Except for a two-year hiatus, I have had at least one child in middle school since 1998. That's a lot of braces, unused deodorant sticks and pretending to be invisible at the mall.
But this Wednesday, our family's middle-school years will come to a blessed and sad end. Blessed because -- well, anyone who's ever had a child in middle school knows the answer to that. But also sad because I've spent a quarter of my life learning how to parent a middle-schooler, and I'm still just scratching the surface.
One thing I have figured out is that physical differences are more pronounced in middle school than anyplace else in the universe, except maybe the Georgia Dome during the NFL playoffs. 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've learned, too, that middle school is a time of remarkable change in a child's life. Hormones run rampant, body parts transform, hair grows in strange places and dolls give way on the Christmas list to the latest i-gadgets and teen-diva-inspired fashions.
I've learned that it's important for us as parents to respond positively to these 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 is not always necessarily what they're actually 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."
On the other hand, "good" might mean, "That girl in social studies smiled at me today when I borrowed a pencil from her."
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 12 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 language arts project, which by the way is due tomorrow."
"Can you just drop me off?" Translation: "Since you are manifestly the most un-cool person in the history of un-coolness, being seen with you would do more damage to my reputation than if people discovered that I secretly listen to Barry Manilow."
Obviously, parenting a middle-schooler requires a great deal of patience, understanding and acceptance. And yet somehow I managed to survive for 14 years.
Rob Jenkins is a local freelance writer and college professor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.