Middle schoolers - Children some days, miniature adults others

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

NEW YORK -- The only people who might have a more difficult time figuring out their place in the world than middle schoolers are their parents.

The 11- to 14-year-old group is stuck in a no man's land because they don't want to be treated like children and they're not ready to be teenagers, and that leaves parents walking a tightrope as they try to guide these youths from a mutually agreeable distance.

Carol Weston, author of "GirlTalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You" (HarperCollins), offers these words of wisdom: "Handle with care!"

"Middle school is a lot harder than anything these kids have gone through before," she says. "And your expectations as a parent have to change; you have to realize you don't have an 8-year-old anymore. Younger kids look up to adults and always give adults the benefit of the doubt. That's not so with middle schoolers."

Middle schoolers will question parents' authority -- and they should, says Weston, since middle school is the first step toward leaving the nest.

"They are going to the store by themselves for the first time, and walking to school. ... Yet they are still totally dependent on you," she says.

Preteens and young teenagers need constant affirmation from their parents and peers because they are so insecure and vulnerable, yet they'll do everything in their power to look cocky and self-assured, says Weston, who also is an advice columnist for Girls' Life magazine.

"Get used to hugging your child in the kitchen, not at the bus stop," she adds.

No matter how carefully parents tread, however, they are likely to spark kids' fuses occasionally. It's natural.

"The hormonal changes and growth spurts these kids are going through are more profound than at any other time in their lives," observes Evelyn Porreca Vuko, author of "Teacher Says: 30 Foolproof Ways to Help Kids Thrive in School" (Perigee).

Parents should expect emotional outbursts and be able to respond to them as grown-ups, not like oversized children with bruised egos, Vuko says. And, she adds, it's important for parents to stay positive because children respond better to praise than punishment. "Middle schoolers really want their parents' attention but they'd rather have root canal than admit it."

If they ask for homework help, take it seriously, she says. The amount of supervision middle schoolers need -- whether the subject is schoolwork or their social lives -- will vary, but Weston suggests parents make clear that they are indeed first and foremost parents, not pals.

"It's OK to put your foot down, just don't stomp it," Weston says. "It's ideal to have a few rules -- like for bedtime and homework -- and make them stick, because every night will be a battleground without those rules."

The rest of the time, though, show a willingness to negotiate.

Also, parents should get to know their children's friends without making snap judgments about them, according to Weston. Invite them all over and make everyone feel welcome, she says.

Give them some breathing room, though. "Young teenagers deserve some privacy if they are good kids, get good grades and have good friends. Trust your gut," Weston says.

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