Looking back on my years as a middle school student, I can better appreciate why my favorite shows were Spider Man and The Incredible Hulk. I warmed to the notion that, like Peter Parker, I was misunderstood and had secret powers. I also had a hard time mastering my emotions and, like David Banner, felt like a monster when I lost control.
Now, as a middle school administrator, when I am asked what I do, my choice of profession is often met with a grimace. “You are perpetually in middle school? What is that like?” Falling back on my love of the Hulk, I am able to respond with a sense of humor: “Do you remember when David Banner turned into the Hulk, during the transition when his body basically short circuited as he got bigger?” I live that every day.” Then of course I am quick to add: “I actually like it.”
Which I do. And among my many responsibilities, one stands out as perhaps the most challenging and rewarding: supporting the growth of middle school boys. There seems to be no shortage of behaviors that middle school boys can engage in to frustrate, anger and even disgust the unanointed. They inspire shock and awe. They seem alien and inscrutable.
As a result, adults often are at a loss for how to respond to their behaviors with any semblance of kindness or patience. The empathy muscle gives out. And these challenges have become even more pronounced under pandemic conditions.
During my years working with middle school boys, I have been their teacher in classes about gender identity and stereotypes, sex education, healthy relationships and online safety, as well as in regular classes and on class trips. And of course, there have been the innumerable daily interactions in hallways, the cafeteria, and the like. I now also have two sons of my own in this age group.
In reflecting on my years of experience, I would like to share some of what I have learned about how we, as educators and parents, can get it right with middle school boys, and where we sometimes go wrong. One size does not fit all, of course, and so I hope you’ll forgive my generalizations. The prevalence of certain patterns of behavior I have observed – of actions and reactions – compels me to offer the following, to perhaps spare others the growing pains I experienced:
- Misbehavior is a form of self-expression, a symptom of an emotion or thought that a middle schooler is unable to express for any number of reasons, such as: he doesn’t understand what he feels well enough to articulate it; he is ashamed of what he feels; or he hasn’t sensed an authentic opportunity to express himself and be heard. Open-minded non-judgemental questioning and listening are essential to transforming misbehavior into an opportunity for learning and growth and not only – and maybe even instead of – consequences.
- Our increasingly verbal world is challenging to middle school boys, many of whom are not especially interested in – or perhaps even capable of – extensive verbal expression. Also at work here are social pressures to not be too expressive, as explored by Peggy Orenstein, among others. (See Boys & Sex.) So when you do ask your open-minded non-judgmental questions, do not expect reflective self-expression as your reward; brace yourself for reticence. This might be an act of defiance, but just as likely it might be due to the same underlying reasons as the original misbehavior: not having the maturity or words to manage and express a particular thought or emotion.
- You are neither mind-reader nor face-reader; you cannot understand what others are thinking by the look on their face, especially a person still learning – and often testing – social norms. Look past the blank or dismissive stare, or maybe even a sneer. Have faith and don’t judge; your questions today can lay the foundation for future reflection and self-regulation, and maybe even dialogue. Of course you’d prefer that they occur now, but keep the long view in mind.
- Often when we are confronted by a misbehaved and inexpressive middle school boy, we react with the best of intentions by delivering a lengthy lecture. ‘If you aren’t going to talk,’ we might be thinking, ‘at least I can make you listen!’ Actually, no you can’t. Save your words and don’t waste your time, or his. Make your point clearly and succinctly. Say it once, be efficient and move on; after all, your audience probably did after the first few moments, so if it takes you longer than that to make your point, don’t bother.
- When confronted with a lie, count this blessing: lying shows an awareness of having done something wrong and understanding the potential of consequences. At the same time, of course, it is also important to emphasize the value of honesty. But there is still a blessing in there.
- In general, we judge one another’s level of interest and attention by the degree of eye contact and responsiveness – “active listening.” Don’t make the mistake of doing so with middle school boys, especially in a disciplinary context. We have welcomed them into a world where their street cred – and therefore to some degree their self-esteem – depends on toughness. Uncompromising egotistical men are all the rage, which isn’t the fault of our middle school boys; it is ours. So when you are disciplining them, of course they will not want to look you in the eye as you lecture; and if you challenge them, you provide them with the easiest of opportunities to regain their dignity by defying you further. In the process, you have also made it even less likely they will listen to anything you say.
- With the challenges of self-expression, it is no wonder that boys will resort to pictures and video games with a phone in their hands. Of course this frustrates and frightens adults (sometimes justifiably), and even worse can break the law. Remember, though, that we are the ones who put those phones in their hands. We weaponize their impulsiveness and then punish them for the consequences of our bad decision.
So what can we do?
- Middle school boys need to know that they are normal. When their bodies seem to them slow to develop and when they seem fast; when they think differently from their peers, whether more concretely or abstractly; when their feelings change in platonic and romantic relationships; or even when they simply have acne; this is normal. They now have a seat on a wild ride along a spectrum of physical, emotional and intellectual experiences that they mostly cannot control, and it does nobody any good – least of all themselves – to compare themselves with others.
- Boys need to know that there are alternatives to the “man-box” they were born into (à la Terry Porter), a positive message of who they can become. Surface society’s assumptions and imposed stereotypes by watching The Mask You Live In with them. Show boys that there are different ways to Be a Man by watching the video by that name with them; show them a crying Wilmer Flores when he found out his team traded him. Too many people of all genders still equate masculinity with toughness and minimalist communication, and with treating sexuality as a winner-take-all contest. (Here too, Peggy Orenstein’s Boys & Sex is instructive.) Then we project onto boys the sort of conduct that men have stereotypically engaged in, and therefore view and treat boys a certain way now. We foster shame in boys based on the behaviors of others rather than providing a positive message for who they can become.
- Above all else, middle school boys need us to picture them as their best selves, and to keep that image indelibly etched in our minds at all times during interactions with them. (Haim Ginott’s Teacher & Child and Between Parent and Child are essential reading on this point.) They themselves are aware – sometimes painfully and other times vaguely – when they are not being their best selves, and they are at a loss for what to do about it. Our faith in them gives them faith in themselves; when we doubt them, they follow us there too.
Always try to remember that you are investing in their future. You probably won’t be thanked – and you might even be blamed – for whatever you say or do. The returns on your investment might not be yours to enjoy. But also know that whatever you can do for an emerging young adult can make a lifetime of difference, and be grateful that you are in a position to make that difference.