13 Years Old is Closer to 3 than to 23

Back-to-School-Night is often used as a time to share classroom curriculum, explain routines and expectations, and make sure families see prettily completed work — all so that they are reassured that the children are learning effectively. After all, aren’t parents most interested in the academic content their children are going to be taught?

My experience is that the answer to that question is “no”.

What parents crave most of all is connection — just like children in the classroom. Research clearly shows that for adults and children alike, emotional safety and social connection come before engaged learning and a growth mindset. Wendy Mogul, psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus, speaks about this very compellingly (or go back further to Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of needs).

This is true even — and especially — as children enter middle school. Adolescence is a natural time of distancing and redefining by children. Parents have to learn to navigate their own feelings and experiences at the same time that their children begin developing more individualized identities. What guardians really want is to be emotionally and socially connected with the teachers, with each other, and with the ideas and values that underlie the program. They want to know that their children will be prepared for the future not just academically, but also as good people with strong character and integrity.

This year I offered four distinct pieces of advice to middle school families at Back to School Night. My hope is that all of our families engage in an ongoing conversation about our beliefs and values as families, think carefully about the parenting choices we make, and don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees when it comes to the hard work of raising children.

Homework: Don’t do your child’s homework, and don’t correct it when it’s wrong. You’ve already been through school! The goal of homework is not for students to get it completed, it’s for children to get practice with knowledge and skills. Teachers use homework to inform their own sense of a child’s progress. And if your child is spending too much time on a particular piece, use your parental authority to call a stop. Check in with the teacher to help calibrate and problem solve as needed.

Devices: Know all the passwords and check all the apps on your child’s phone regularly. Please don’t assume that they will be able to be honest with you about what’s going on in the digital realm (either their own behavior, or that of others). Children are not developmentally ready for much of the online world, and this includes social media. Check out this TED talk by Tristan Harris for more on how children (and adults) are manipulated by technology.

After school: Let your child have some downtime.  Participation on sports teams, dance squads, theater productions, and other enrichment activities is a wonderful way to enrich your child’s life. At the same time, the neuroscience is clear: children of all ages need unstructured and imaginative playtime to consolidate their growing neural pathways and develop a wide range of psychological and intersocial skills.

Play the Long Game: Anticipate that at some point, in some area (academic or social), your child will really struggle. When that happens, choose to frame the challenge as an opportunity. Treat each moment as a snapshot, not an epic movie. Your child will look to you for clues that what’s happening is not a catastrophe; use this time to model mindfulness and a growth mindset. And please reach out to partner with teachers and administration to help address the issues!

Neurologically speaking, the way the brain of a 13 year old works is much closer to that of a three year old than a 23 year old. But a 13 year old may seem more like a 23 year old physically, intellectually, or verbally, which can confuse our senses. They often aren’t ready for the independence they say they should have, so stay close to your child even as they push you away; it’s what they secretly want, but are afraid (or don’t know how) to say.

Warmly,

Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School