, and teachers I thought it would help to put things in perspective. When you come to the end of the following list of what these kids are doing in the way of developing themselves, remember all we have to do is bring home a paycheck and make dinner!

During middle childhood, these children have to undertake the following missions delineated by Dr. Levine. They must learn to:

SUSTAIN SELF-ESTEEM.

Feelings of worth can be strengthened or diminished by feedback from adults and peers, mastery in both school and social situations, and a sense of confidence and optimism. Nobody feels good about themselves all the time but children must learn to cope with peaks and valleys in feelings of self-worth.

FIND SOCIAL ACCEPTANCE.

This is easier for some children than others but all want to be popular and accepted. This mission includes developing social skills, being able to deal with peers in groups and individual friendships, and–because acceptance is so important at this age–giving popularity its proper ranking in the scheme of things.

RECONCILE INDIVIDUALITY WITH CONFORMITY.

There are powerful forces at work here to conform but there is also an increasingly powerful wish to become an individual. At this age many children sacrifice their own desire to what Levine calls “…the harshest of totalitarian governments, the despot being the peer group.” They dress and talk as they are expected to do in order to be cool rather than the way they want to.

DISCOVER AND EMULATE ROLE MODELS.

These kids often borrow or “try on” identities and seek out role models from older siblings or cousins to TV stars to a teacher or physician. Just as preschoolers model what they see their parents do in their games of “playing house” preteens imitate the behaviors of those they admire. The act of seeking role models other than parents is an important developmental stage.

EXAMINE VALUES.

Going to play at friend’s houses, spending time at other people’s houses in sleepovers, and going away to camp all expand the child’s “values horizons.” Hey, not everybody says or does what we do at home, a valuable lesson, no pun intended.

“MAKE IT” IN A FAMILY.

Although children this age are pressing hard for autonomy outside the family they very much need parental approval and credit for what they do outside the home. Sibling rivalry may reach high levels here as it did long ago in the sandbox.

EXPLORE AUTONOMY AND ITS LIMITS.

These are the testing years. What can I get away with in dress, language, lying? How defiant can I be at home? As in toddlerhood this is a time when kids loudly protesting the rules are simultaneously asking for parental control because they worry whether they are ready for the autonomy they seek.

ACQUIRE KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS.

Kids thrive on gaining competencies: school work, sports, extracurricular activities. They are keenly aware of not doing well and worried about not being smart. They may deliberately not do assignments as they prefer being “bad” to “dumb.”

LEARN TO LIVE WITHIN ONE’S BODY.

Kids at this stage have to learn to accept their own bodies (and stage of development) a lesson some of us never master. They also worry a lot about how their body is working and must figure out how to deal with physical pain and illness.

DEAL WITH FEARS.

Learning about the world enables kids to intellectualize away some anxiety. If you know there are no grizzlies within a thousand miles your fears of bears lessen. Others gain mastery by plating scary games and watching horror shows. But the big fears like anxiety about the future, possible disasters both man made and natural, and those caused by life transitions may be the hardest to conquer.

DEAL WITH APPETITES AND DRIVES.

We all must deal with bodily and emotional drives for food, sex, pleasure and wish for attention, praise, and material things. These never go away. Maturity in this area means you find ways to control these desires.

REFINE SELF-AWARENESS.

“Know thyself,” “Be true to yourself.” all presuppose you know who you are. It takes a long time from the first inclinations of self in infancy to a mature view of self-awareness. Children figure out pretty early what they are good at and what they are bad at. They often talk about themselves (“I’m no good at anything!”) or peers (“He’s a total wimp!”) as a way of analyzing themselves and who they are.

These 12 developmental missions sound daunting because they are. These tasks are numerous, must go on simultaneously and while tremendous bodily and cognitive growth occurs. Our middle-schoolers are truly marvels during this stage of growing up.

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