Push Your Middle Schooler to Take Risks

Today’s guest post comes from Michelle Icard, a.k.a Michelle in the Middle. I met Michelle when I was giving a talk in Charlotte, NC. Afterward, we were on a panel together and I found her ideas so compelling I had to ask for a piece of paper to take notes! What she knows about middle schoolers could fill a book — and now it does:  She’s the author of Middle School Makeover: Improving The Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years . (Boldface is mine.) – Lenore

Assistant Managers Needed in the Risk Department by Michelle Icard

If you’re the parent of a tween, you know things start to get pretty confusing around the time your child enters 5th grade and all the way through middle school.  Your kid craves — in fact, needs — independence. Often, you may find yourself torn between how much is too much…and maybe your kid is, too.

If only we knew exactly the right age to let our kids have smart phones, go on dates, start wearing make-up, or stay at the mall after dark with friends.

But while there may not be hard and fast rules for these rites of passage, there is clear research that shows:

A) The adolescent brain is biologically compelled to take risks – a wonderful thing, we should remind ourselves, otherwise our kids might would get extra comfy in front of the Xbox and decide applying to college or getting a job just aren’t worth it. And

B) Positive risks feels just as satisfying to a teen’s brain as negative risks. In other words, the kid who auditions for the school play gets the same rush as the kid who steals his dad’s beer. We should be pushing our kids to do things that scare them – and us – to satisfy the biological need for risk so that they don’t find more dangerous ways to satisfy it themselves.

OK, so the “when” of taking risks may be vague and a struggle for parents, but the “why” is clear. And to help with the “how,” I offer this: by the time your child is transitioning to middle school, you’ve established yourself as family manager. You’ve managed schedules, arranged carpools, fixed pop-up problems, doled out appropriate consequences and generally taken full responsibility for the success of your team. Today, I have good news.

You’re getting demoted!

Once your children enter middle school, they need practice solving their own problems, managing their own schedules, evaluating risk, and anticipating consequences. What they need is for you to become a really good assistant manager.  Think back to the best manager you ever had. What qualities did they possess that helped you be successful at your job?

Let me guess: Consistent communication, clear expectations, freedom to explore your own options, not overly emotional, trust, respect for your private life, ability to lead without micro-managing, etc. This is your “how.” Think of this as your job description for the next few years. Inversely, remember the worst manager you ever worked for and, well, don’t do what he or she did.

You may not know exactly the right times to let your kids take the next big steps toward independence, but keeping in mind the how and why of letting your kids do things on their own might help the timing fall into place a little bit more easily. Good luck! – M.I.

 

Welcome to Middle School. Now -- take risks!

Welcome to Middle School. Now — take risks!

 

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16 Responses to Push Your Middle Schooler to Take Risks

  1. Crystal June 3, 2014 at 8:32 am #

    Wow, great stuff!

  2. nina June 3, 2014 at 9:49 am #

    Administration of my kids’ middle school realizes that tweens and teens require more freedoms and actually encourages independent thinking and team building activities. There is a nation wide competition between teams of middle schoolers called “Future City” which is very popular in our schools district. Kids are required to build a utopian society from ground up including a floor model of a city and write up basics for entire urban infrastructure (government, transportation, defense, education, industry, etc). And yes, I did say defense. Our schools do not go in a lock down mode if students overhead discussing weapons. No adult involvement is allowed. In fact teams get disqualified if they are suspected in getting outside help. There is a teacher that helps kids with application process and understanding of the rules, but that’s the end of her participation. Students meet during lunch and after school in each others houses. They are required to manage their own time and resources. They have a budget of a $100. Our school did not make it past the regionals, but they did win a consolation cash prize of $200 for most unusual ideas. This competition is supported by various engineering and tech companies that are scouting for talent early.

  3. KLY June 3, 2014 at 10:09 am #

    We are just now finishing up the last few days of Middle School, and encouraging this as a time of risk taking and exploring independence for my daughter has done so much for her.

    To my way of thinking, our role as parents during the teen years drops back to that of “support team”. I’m here to help her out, answer questions and give advice (and steer her in the right direction when she needs it), and just generally help her with follow-through on her own plans if necessary. This is her chance to explore her options, strengthen her own judgement and decision-making skills, and practice at navigating life while I am still here to act as a safety net. Middle school has been the foundation for setting her up for exactly that.

    I see too many parents whose kids are already in High School who are fretting over the idea that their kids will be going off into the world soon, because they have only just started to think about those independent life skills and aren’t sure their kids will be ready. While I will still just be a phone call away when she goes off to college, I’d like for those calls to be because she wants to talk, and not because she’s overwhelmed by basic life skills or unable to figure things out for herself. Or because she’s afraid to attempt things outside her comfort zone.

    People sometimes look at me a little strange because she’ll ask permission to do something, and after granting it I’ll wave her off to make all the arrangements herself with a reminder to just let me know the details when she’s got them worked out, and they always seem a little astounded at how confident and capable she seems. I often hear “Oh, my teen just isn’t ready for that sort of thing,” which can sometimes be true, but far too often actually means “I am not ready to let go enough for them to do that.”

