Parenting Through Middle School: A Talk with Judith Warner

Parenting Through Middle School: A Talk with Judith Warner

By Elaine Griffin

“We expect that middle school will be an awful time,” acclaimed author Judith Warner reflected, during our phone conversation about her most recent book, “And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School.” According to Ms. Warner, that’s all wrong. “Don’t assume it’s going to be horrible,” she wants to tell parents. “Don’t allow your own memories to drive your expectations about your child’s experience.” There’s a larger message here about letting your kids live their own lives rather than seeing them as mirrors of your own. If parents are going to make sense of middle school, they need to exercise some common sense in their relationships with their children.

Photograph of author Judith Warner

Ms. Warner’s book is wonderfully broad in its reach and bracingly instructive in its approach. She chronicles the historical development of the middle school; recounts the brain science that explains the adolescent mind; and offers illustrative anecdotes from her own experiences as a parent and from interviews with other adults about their middle school experiences.

When talking with Ms. Warner, I asked her to reflect upon all that she’d learned through her research so that she might give some advice to USM’s middle school parents. The following take-aways are drawn from my conversation with her and informed by my reading of her book. 

1. Parents should recognize their child as a unique individual

Ms. Warner is a big fan of psychologist Michael Thompson (a USM/REDgen speaker last year), and she recalls him issuing this warning: “When a parent says, ‘my child is just like me,’ they’ve lost sight of the child.” “Parents don’t say this out of egotism or narcissism,” she noted. “Instead it’s how they understand empathy. But the last thing a kid this age wants to hear is that their parent doesn’t fully see them.” Middle schoolers are struggling to define their identity, leave aspects of their childlike selves behind, and be recognized for their unique selves. They love their parents. But they need to be themselves.

2. Be a parent rather than a friend to your child

A kid can have a lot of friends, but they only get two parents; that simple fact makes parenthood very special. Honor the boundaries that define that relationship. Ms. Warner found that the parents who struggle most with their child’s middle school years are the parents who are much too immersed in their child’s world. As a result, such parents live out the dramas, quarrels, and social rejection that happen during adolescence. But they also take those micro-crises to heart in a way their own child does not. Children usually recover from slights or fights much more quickly than do their parents, who remember and hold grudges. “Don’t confuse your own suffering with your child’s,” Ms. Warner cautioned. “Don’t conflate your feelings with theirs.” In her book she writes, “[s]ometimes, the parent-child boundary slippage is so extreme that it’s almost impossible to tell whose drama it is.” When your child shares a problem with you, do your best to defuse the issue by providing a measured response and by calming their fears. You’ve got the breadth and perspective that comes from experience. Use it.

3. Withhold all judgement about a middle schooler’s body, brain, and maturity

In her chapter on the adolescent brain, Ms. Warner states that “the most rapid and wide-reaching changes to our brains after the toddler years occur right before puberty and extend through adolescence.” In our conversation, she stressed that adults should “understand that the developmental range of kids at this age is at the widest of any period in childhood.” Instead adults are often judgmental because they fail to recognize the big range of what counts as normal during these years. “We judge kids if they are too physically mature, especially girls, or too physically immature,” Warner observed. “Sometimes kids who are lagging behind physically or academically can be seen as less than. But this is really just a developmental phase. We are so normative now in what we expect middle schoolers to be—socially, academically and physically.” Kids’ brains and bodies grow and change so much during and after middle school that we should refrain from labeling them at all. They are truly works in progress. Ms. Warner warns that “kids already judge themselves so harshly at this age. Adults shouldn’t reinforce that.”

