Middle Earth or middle school?

This is the story I'm constantly told by media, well-meaning friends, and bestselling experts: My kids have just entered uncharted territory, filled with dark secrets and battles for power and glorious alliances. Groups, factions, mysterious happenings, challenges, and trials – good and evil – collide.

Where are they, Middle Earth? Almost – they've just started middle school. It's a far cry from safe, cozy elementary school. It has lockers and homework, and it's the first time kids are expected to navigate through schedules on their own know-how.

There's an entire section now in every bookstore devoted to dealing with children of middle-school age. Sometimes they're called preadolescent, sometimes they're called tweeners (ouch) – but the refrain is the same: There's trouble ahead. Big trouble.

So I went to my first middle school parents' meeting and found it jammed with mothers wanting to find out what the new year would bring and just how bad they could expect their lives to get dealing with academic and athletic and peer pressures. There was the multipurpose calm-down pep-talk given by the principal and a few teachers.

Then this guy got up – a guidance counselor who could pass for a high-school senior. I sensed even before he opened his mouth that he was going to say something interesting and honest – and he did. He said that seventh or eighth grade is when kids are most likely to get labeled with stereotypes that follow them through high school, if not college and beyond.

His message was that middle school is when kids "lose it" – stop doing homework, try drugs, experiment with sex. And once they "lose it," they can't get it back. They are simply typecast as a loser.

The silence following his comments would have been deafening except that the principal quickly joked about those kinds of kids not being in her school. But his comments stayed with me, making me wonder: What's a mother to do?

So I called up the counselor, thanked him for his candor, and asked the obvious question: What can parents do to keep kids from falling into the antisocial abyss? Can we help them pick a better stereotype? You know, the good-looking popular athlete-genius stereotype? His answer was no. But parents can do three things so simple they're often overlooked.

• Listen to kids. Don't be too quick to offer advice. Let them talk, and talk, and talk. Stop whatever it is you're doing and get interested, even if you're not, and even if they are sharing the most excruciatingly boring part of their day with you – because after they get past all the dull stuff, they might tell you something about the fight that broke out in science class or the kid that threatened to beat them up.

• Praise kids when they do something good – even if it's not a big deal. Don't throw them a party every time they make their bed, but let them know you appreciate their help around the house, or that you're glad they got a 'B' on their math test. Kids who feel good about themselves will do bad things – but not regularly, and if they do, they'll feel bad enough that they don't want to repeat the experience. And hey, they listen to your dull stuff, too.

• Don't push kids. People who are pushed come to depend on some external force, a parent for example, keeping the pressure on them to succeed. Don't follow them around making excuses for them when they mess up. Expect them to do well, accept them when they don't.

Finally the counselor said, think what kind of people you want your kids to become – what are the qualities you want them to live?

Now, four weeks into middle school, I think parents, above all, have to be kids' advocates – not to fight their battles for them, but with them.

The biggest battle I'm seeing may be combating the stereotypes that some teachers and experts have of our children. At our back-to-school night we were handed a list of "characteristics of early adolescents." Any other group would be calling the Anti-Defamation League if they were described in these terms.

According to the list, preadolescents are, among other things: forgetful, self-doubting, peer-oriented, bored by routine and social amenities, resentful of direction and orders, moody, gossipy, extremely loyal to friends, and inclined toward crushes. That describes a lot of adults I know. If we accept these stereotypes without question, does it become self-fulfilling prophesy? I do think this is a battle that can be won – even if half of it is respecting the people who say your kids are going to behave badly and there's nothing you can do about it.

We can all do our part. If we fight to make the world a kinder place, then middle school will surely follow suit.

• Madora McKenzie Kibbe is a freelance writer.

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