  4. Havva June 3, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    My whole town growing up had the opposite attitude toward middle school kids. The school cracked down hard on us. I don’t remember if we were or were not allowed to leave campus in elementary school, it never came up. But in middle school they not only let it be known that we weren’t allowed out. They painted yellow lines on the ground and gave us 5 minutes to get inside the lines at lunch where we were required to stay put for 10 minutes. (There were no bathrooms inside the lines). When they let us out of the lines we couldn’t be with more than 2 other people at a time. (In elementary we were encouraged to play in large groups).

    Rather than getting more freedom in middle school we got less. So kids suddenly became “behavior problems” with attendant consequences (lack of freedom) at home. A truly vicious cycle.

  5. nina June 3, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

    @havva,
    It’s quite the opposite where we live. Our elementary school is pretty obsessed with various safety measures, like no running at the playground, etc. I know a lot of middle schoolers and they all say that they finally get to breathe freely because teachers have much more common sense. Though they are not allowed to leave school property for lunch, once school is over they are simply let out and are free to decide how to get home:take a bus or walk/bike. There are also quite a few interest clubs available for students before or after school and students are expected to manage their time. Most middle schoolers I know seem to thrive in this environment.

  6. Brenna June 3, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

    @KLY – I often hear “Oh, my teen just isn’t ready for that sort of thing,” which can sometimes be true, but far too often actually means “I am not ready to let go enough for them to do that.”

    THAT IS SO TRUE!!! I so often want to ask people how they know their kids aren’t ready, when they’ve never even let them try. Or they give some example of how their child made a minor mistake, and so they “aren’t ready”, rather than using it as a learning experience. Our kids aren’t going to do things perfectly when we first start giving them independence, but I still don’t manage things perfectly. So why do I expect perfection out of them? Mistakes are the absolute best way for them to learn, and I’d rather they learn in middle school than college or adulthood.

  7. Donna June 3, 2014 at 2:38 pm #

    “I often hear ‘Oh, my teen just isn’t ready for that sort of thing,’ which can sometimes be true, but far too often actually means ‘I am not ready to let go enough for them to do that.'”

    I hear that all the time too and, even with a littler one, I often wonder why these parents have so little faith in their kids. And how disheartening it must be for the kids to hear their parents say that they aren’t able do something that they haven’t even tried to do. Why would they ever even want to ask to do that thing if they’ve already been told that they aren’t up to the challenge by their parents? While I don’t agree with the sentiment, I have much greater respect for their parents I know who will openly admit that they are not allowing their children to do certain things because they (the parents) are not ready for it to happen, rather than convincing themselves that their children can’t handle it.

  8. Havva June 3, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    “I often hear ‘Oh, my teen just isn’t ready for that sort of thing,’ which can sometimes be true, but far too often actually means ‘I am not ready to let go enough for them to do that.’”

    I think that is just an extension of the parents who with younger kids say “an x year old can’t ______, they’ll ____ or ____.” The one I ran into a lot as a young kid was being left “unsupervised” in the children’s section of the library. It was a tiny place and I was never more than a few feet from mom. The complaining mom’s kids of course would start climbing furniture and pulling books off the shelf while she complained to the librarian about me minding my own business quietly enjoying a book while sitting in a chair. And to my return complaints about her child’s behavior the moms would point blank refused to tell their children that such behavior was wrong. They assured me that their (often older) child simply wasn’t ready to behave, wasn’t ready to know better. I of course told them the kid would never behave if she didn’t tell them what was right and wrong. Some accused my mom of being abusive for teaching me not to behave like a hooligan in the library.

    Same seems to go with capable teens. Parents don’t believe that skills are learned, but instead think these things just appear at some point (with no practice). So they don’t foster the development of the skills. Then when they see a kid who can do something their kid can’t they say (and undoubtedly believe) that the kid who has learned some skills is just a freak (or hot-housed).

  9. Amanda Matthews June 3, 2014 at 4:22 pm #

    @Havva

    “My whole town growing up had the opposite attitude toward middle school kids. The school cracked down hard on us. I don’t remember if we were or were not allowed to leave campus in elementary school, it never came up. But in middle school they not only let it be known that we weren’t allowed out.”

    I never thought about it but I had a similar experience. I guess the idea was that we were going to start getting interested in drugs, guns, and sex so they had to ensure we couldn’t/wouldn’t have a chance to do any of that.

    There was no “closed campus” in elementry school, and several kids went home for lunch often. But once I got to middle school that wasn’t allowed. Of course the school lunches were crap, and as we weren’t allowed to go to our lockers between classes, bringing your lunch ensured that before lunchtime your lunch would be squished by your books and/or dropped as you went between the 4 floors. So, many kids left campus anyway, which of course got them labeled as rule breakers, trouble makers. If eating a decent lunch is outlawed, only outlaws will eat a decent lunch…

    Restroom rules were a lot more strict, which of course makes no sense when you have a bunch of girls that are just begining to get their periods. I can’t imagine thinking that maybe you need to change your pad and being refused restroom access. I just never asked, personally – can’t be told no if you don’t ask – but I did see other students being refused.

