Saturday, November 03, 2012

Should We Tell Kids That Their Lives Are Weird?

Last week, Slate magazine ran an article entitled "How Can We Make Middle School Less Awful?"  The authors made a number of compelling arguments.  Among them: A) Our society doesn't prioritize improving middle schools for a number of reasons, one being that adults are in charge of improving schools, and adults would rather not think about middle school, as they would by and large rather not call to mind their own middle school experiences B) middle school is important, since it is a predictor for high school success, which is in turn a predictor for later life success C) Schools that strive to meet the emotional needs of middle schoolers also end up ensuring that students' academic needs are met, and D) Meeting the emotional needs of middle schoolers means making them feel like their environment is both safe and fair.  Personally, I'm on board with all of the above.  But I also wonder what may be missing from this assessment.

For me, maturing into adulthood has always meant being constantly surprised--not necessarily by the present, but by the past.  The mindset of a child is that one's external environment is the norm, and they therefore must align their perception with that norm.  Perhaps for most this mindset even continues throughout one's life; part of being able to adapt to life changes involves recalibrating to a new norm.  In other words, there is a passive acceptance that "that was normal then; this is normal now."  But I've always had the habit of going back and re-evaluating the old norm, which usually has meant a retroactive change of perception. I can't help but realize that a world which I once thought was normal is actually, in hindsight, totally weird.  So I'm inclined to say "this is normal now; so that must have been weird then."

For example, when I was in sixth grade, it was commonly accepted among my peers that there was a Satanic cult in our town which conducted ritual sacrifices in "the old Monarch Range building," presumably while listening to Metallica (actually, in the 1980s, easy acceptance of allegations of ritualistic Satanism was not limited to middle school kids).  Five years hence, my peer group had a new norm.  No longer were we thinking that Satanists had infiltrated our community--the focus had turned to urban gangs.  Of course, the examples need not be sensationalistic.  The sociology of fads, the measure of cultural capital, comprehension of morality (and consequences for breaching moral imperatives), notions of conformity--all of these factors illustrate that the reality of a preadolescent (or any unemancipated minor for that matter) bears shockingly little resemblance to the reality that they will one day inhabit.

But we don't make too big of a deal of this.  We generally communicate to children within the context of the reality they inhabit and allow them to proceed, sometimes gradually, sometimes dramatically, into the next reality.  And then once they are there, we don't ask them to go back and relive the old one. 

But what would be an alternative to this?  We could sit down middle schoolers and inform them (in so many words) that the world they are living in is actually a weird one, separate from the normal one that their parents live in.  We could trace for the implications of the weirdness of their existence.  This might mean telling them that many of the things they like now they will not care about in the future and that many of their friends now won't be their friends in the future.  This may allow us to better isolate for them what is normal about their weird existence.  We could emphasize that how they treat other people and how well they learn in school are parts of their lives that do have implications long beyond their present, weird, reality.

And perhaps we could do better to bring our supposedly normal reality to them.  If a study comes out that shows the causes and effects of bullying among pre-adolescents, rather than keep such information to ourselves, perhaps we could share it with them.  If they seek to transgress for the sake of transgression, we may change the focus from talking about why a boundary is set, and instead perhaps disarm them by showing that we understand the sociology of transgression.  If they seek to have some measure of control over their environment, is there a way to enfranchise them without necessarily giving them voting privileges?

I'm not suggesting that we force our children to grow up too fast.  But I am suggesting that if they are already outgrowing something, maybe it's best not to try to let them labor under the illusion that what they are growing into is anything but a penultimate, weird existence.  But maybe that's too weird of an idea to catch on.


Blogger Heather T said...

Now that I've found myself in the midst of raising a middle school aged child, it is easy for me to say things are weird now. Questions I could ask my son before are now taboo. Situations suddenly turn awkward without notice, especially if his friends are around. As my son tries to establish where he fits in amonst his peers, I now find myself analyzing my image and reestablishing where I fit in amonst the other middle school moms!

7:18 PM  
Blogger Heather T said...


7:19 PM  

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