"And Then They Stopped Talking to Me" book cover

4. Avoid stalking your child’s social media accounts

Ms. Warner did much more research than she was able to squeeze into her already rich book; some of it involved social media and kids. She recalled watching a CNN report that examined kids’ social media accounts, suspecting that those accounts would be shocking. They weren’t. “They didn’t find much that was scandalous and terrible,” Warner recalled. “When kids do post that kind of material, they are often trying out different personas,” she continued. “When I was young, I made up handwriting styles with different personas behind them.” Ms. Warner acknowledges that “spying on kids’ social media accounts can expose parents to seemingly horrible things,” but parents don’t have context and therefore frequently imagine realities that don’t exist. “Parents do this with the best of intentions, and I get the sense that there’s peer pressure to do it,” Warner said. “But are you getting truth with a capital T? Furthermore, if kids know you’re spying on them, they’ll simply create other accounts,” she added. “Kids need to have space for an inner life and privacy.” Ms. Warner instead suggests that adults “engage kids in a discussion on the notion of a curated life. Schools should educate kids about the risks of hurting someone’s feelings and doing harm when they don’t mean to. We need to talk to kids throughout middle school because they are still listening to the adults in their lives. Teach them why people’s mental health can suffer when they compare themselves to others.” These conversations about social media are much more productive than spying.

5. Cultivate and practice values such as kindness and empathy at home

Ms. Warner writes in her book “that the greatest danger facing middle schoolers right now isn’t their phones or their peers. It’s us—or, more specifically, it’s the common values that hold sway in our world: selfishness, competition, and personal success at any cost. Research shows that those values are psychologically damaging for all people, at all ages… But, precisely because early adolescence is such a critical period, they hit middle schoolers extra hard.” That’s because during these years, kids are in an intermediary stage between family belonging and independent selfhood. They are orienting themselves towards their peers and trying to fit into a new tribe. Adolescents are willing to be mean—or put up with peers who are mean—to belong to a tribe; this, Ms. Warner notes, is an “adaptive response to a uniquely vulnerable moment in human life.”

For the adults in such kids’ lives, that means game on; as Warner rightly insists, we need to “teach a better, kinder, smarter, more compassionate way of being.” We need to pay attention to the “actions and qualities that normally don’t have much cachet in middle school.” Teachers should show kids how to expand their social circles and how to consider multiple perspectives. Parents can do a lot, too. In her book, Warner advises that parents “don’t have to make a big, noisy show of rounding up a group of kids for a party or sleepover while the uninvited look on… They don’t have to advertise their kids’ activities on Instagram.” They could require phones to be put away at birthday parties to ensure that everyone is celebrating the birthday kid. They can elevate conversations rather than participating in gossip. “Parents of middle schoolers, who are so uniquely at risk for toxic FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), need to question whether their own addiction to being able to reach their kids at the drop of a hat is standing in the way of the kids’ well-being.”

At the conclusion of our conversation, I asked Ms. Warner if she had any insights about middle schoolers and their parents gleaned from our collective challenges with online learning this past spring. She said that parents “have had to confront the necessity of saying ‘no’ more frequently because of the high-stakes circumstances surrounding a global pandemic. While kids push against restrictions and say ‘everyone is having a sleepover, but you’re not letting me,’ parents have had to stick to their guns for health reasons. This is a new experience for parents who are used to negotiating with their kids.” Ms. Warner added that “one unexpected side effect of this hard situation is that it has released some kids from toxic friend groups. They began reconnecting with their lower school friends, or their less popular friends. They went outside of their usual social structure, and there is real joy and freedom in that.”

There’s similar joy and freedom awaiting you with Ms. Warner’s book. It’s a liberation from the tyranny of expectations—unfair, unrealistic, and often just plain misguided—regarding what you’re “supposed” to be doing as a parent. Instead of seeing your child’s middle school years as a hurdle to surmount or a challenge to endure, embrace them in the way you’d welcome an opening flower, coming into its own and discovering itself in the springtime of life. Don’t crowd your children as they turn toward the light. Instead celebrate their growth into themselves, in all their radiant glory.

About Elaine Griffin:

Elaine Griffin has worked at University School of Milwaukee since 1998, serving as the head of Middle School since 2019. Previously, she served as the assistant head of Upper School and taught Upper School English. She has both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in English, and served as the president of the Whitefish Bay Library.

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