There’s no trace of baby left in the infant who slumbered on my shoulder that September night seven years ago. And the 1st grader whose Back-to-School Night I attended? He fills the doorway with his 6’1” frame, and I regularly trip over his haphazardly placed size 13 shoes. He graduates 8th grade in two weeks. We have a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old sandwiched between them. Time has gobbled up my delicious babies and left my house reeking of feet and armpits. With two middle schoolers in the house, I hear plenty of well-intentioned advice from fellow parents about the dangers of Snapchat, Internet porn, unprotected sex, drugs, and underage drinking. I find myself perusing Instagram memes, opening fortune cookies, scrolling through Ann Dimond’s Facebook wall for more parenting hacks. I’m in a panic.
Now that my sons are in Middle School, can someone please tell me what my job is??
Ironically, I go to work every day, and I’m surrounded by even more Middle School boys. 105 total.
Luckily, I work with a team of people who make the parent in me feel less panicked.
Each morning I pull into the Middle School parking lot by 7:15 am with all four boys in tow. Meghan Glendinning, Melanie Marion-Landais, and Siobhan O’Connor arrive around the same time. When we reach the third floor, Wes Winant, Paul Hines, and Andrew Wolf greet us from the benches outside my office. Wes has been there since 5:15 am, Paul since 6 am, Andrew since 6:30 am. Steve Hyson, Kasia Pater, and Regina Puleo are right behind us. Josh Budde is already in his office. We unload our belongings, grab our laptops, and land a spot on the benches for what Melanie deems her favorite part of the day. We fill one another in on our families and our weekends. We voice our concerns. We share laughter. We celebrate birthdays. We listen to wedding plans. We discuss The Walking Dead. We sit in companionable silence. Trust is built on those benches. Friendships are cemented on those benches. Josh emerges from his office, Jarred Williams and Jay Pearcy join us, and the conversation inevitably turns to our boys. All 105 of them. Your sons.
Who’s doing well, who’s not doing well. Who’s receiving a Blue and Blue Award, who’s serving detention. Who is out sick and already emailed his teachers for his work, who fell asleep twice in class yesterday. Who hit the homerun to win the game, who missed the 3-point shot at the buzzer. Who sang beautifully in the Boychoir musical, who forgot his lines.
What are our boys going through on any given day and how can we best support them?
Our boys are growing up and away from us. They are creating identities separate from us. They are beginning to take risks. They are trying on different behaviors to see how they fit. Language is the easiest and most convenient place for them to begin experimenting. So they curse in the hallways. Especially the 6th graders. We hear it. Provided it is not malicious or egregious, we often pretend we don’t hear it. Because it is low level. And we are giving them the space they need to stretch and grow. Sometimes they take liberties, and the cursing happens in front of us. In which case they receive a Behavioral Notice. Because it’s important for them to understand that the risks they take when speaking with their peers are not the same risks they take when speaking with adults. When we write those slips, we don’t judge you. Because, your son’s behavior is not a reflection of your parenting. And we don’t hold a grudge against the boys when they make poor decisions. They need the freedom to mess up, the grace to face the consequences, and comfort in the knowledge that we—the adults in their lives—accept and are here to support them. No matter what.
My husband and I firmly believe that the teachers are the experts of our children in the classroom. We may not always agree with what we hear from our sons about what transpires in the classroom. But we trust and respect the teachers’ commitment to our sons. We have an agreement: never write to a teacher while we’re angry. Sleep on it first. Early this year, our youngest son came home with the Lower School version of a Behavioral Notice. From the way he framed it, he had gotten in trouble for something that wasn’t his fault. And I broke our rule. I felt completely justified. I believed I was advocating for my son. So I wrote to a teacher while angry. I didn’t send an email, I wrote on the back of the Behavioral Notice. In purple pen. With my youngest son as my audience. I waited until the next day to tell my husband. He was appropriately mortified. “You WHAT? Oh no! You wrote it WHERE? OH NO!” I broke our rule. I showed my crazy. The worst part was that I did it in a manner in which my son, whose behavior was in question, was able to discern that I disagreed with his teacher. She is with him more daylight hours than I am, and I undermined her in front of my child.
I made a mistake. I made it with the best intentions and with a heart full of the fiercest kind of love. But I made a mistake.
I know better.
I know better because I’m surrounded by people who are doing their best for our boys—your sons—every single day. It begins in the morning while we commune as a group. It carries through classes. It continues at recess when we spend our time equally between trying to make sense of the game the 7th graders play on the turf and loving that all 28 of them are playing together. It occurs every time a teacher walks into Josh’s office to discuss a student, and he always makes time. It happens when I pop my head into his office to give a parent’s perspective on any given situation, and he listens. It’s evident in the hallways between classes when we remind the 8th graders how much bigger they are than the 6th graders and to be careful. It’s the topic at lunch. And again at afternoon recess. Once a cycle, the teachers get together for team meetings to discuss each individual grade for an entire period. When Jay and Josh discuss disciplinary issues and weigh appropriate consequences, they are considering what is best for your sons. When we run together after school—we talk about our boys—your sons. When the school day ends, we catch one another up on their small victories and their tiny disasters. It continues through dinner and well into the evening when teachers are pulled away from their families to answer your phone calls and emails to address concerns about your sons.
