The country is falling apart. We don’t even know what day it is. So why should we care about eighth-grade graduation?
And yet, it’s eighth-grade parents who really should take the time to pause and commemorate the moment. Because the middle school passage is a huge emotional milestone — above all, for those moms and dads.
We don’t tend to think about it this way. Instead, we talk about the middle school transition as a heady time for kids, who are consumed by all the developmental challenges of becoming more independent, navigating much more complex social relationships, going through puberty and grappling with more complicated and sophisticated feelings and ideas.
There’s a whole body of literature, going back centuries, that captures what that experience looks like and feels like. Some of it is accurate; much of it partakes of the steaminess of pubescent boy fantasy, generalized to girls, and traditionally filtered through the narrow lens of white, highly educated, heterosexual male adult preoccupations. In recent decades — since the era of Judy Blume — our pop culture has given us some untarnished girl perspectives. Young Adult novels devoured now by middle-schoolers bring LGBTQ perspectives and windows into the lives and minds of young adolescents of different races and backgrounds.
What we’ve never really had, however, is any sort of cultural acknowledgment of the inner dramas of middle school parents. We hear lots of complaints about the ravages of “raging hormones” — the words thrown out so quickly and consistently, so thoughtlessly and insistently, that they make clear they’re serving as a screen, walling off a whole universe of things left unsaid and feelings unexpressed.
It’s the emotional reality that rears up for so many of us in embarrassing and unexpected tears, or stupid fights and inexplicable family blowups, on the last day of eighth grade. I’m talking about the palpable feeling of loss that comes from knowing that the child who has filled the cozy center of your life for so many years — making you so very “busy,” necessitating so much time and worry, needing rides everywhere, requiring nagging, and checking up on, and cooking for, and reading to — is about to become a teenager with a life you’ll never again be able to fully visualize. Buying clothes without you there, making friends you’ll never meet, reading books you’ve never read, having adventures that leave you behind. You know full well that these are all good things — and that only makes the sense of abandonment that accompanies it more perplexing, and hard to see.
No one really admits to this suite of emotions — there’s no archetypical book or movie or TV show about end-of-middle-school parent angst. And yet, American mothers and fathers have been telling psychologists about it in so many words for almost a century. They externalize it into complaints about rude and strange-seeming friends. They express it in the fear of new and foreign technology and connectivity (radio and “motion pictures” at first, way back in the 1920s). They’re so desperate to ingratiate themselves with their almost-teenagers that they enable their social ambitions, scheming with them to help them be “popular.” And they report new eruptions of headaches, insomnia and gut pain; they feel anxious and depressed; they experience an upsurge of dissatisfaction with themselves, their marriage and their careers. They feel — as the psychologist and top adolescent expert Laurence Steinberg once wrote with his wife, Wendy — as if their soon-to-be high-schoolers are putting them through an “involuntary divorce.”
And yet, after so many very similar decades of junior high and middle school existence, the notion that the emotional roller-coaster of early adolescence is as much a parent as a child phenomenon has never really caught on. As a culture, we’ve focused obsessively on the awfulness of middle school and middle-schoolers — the “mean girls” and “bullies,” the bad moods and, of course, those hormones — and we’ve forgotten ourselves along the way.
There was a time when American parents wholeheartedly celebrated the advent of kid-independence that came about in the years around puberty. They viewed a child’s growth spurt as a boon for the entire family, because it meant the addition of another able-bodied worker to the household, as well as the soon-to-be departure of a mouth to feed. For a child to grow up, particularly in the days when so many died of disease, was an enormous source of parental relief.
These days, however, it’s our youngest and most dependent children who offer us relief. They give us focus and purpose. They bring us joy and an escape from the pressures and stresses of the outside world. And a big part of the way they do that is by presenting us with needs that we can be successful in meeting — an ability that sharply declines once they hit high school.
It isn’t just that the math gets to be too hard. It’s also that once our teenagers’ problems start to look more like ours, we begin to come up against our own developmental limits. Our kids finish middle school just as most of us are embarking upon middle age. That’s a huge transition, too — with lots of self-questioning, insecurity, and, yes, physical changes — and none of the easy certainties of bath time and bedtime gifted to us by early childhood.
So if you’re the parent of a soon-to-be (or recent) middle school graduate, permit yourself a moment this month to pause and reflect. Your eighth-grader will, very likely, want you to have no part in whatever he or she is going through (though you never know — one predictable thing about middle-schoolers is that they’re always unpredictable). But you need to mark and acknowledge this moment for yourself. Even now.
It’s not self-indulgence. It’s self-care.
Judith Warner is the author, most recently, of “And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School.”
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