I had dinner with a new friend the other night. She has been a friend to me in several ways this year, but we actually met for the first time that night. She is a mom to three boys between the ages of 13 and 18. And they are all neurotypical.
We talked about the apparent lack of student support for The Boy and his friend in the marching band. She carefully and respectfully defended kids like her son who are more than happy to interact with a peer on the spectrum at home, but not necessarily at school, where peer pressure can be a hard thing for any kid to overcome. She said in middle school, everyone is trying to fit in, and in high school, everyone is trying to get out.
After 17 years teaching at both levels, I get that.
But to my ears, it rang as old-fashioned as the tired phrase, “Boys will be boys.”
Of course, I understand and fully believe how difficult it can be for middle school-aged children to look beyond themselves to see others who need help. It’s Child Psychology 101 – at that age, as you may remember, they see themselves as the center of their own universe. Remember thinking everyone would laugh at you for that zit on the end of your nose, or the bad haircut, or the crazy sweater your aunt bought you? But they really didn’t (unless they were mean kids, anyway), because they were too busy worrying about their own zits, and haircuts, and sweaters. Indeed, some people never grow out of this psychological stage, but that’s another post.
Most of us do grow up, and realize it’s in the caring for others that we find ourselves.
And what we need to realize is that our kids need assistance in growing up and out of this psychological stage. Yes, it’s normal, but we don’t want them to stay there. Just as we taught them to walk and tie their shoes, we need to teach them to be their own person. We as parents need to help them understand that “different” is not inherently bad, and we need to expose them to “different”, whether it be people, foods, cultures, or ideologies. Seeing and learning about differences is how we figure out and find peace with ourselves. What a gift it is to learn that we are not alone in our weirdness! Who wouldn’t want to help their children find that awareness??
Yes, it’s hard for typical middle schoolers to break out of their comfort zone and befriend someone perceived as different in front of other middle schoolers. But what a teachable moment, rife with lessons! Pick up the baton, parents, and show them the way.