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A parents' guide to understanding a middle-schooler

Viewpoints: Rob Jenkins

As the parent of a middle-school student - my third one, actually - and someone who spent three deliriously happy years in middle school myself (or "junior high," as we called it back then), you'd think I'd know something about what goes on inside a middle-schooler's head.

I don't - not a flippin' clue - but you'd think I would.

I do know that physical differences are more pronounced in middle school than anywhere else in the universe. Skinny sixth-grade boys mingle in the halls with burly eighth-graders in need of a shave. Girls who still play with Barbie share a lunchroom with girls built like Barbie.

I know, too, that middle school is a time of great changes in our children's lives, as those timid sixth-graders transform into hulking eighth-graders before our eyes. Whiskers sprout overnight from once baby-smooth skin, while Barbie gives way on the Christmas list to the latest pop diva-inspired fashions.

It's important that we as parents respond positively to such tectonic shifts, providing appropriately sensitive and nurturing feedback, such as "You are NOT wearing that out of this house, young lady."

We also have to remember that what we THINK we hear middle-schoolers say - assuming they speak - is not always necessarily what they're really saying.

For example, a simple "OK" in response to the mundane question "How was your day?" might actually mean, "I forgot my math homework, all my pencils broke, and I have a major crush on a girl in my social studies class who looks like a swimsuit model and dates a senior."

"Good," on the other hand, might mean, "That girl in social studies smiled at me when I borrowed a pencil from her today."

A few other examples of middle-school speak:

"I just want to be left alone." Translation: "I want to invite eight friends over, order pizza and play video games until 3 a.m."

"Are you doing anything this evening, Dad?" Translation: "I need you to drive me back and forth across the county 13 times so I can buy poster board, check out a book at the library, and meet with the eight other people in my study group to complete our project, which is, by the way, due tomorrow."

"Can you just drop me off?" Translation: "Since you are manifestly the most uncool person in the history of coolness, being seen with you would do more damage to my reputation than if people discovered that I secretly listen to the Bee Gees."

Being a good parent to a middle-schooler obviously requires a great deal of patience, understanding and acceptance, none of which I possess. In lieu of those fine qualities, however, I do for my seventh-grader what seems to me to be the next best thing.

I let him borrow my Bee Gees albums.

Rob Jenkins is associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. E-mail him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.