When I think back to my life, the worst years I had were from ages 13-15. When I was in primary school, I was very popular and everybody liked me. I did well in school and all was good. When I showed up to 7th grade, for no apparent reason, I became the lowest of the low, a loser even amongst “losers.” I didn’t change any, I was the same person I always was, but everything around me had suddenly changed, and it was awful. Nobody would talk to me for fear of associating with me and being ‘tainted’ by how uncool I was. People would literally spit on me as I walked down the hall. I remember there was this one guy, Bret, who literally took great delight in tormenting me and leading his friends to do the same. I would go home crying very often. Nobody had any good advice to give me. I was lucky, though, in that there was one friend who stuck by me. He didn’t care what others thought, and if it weren’t for Ben, I don’t know how I would have survived (metaphorically, not actually). The sad thing is this: my experience is not all that uncommon. I sometimes wonder if Buddha had been around in modern times whether he would have said there are four lower realms (instead of three), one of which being Middle School!
These middle years are awful – we want to still be a kid, but we are scorned if we do. We try to be an adult, but we have no idea how and everything is ackward. We start to have a billion hormones rage through us in countless directions, and we have no idea how to deal with them. We don’t feel like we can turn to anyone reliable – we don’t dare turn to our parents because they are just so embarrassing and they still think and relate to us as a kid, we can’t turn to our teachers because then we are a brown-noser. We can only turn to our friends, but they are just as lost as us. We are not allowed to like anything, because doing so is a sign of weakness – we are somehow twisted into believing we have to hate everything that is good as a sign that we are not a kid anymore. But above all, we are completely obsessed with what other people think of us. We would sacrifice anything on the alter of getting people to like us, but the more we do so the more we become entwined in pain and endless drama. Many kids turn to cigarettes, drugs, alcohol or sex in a desperate effort to “fit in” and “not be a kid anymore.” It is at this age where being ‘cool’ becomes much more important socially than being successful in school, sports or activities.
And here is the really sad and scary thing: it is all starting much earlier now for our kids. 11 is the new 13. All of our kids are going to have to go through this stage of their life, there is simply no way around it. Some might be lucky and get by OK, it does happen, but many more will find these early teen years to be the worst of their lives. So what are we as parents supposed to do to help?
Probably the most important thing you can do is make yourself somebody they feel free to come to for advice. If they don’t come to you, you become directly useless to them. You can still set a good example for them (and never underestimate the importance of this), but our ability to directly help them becomes very limited. So how do we become somebody they want to come to? There are four keys to this:
- Wait for them to come to you. This is so hard to do, but it is vitally important. When others give us unsolicited advice, what do we do? We reject it and we become defensive. Our kids are the same. But when they come to you on their own, then they are open to what you have to say. You may wind up saying less, but what you do say will stick and be well received. A great time for this is when you put your kids to bed. We have a policy of “you can ask one questions before you go to bed.” Since they want to stay up, they get in the habit of asking you questions, then when things bother them and they trust you, they ask questions about how to deal with the problems in their life. Your first instinct may be to say, ‘we will talk about it in the morning’ because you want to get on with your own evening, but these times with our kids are precious and we should not waste them.
- Don’t judge them. When people judge us, do we feel like going to them for advice? Of course not, so why would our kids be any different? We should never judge, but instead be an understanding advisor who has traveled this path before and can offer some friendly advice.
- Respect that their actions are their choice. This too is vital. When others try to control or manipulate us, what do we do? We rebel and do the opposite of what they want just to show them whose in charge. Well teenagers do this doubly so! We genuinely need to respect the fact that they have to make their own choices and decisions. We tell them, “you have to decide what to do, I can’t do it for you. I can only help you make your own decision.” The interesting thing is the more we put the responsibility for making decisions onto them, the more responsible they become with the decisions they make. And it is true, it is their choice. We can’t control them even if we tried. Yes, we can blackmail them but we can’t control them. The sooner we accept this truth, the sooner we start helping our kids become responsible for themselves. There is a huge difference between lecturing our kids and helping them solve their own problems.
- Don’t get mad at them regardless of what they come to you with. Establish early on a policy which says “if you come to me first with something you have done, I promise you won’t get in trouble.” This is very important. If they know that they won’t get in trouble, then they will come to you. But if they do get in trouble when they do come to you, then they will hide everything from you and you will enter into a dysfunctional game of cat and mouse with them.
Finally, let’s examine some parenting strategies during this challenging period of our children’s lives.
- Start preparing our kids early. Start identifying and working on what will be their greatest weaknesses. After a kid turns 8, they become more or less self-sufficient. From 8 to about 12, you can still work with them. You should view this entire period as laying the foundation for what is to come. It is like preparing for battle. You need to think about what middle school will be like for them, and how they are likely to get themselves into trouble, and start working on those things now.
- It seems to me the number one common weakness to most middle school kids is attachment to what other people think. So when you see early signs of this, you need to repeat thousands of times, “it doesn’t matter what other people think, you need to form your own opinion.” Every occasion we have to transmit this idea, we should use it. It does not matter if it becomes obnoxiously repetitive for them where they are repeating it back to us in a mocking way everytime we say it. Keep saying it. By doing so, we will drive it deep within them and we can only hope that it will echo within their minds when they are lost in their darkest hours.