So collaborative is the concern for your sons that it is practically a living, breathing being. It exists on the third floor of the Wissahickon Inn.
Middle School is a tough age. We acknowledge that, we have a front row seat for it, yet we choose your boys. We want each of them to succeed. We expect that they’ll mess up because that’s often what a middle school boy is inclined to do. When they fall short of a goal, we make every effort to equip them with the skills to get up and try harder. To forgive themselves and work smarter. To respect themselves, one another, and the adults in their lives.
I am one of you—a parent of two Middle School boys. There’s a restlessness that comes with parenting kids this age. It’s an awkward dance, a tug-of-war. They push us away, we grasp for them in a panicked attempt to keep them close. They shut themselves off to us emotionally and leave us both frustrated at their flippant tones and desperate to connect with them. We catch glimpses of their vulnerability, but typically after 10 pm when we are at our most physically and mentally drained. They are on a trajectory that is taking them away from us. They are exactly where they belong, and as natural as it is, it still stings. It leaves us wondering where we fit into their ever-morphing adolescent lives.
Our boys—your sons—are loved. While they change, they grow, they pull away from you, they lose every last bit of endearing little boy, they dish attitude, they grunt instead of speak—know that we choose them. Know that we love them.
Each of us is making an enormous investment in our kids’ educations. In return, our sons get exposure—to the arts, to sports, to technology, to robotics and engineering, to language, to music, to trips some of us can only dream of having gone on at their age. They spend their days in the presence of adults who have passion for the subjects they teach. Our boys have access to their teachers. Before school, at recess, during Extra Help, after school, via email in the evenings. The class sizes are small, so the teachers know our boys very well. They know who your son is friends with, who he studies productively with, if he does better when he works independently, that he can be trusted when he sits in the back row. They know—often before we parents do—who is on email after 11 pm and who is up until midnight on Snapchat. They know that every extra bit of help they offer our boys before school, at recess, during Extra Help, after school, and via email in the evenings will not make a difference if our boys are not getting enough sleep. One of my least favorite parts of the day is when it’s time to tell our oldest son to close his laptop and remove himself from his phone for the night. Every single time we’re met with resistance. He goes to bed mad at us, we go to bed frustrated with him. He knows what he wants, we know what he needs, and rarely the two ever meet. His job is to be a student, and he can’t be a successful one with unlimited access to screens at home and insufficient sleep. Our job is to be the parent, which means making the hard decisions and being on the receiving end of his teenage wrath. No part of it is fun, but I have a funny feeling we’ll both survive.
Please reach out. Reach out with purpose. If there is a problem at home, we are here to support your sons. Several years ago, when my family endured an especially rough year, one of my first phone calls was to Marisa Crandall, the school psychologist. The next calls were to my sons’ teachers. We were in it together. If your son is trying a new medication, please reach out. If there is an illness or a death that impacts your family, please reach out. Having this information is so important for us to be able to support your son appropriately on any given day in his Middle School experience. We are are in it together.
Josh, Jay, and the advisors encourage you to reach out as frequently as you feel necessary.
After having spent an entire school year with this compassionate, capable, thoughtful group of teachers, as a fellow parent I encourage you instead to heed Ann Dimond’s invaluable advice.
How can you best support your son?
Make sure he gets enough sleep.
Reach out with purpose.
Listen to him. When he complains, listen to him. If you’re angry or confused by what you hear, before you pick up your purple pen, I encourage you to sleep on it. If, after sleeping on it, you’re still angry or confused, consider sleeping on it for an additional night. It’s not yours to straighten out. More often than not, he’s not telling you the entire story. Occasionally, he’s not even telling you the truth. Listening to your son is connecting with him. It’s enough. He will feel loved. He will feel validated. Just as important, he will feel confident in the decisions that his teachers make on his behalf because he will believe that you have confidence in their decisions. And that frees him up, while he’s in school, to focus on being a student.
If your son is home sick, know that it’s his job—not yours—to email his teachers for work. If he fails to do it, allow him to fail. If he flunks a test, don’t take that opportunity to email his teacher explaining why he should get another chance. He needs the time and the space to fail. He needs the grace to face the consequences. He needs to see for himself that the adults in his life continue to want the best for him and that we accept and love him both when he succeeds and when he fails. He needs to get up and try harder. Unassisted. He cannot experience any of this if his parent continues to intervene on his behalf. It’s hard to watch our kids go through something that every fiber of our being wants to save them from. But that’s exactly what I’m encouraging you to do. I am one of you. I feel uncertain about my role in my sons’ lives. And I’m encouraging you to give your son the space he needs to grow.
Let us do our job. We do it well.
Trust us. Trust the process.
Know that your sons are our boys. And we love them too.
Seven years later, Ann Dimond’s advice still holds true.
More often than not, it’s all our boys need.