    And on that subject – am I the only one that finds the whole “asking for permission to use the restroom” thing completely ridiculous? What on earth is that teaching kids – don’t listen to your body, don’t learn to manage your own bathroom breaks as you’ll need to do at jobs; WE will tell you when to pee. Now shut up like a good prisoner.

  10. Rachel @ Wife, Then Mama June 3, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

    @Amanda – I think that having kids ask permission to use the bathroom is good idea, most of the time. I have the feeling that a lot of kids would have to use the bathroom multiple times during a class if they were allowed to leave without permission. I know that my three year old magically “has to pee” every five minutes when it is time to play in his room without the other kids. I am pretty sure that this habit wouldn’t change much as kids get older. Even when you are an adult and at work you don’t just get up in the middle of a meeting and go to the bathroom without excusing yourself. If you work retail, you don’t just leave the sales floor/cash register when you have to use the bathroom, you tell someone else you are going so they can cover for you. As a student I was never told no when I asked to go to the bathroom, so I kind of see it more as being polite and letting the teacher know where I was going than asking permission.

  11. wombat94 June 3, 2014 at 4:48 pm #

    About two months ago my oldest daughter came to us and asked if she could switch from her current school (a charter school) to the middle school for our school district. Asking me and my wife was risk #1… we had offered her the chance to make this switch before 6th grade and she chose to stay at the charter, so it was courageous to go back and re-visit a decision she had already made.

    We level set with her, that we would take an open mind to the process of evaluating both schools’ pros and cons… and we did. We surprised ourselves by ending up finding no reason to require that she stay at the charter school (and secretly to ourselves both thinking that the public school might be the better choice).

    Ultimately, we left the decision to her and after careful consideration of all the major factors (social/friends, academics, art/music opportunities, extracurriculars) she made the decision to change schools for next year.

    It is a risky proposition to leave what is familiar, and a place where she has truly thrived, but the opportunity for new and different experiences appears to be worth it in her mind.

    I’m proud both of her willingness to take the risk and the very reasonable and reasoned process that she went through to arrive at that decision.

    We didn’t push her to take this risk, but encouraged her to consider the benefits of both options and choose the one that she wanted most.

  12. Havva June 3, 2014 at 4:49 pm #

    @Amanda Matthews,

    ” I guess the idea was that we were going to start getting interested in drugs, guns, and sex so they had to ensure we couldn’t/wouldn’t have a chance to do any of that. ”

    That is precisely what they were on about. They told us that frequently and loudly. They even told us frequently the point of needlessly repetitive homework, and long projects over breaks was “to keep you kids off the streets.” This in a town with almost zero gang activity. Teacher were not swayed by my argument that the types of kids who would want to get into gangs were not the type to care about good grades. They had no issues with telling us that we were totally unworthy of any trust. When I complained to the office about scissors getting banned I was told they didn’t care to hear from little punks. I told them they could check my discipline record and see for themselves that it was clean. I was told: “All of you break the rules, you just haven’t been caught yet!” They weren’t completely wrong. They were so draconian with the identical twin of a girl who died of an asthma attack (it nearly took a lawsuit to let her carry her inhaler), and her non-identical sister didn’t get to keep her inhaler (frequent searches to ensure she didn’t conceal one). Thus there was no way I was telling them about my asthma. But I had been caught, my bus driver had administered the inhaler when I was too oxygen deprived to do it myself. The driver and a busload of kids just saw no reason to tell. When inhalers are banned, only outlaw asthmatics get to live.

  13. Amanda Matthews June 4, 2014 at 11:22 am #

    “Even when you are an adult and at work you don’t just get up in the middle of a meeting and go to the bathroom without excusing yourself. If you work retail, you don’t just leave the sales floor/cash register when you have to use the bathroom, you tell someone else you are going so they can cover for you.”

    But there is a HUGE difference between “I’m going to the bathroom” and “Can I go to the bathroom?”

    I think that the whole using it as an excuse thing would get out of their systems a few weeks into kindergarten. Of course, kids that are already used to NOT being able to just go will use it as an excuse, but if it’s part of school from the beginning – learning that balance between needing to go, and not missing anything important – then things will balance out.

    And really at 3 years old they do have to pee pretty frequently – they just don’t notice as much when they are engaged in something. So yes a bored 3 year old is going to go to the toilet more often – but is that a bad thing? As they get older, they’ll focus when they’re engaged in school – they’ll go pee when they aren’t. Having kids go just pee when the teacher is helping someone else, rather than having the teacher stop and say yes is much more efficient.

  14. Amanda Matthews June 4, 2014 at 12:15 pm #

    And really if we can’t trust “kids” up to the age of 18 to manage their own bathroom breaks at school, how can we trust them to manage them at college or at jobs?

  15. A Dad June 8, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

    Argh, this is making too much sense.
    I can’t take it.
    My head is going to explode.

  16. A Dad June 8, 2014 at 2:12 pm #

    Reading some of the comments about middle school.

    I was driving when I was 8 y/o on the family farm – trucks and tractors.

    My parents didn’t give me the “He’s not ready” BS.