- Another common pitfall for middle school kids is to go to the other extreme of completely isolating themselves from everybody else. From one perspective, we might think this is a good thing, but how many of us are strong enough to not get lost with no healthy support network around us? We all know people who isolated themselves in these years and never really recovered – they remain people who really have no life and don’t know how to relate to other people at all. So if we see those tendencies in our child, then we need to apply effort to get them out of the house, off of the video games, or their nose out of their books. Obviously books and video games are not all bad, but if we notice that our kid is using them as an escape to avoid having to deal with people then this is an early warning sign for trouble down the road.
- It is likewise very important to start preparing them early for what is to come. Sometimes we think it is best to not talk about things that are coming, but I disagree. Within reason, of course, I think it is very important to prepare our kids in advance for the challenges we know they will face, such as bullies, quickly turning friendships, drugs, alcohol, porn, sex, etc. Yes, all of these are very difficult subjects, but if we don’t educate our kids early about these things then their friends will do the job for us later on. They first start hearing about these things around 8 or 9. They will often even ask you about them. The conventional wisdom is to tell them they are too young to think about these things, but I think this is when we should be talking to them about. Tell them straight up, in a forthright manner, what these subjects are all about and how people get themselves into trouble with these things. They will ask lots of questions that make you uncomfortable, but don’t hold back. Answer them honestly. Your doing so will earn their trust and respect, and with that they will listen to your advice about how to deal with these things. Explain to them what are the healthy ways of dealing with these things so that they know. Tell them the truth about where these things lead if taken to extremes, and how easy it is to start doing these things in an effort to fit in, but then how easy it is to become sucked in by them where we find it difficult or impossible to stop. Don’t be afraid to make them scared, because frankly, they should be. Don’t moralize about these things, just try equip them so that they can make responsible choices. It is helpful if we ourselves do not drink, smoke or do any drugs. If they see us doing it, we are implicitly giving our kids permission to do the same.
- Help your kids know that there is something on the other side. While I know it appeals to not the best part of me, my father always used to tell me that “in the end, the nerds rule the world.” How many “Kings of High School” wind up lost in life? Many. We need to help our kids see through the shroud of the middle school years to what lies on the other side. When they can see this, it will act as a compass for what is important and help them not get swept away.
- Adopt a policy of “you have discretion within a box.” Kids naturally want the freedom to make their own choices. So we tell them, I too want you to be free. I will give you as much freedom as you can use responsibly. So you define for them a box within which they have the freedom and discretion to do as they wish. Then, the deal you make with them is if they use that freedom in a responsible way then you will expand the box of their freedom; but that if they use it in an irresponsible way, you will shrink the box. It won’t take long before they understand the dynamic – they will get their freedom, you will get your responsible kid.
- Don’t be bothered by them spewing venom towards you. Our kids will say all sorts of hurtful things towards us about how we are ruining their lives, they hate us, they can’t wait to get out of the house, etc., etc., etc. If we allow such comments to bother us, then we give our rebellious teenager power. Think “water off a duck’s back.” When a patient in a psychiatric ward verbally assaults their doctors, the doctors remain unphased because they understand that it is the person’s mental sickness talking, not the person. In the same way, during the teenager years, our children are possessed by the host of delusions of the middle years, and so it is their delusions talking, not them. Don’t let it bother you. If you do let it bother you, you feed the dynamic and it will only get worse.
- Hold your breath (and pray)! A very experienced friend once told me you have until about 12 to shape a kids personality. But after that, for the next 6-12 years all you can really do is hold your breath and hope they come out OK on the other side. During these times, all you can do is accept and pray. Your acceptance protects you from developing attachment to your kids making certain choices (this is important because if you are attached to them making certain choices, then you will start to manipulate them into making these choices, which, as we saw above, just leads to rebellion). And your prayers protect them internally. You have a very close karmic connection with your kids, and you also have a close karmic connection with the Buddhas, so you are in many ways a bridge between the Buddhas and your children. Buddhas have the power to bestow blessings. The function of a blessing is to turn somebody’s mind towards correct paths. This is exactly what our kids need. The power of our prayers is entirely dependent upon three things: our faith in the Buddhas, the purity of our compassion (free from attachment) towards our children, and the depth of our karmic connections with both the Buddhas and our children. We need to actively develop all three so our prayers have maximum effect. A deep understanding of emptiness is also a very powerful way of increasing the power of our prayers.
Just as these years are some of the most difficult for our children, they are also some of the most difficult for us as parents. In the movie “the Weatherman”, Nicholas Cage has a very famous line, “easy is not part of the adult vocabulary.” It is not easy, but spiritually speaking it will be a time of tremendous growth for us. Ultimately, we have no control over what happens, and learning to accept that is a huge part of our spiritual path.
Your turn: What is your worst memory from middle school? What spiritual lesson can you learn from it now?