Last week, NPR published a story that immediately caught my attention. The story, written by Juli Fraga, claimed that parenting children during their middle school years was harder than at any other stage of their childhood. As the mom of middle schooler and high school freshman, I was intrigued — and a little confused.
If anything, I feel like I've reached the peak days of parenting. My girls are old enough to do things for themselves yet young enough that they still like to hang out with me. Sure, I still embarrass them with my very presence from time to time, but for the most part we enjoy each other's company and discover new shared interests every day. The tantrums of their toddler years are gone, and the mood swings of their later teen years have not yet hit.
So if I'm enjoying this particular era, why are so many other parents finding this stretch of parenting so hard? I posed that question to a panel of experts (i.e. my Facebook friends) and the general consensus was that (not surprisingly,) this issue varies from kid to kid and from parent to parent.
Other parents share their views
My friend Andi has three children, the youngest of whom is a middle schooler, so she's been through this stage with both a girl and a boy. She thinks the transition that occurs during the middle school years as a positive one for both moms and kids. "I see it as a time for them to start being more independent, learn how to keep themselves organized and balance school work and play," Andi wrote. "Middle school is the gateway to prepare them for high school and then college where mom can't look over their shoulders constantly."
Another friend, Kelly, the mom of three boys aged 12-17, found that the middle school years were much easier for her once tantrum-prone middle child. "As a now 14 year old, he's easy," Kelly commented. "My autopilot kid. All that intensity that was a struggle in the early years. he has turned into being a high-achieving student and a gifted athlete. Completely organized and self motivated."
My experience with my oldest daughter is similar. Those "terrible twos," seemed to last well into her elementary school years, but now that she is 14, she is organized, motivated, empathetic and helpful. These are great times.
Why it's a tricky time
Clearly, I'm not the only mom who is enjoying her children's middle school years. But that's not to say there isn't some credence to the NPR piece. My friend Lisa is a mental health therapist and the mom of two daughters, the youngest of whom is a teenager. Here's what she had to say about those middle school years:
"As a mental health therapist and a mother, I believe there are no harder years than middle school. Identity formation, sexuality, morals, experimentation, peer groups and so on, have historically been difficult for teens, and now we introduce social media in the mix with access to the internet and the result is a quagmire that is easily unbalanced. Parenting is tenuous and can be harder for some than others. Not only are there a wide variety of middle school concerns but many parents lack the resources to cope, regardless of gender."
The bottom line is that all kids will go through a transition in which they learn to spread their wings as they attempt to fly on their own. Some kids hit that transition in their high school years while others think they're ready for independence as soon as they hit double digits.
All kids are different. And so are all parents.
Some parents struggle when their children begin preparing to leave the nest, while others relish their child's newfound ability to take care of themselves.
There is no right or wrong here; just different people handling things in their own way.
The other side of the story
I was disappointed that the NPR story didn't examine the full breadth of experiences that parents have when their kids reach middle school. Yes, for some it's a difficult time, but that's not the case for all. And it certainly doesn't warrant labeling the middle school years, "the toughest gig of all."
But one thing the NPR post did get right was that many parents find they have less peer support when their children get older than they did when they were young. Gone are the days of celebrating childhood milestones over story time at the library or commiserating about lost sleep or tantruming toddlers at playdates. Now, we're lucky to get a drive-by wave from another parent as we shuffle our kids to school, get-togethers and sporting events.
For some parents, that lack of support, combined with the challenge of watching kids grow up, may make those middle school years hard to handle. But for others, these are the years when both parents and children can learn to stretch their wings and enjoy their newfound freedom.