Thoughtful Middle School Dad: Why the…um…grumpy face?
Grumpy Middle School Dad: My kid – just driving me crazy.
TMSD: (face set in mock horror) No! Really?!
GMSD: Gimme a break, huh?
TMSD: Well, remember: He’s in 7th grade. That’s part of the deal. Clothes all over the floor. Forgets to bring labored over homework or projects to school on the due date. No sense of time, like being ready for the car pool car or getting back from the swimming pool in time for dinner. Remember this doc from the California Department of Education that outlined some of the intellectual, physical, social, psychological, and moral/ethical developments in middle grades kids? Just look at the first item in the list under psychological changes: “Are often erratic and inconsistent in their behavior.”
GMSD: Yes, Mr. Smarty Pants. I remember. And, yes, I know about the inconsistencies. But they still drive me crazy. The flitting from one idea to the next.
TMSD: Well, again, take a look at that list. Look at the intellectual development list: “Are intensely curious.” That’s a good thing, yes? Middle schoolers need to be given the space to explore and test and play with new ideas. Sure, not all will take hold…
GMSD: But when will they? The trail of detritus from the last year – of new ideas and pursuits discarded after a brief fling – it’s like the floor of his messy room.
TMSD: You seem to want him to emerge fully formed, to latch on to something that will be his passion for the rest of his life. So, that was true for you, huh? Remember that silly face and the blocky “zap!” that you drew all the time in middle school, that you bequeathed to the school when you left for high school?
GMSD: (sheepishly) Yes, I remember.
TMSD: You spent a lot of time on that sort of stuff – and did you go into a graphic design line of work? Thank goodness, no – but I bet it was fun to draw, as well as all the stock cars and World War II era tanks you drew. And remember your model car phase…
GMSD: (quietly) Yeah, I built maybe one and a half…
TMSD: But that was all right. That was you experimenting, playing – just like your middle schooler now. Listen to what Dr. Jay Giedd at the NIH has to say about the adolescent brain during the time of middle school, as the frontal lobe grows explosively:
The frontal lobe is often called the CEO, or the executive of the brain. It’s involved in things like planning and strategizing and organizing, initiating attention and stopping and starting and shifting attention. It’s a part of the brain that most separates man from beast, if you will. That is the part of the brain that has changed most in our human evolution, and a part of the brain that allows us to conduct philosophy and to think about thinking and to think about our place in the universe…
I think that [in the teen years, this] part of the brain that is helping organization, planning and strategizing is not done being built yet … [It’s] not that the teens are stupid or incapable of [things]. It’s sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision-making before their brain is finished being built.
TMSD: Let me read that again for me, will you? “It’s sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision-making…” Yes, it’s important to remind these adolescents of responsibilities, to set up consequences when they’re not met, to help guide the maturation of the frontal lobe – but don’t get all huffy when it doesn’t always work.
TMSD: (non-huffily): You get huffy. And, like I said, it’s not always gonna work for him – or for any middle schooler. And so help him learn from mistakes and hop right back on the horse that is his frontal lobe. And as he develops interests, feed those interests. Again, his brain wants to try a bunch of new stuff and will, at some moment, begin to winnow. Here’s more from Dr. Giedd, on that all-important sculpting that comes after the building up:
I think the exuberant growth during the pre-puberty years gives the brain enormous potential. The capacity to be skilled in many different areas is building up during those times. What the influences are of parenting or teachers, society, nutrition, bacterial and viral infections – all these factors – on this building-up phase, we’re just beginning to try to understand. But the pruning-down phase is perhaps even more interesting, because our leading hypothesis for that is the “Use it or lose it” principle. Those cells and connections that are used will survive and flourish. Those cells and connections that are not used will wither and die…
Right around the time of puberty and on into the adult years is a particularly critical time for the brain sculpting to take place. Much like Michelangelo’s David, you start out with a huge block of granite at the peak at the puberty years. Then the art is created by removing pieces of the granite, and that is the way the brain also sculpts itself. Bigger isn’t necessarily better or else the peak in brain function would occur at age 11 or 12…The advances come from actually taking away and pruning down of certain connections themselves.
TMSD: Yeah, to some degree – but don’t cave. As Dr. Giedd writes above, there’s much that parents and teachers and coaches can do to guide adolescents and their brains as they mature. As he says, “It’s a time of enormous opportunity and of enormous risk. And how the teens spend their time seems to be particularly crucial. If the ‘lose it or use it’ principle holds true, then the activities of the teen may help guide the hard-wiring, actual physical connections in their brain.” What an important moment, then, these middle school years – and what an important influence adults can have. You can’t forget that.
GMSD: My brain hurts…
TMSD: Now you know how he feels.