I can’t say I feel old enough, but it’s true: we have a child in middle school. In two days, Liam will start his first day of sixth grade.
A new school. A new chapter. A whole new world.
And as much as we sometimes feel like a deer in the headlights, thankfully, we’re not on our own during this transition to middle school. We have experts—parents, teachers, friends—around us who are already giving us insight into the middle school mind. They are people who’ve been there, know what we’re going through, and can help us along the way.
This past week week, I attended a three hour orientation at Liam’s school, learning about what to expect when you’re expecting a middle schooler in the house. One of the breakout sessions, taught by the school counsellor, was exceptionally valuable, not only for us as parents but also for those of us who work with Tweens and Middle School Students in the context of ministry. This week, I’ll be unpacking that session on the blog.
Part 1: The Middle School Changes
According to John Medina in his book Brain Rules, our sixth graders, at 11 years old, are experiencing as much rapid change as they did when they were two years old. Except this time all that change affects more than their afternoon nap. Middle school brains are being rewired as kids are growing into full-fledged adults.
There are four major areas where middle school kids are changing.
After walking into a room of sixth graders, it does’t take long to notice that kids mature at different rates. In general boys and girls develop at different rates. Many of the boys still look like they could be in fourth grade. This will change over the course of middle school. Kids will grow up. Yet as they grow, the body doesn’t grow at a standard ratio. Meaning, the body doesn’t just stretch evenly from child to adult. For middle schoolers, the upper body may grow faster than their legs, or their feet might grow faster than the rest of their body, or kids might even start looking like bobble-heads again. They don’t call these the “Awkward years” for nothing.
We’ve all gone through this. We’ve taken the pictures and burned them years ago. We try hard to forget the braces and bad hair, or that time we tripped UP the flights of stairs… with a tray of food… in front of cool kids. It’s a tough time to be a human. The more grace we can offer our kids, the better they will feel about themselves.
It’s no secret that our middle school kids are more “worldly” than any previous middle school generation. Now, by “worldly” we’re not taking about 11 year olds getting drunk on the couch on a Saturday night, rather sixth graders have access to the world at unprecedented level. They can find all sorts of information within seconds from a device that sits in the palm of their hands. Our kids are digital natives, they grew up in a tech-savvy world and can operate technology with ease. They can discover anything they want whenever they want. Yet, developmentally, so much of that information is beyond what they can understand.
Even though they are growing their ability to understand abstract concepts, middle school kids are still quite shallow in the way they think. They are more like children than adults. They are still primarily concerned about “right now” and have a hard time getting excited about events that are still several weeks away.
It seems that the world around us is trying to get kids to grow up faster than they are developmentally able to handle. It’s ok for us to set boundaries regarding TV and technology time and limit the possibility of exposing our kids to information and experiences that could hurt them.
Have you ever wanted to ask your kids, “Who are you and what did you do with our son?” Sometimes it seems like are kids are three different people trapped in the same body. The truth is they are. Sometimes they can help this, but most of it they can’t. They are hormonal, moody, and often irritable at a moment’s notice.
On top of the hormones, they have a fragile self-concept. Sixth graders are still quite egotistical. It’s “All Me” all the time. They take everything personally, and wonder if they’re good enough.
To help them through this, we can offer our kids safe places to land. Sometimes they just need space to clear their heads. They need us constantly to remind them they have value and that we love them in spite of the crazy. We can bring positive leaders into their life who will give them an objective person to listen when they just need to vent about what’s going on.
You may start to hear your kids say something like this, “But she wouldn’t wear that.” Or “Is he going to be there?” They are truly starting to care about what their peers think of them. Sixth graders are starting to experience a growing dependance on peers to find self-worth. They want to make friends and hang out with their friends without us around. This is the stage where they start to detach from family and begin to develop their independence.
Yet because these kids are unsure of who they are and who they really want to be and hang around with, their friend groups will change. People who were best friends in elementary school become casual acquaintances or people they may say hi to in the halls. Don’t be alarmed if your kids have different friend groups throughout the year. They are figuring out who they are and will have multiple and short-lived interests. It’s just part of the process of growing up.
For parents, we should remember that even though our kids want more independence, we are still the most important thing in their lives, even if they don’t tell us. We can Widen the Circle and bring trusted adults into their life to say what we’d say and love how we’d love.
As ministry leaders, it’s important to surround these kids with small group leaders who will understand them and accept them as they are. Give them a safe place to talk through the crazy and process life in this time of transition.
Throughout the sixth grade year, our kids will experience rapid growth. We were promised that it won’t be easy, but it will be an adventure worth taking and seeing through to the end.