What Does Parent Involvement Look Like in Middle School?

As legend has it, kids in middle school ask their parents to drop them off a block away from school, so they aren't seen together at drop-off time. Does this really happen? Yes, sometimes! And it isn't meant to be an insult after your years of hard parenting work. In fact, it may even be a sign of success.

If things are going well, your child is going to work hard to "individuate" during the middle school years. This means developing their own sense of self, rooted in but distinct from their childhood sense of total absorption in their family. Neurologically and psychologically, they are awakening to the social world around them, fascinated by what peers are doing, and becoming ever more aware that there are many different versions of one's personal values. 

This shakes the sense of self they've developed from their family of origin, and presents a challenge to them - who am I? Should I act like my friend does? What is authentic to me? Some kids, as they go through these intense questions, feel the need to push off against parents. For others, they may individuate with less drama, gradually forming a more distinct personal identity while staying in close relationship with parents. How they proceed says as much about their personality as it does about how they've been raised, so should not necessarily be taken personally by parents. 

While the topic of how to parent kids through this phase could fill many a future blog post -- and many a book! -- let's focus on one question in particular: what does all this mean for parent involvement in middle school? If my kid may not want to be seen with me, how can I still contribute to the school, and feel connected to what's going on there? This is one of the most common questions we receive from parents, many of whom are rightly proud that they volunteered in their child's elementary school classroom. But they sense that maybe things are different in middle school. 

They're right - whereas in elementary school, highly involved parents contribute meaningfully by volunteering in classrooms, we believe that role shifts in middle school. Now, kids may not want their parents hovering around them, interrupting their work to create a separate sense of self. It's not a coincidence that in many indigenous societies, middle school is the time when young men and women are sent into the wilderness on "Vision Quests" or to perform rituals or tests of skill, and then are welcomed back as adults after - marking this transition in a much clearer way than we do in our society.

Instead, the parents' role in middle school is to provide access. Instead of volunteering in school, bring kids into your world. Give a group of interested students a tour of your workplace and explain what goes on there. Take a student (not your own child) on as an apprentice at work. Use your network to find learning opportunities for kids in the real world. Volunteer as an expert reviewer when students give a final presentation that relates to your professional expertise. This is your gift now - rather than entering the child's world, you are opening doors for your child and others so that they can experience what the real world has to offer.  

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