Many of us look back on our own middle school experience and say, “You couldn’t pay me enough money to go back to that stage of life!” Middle school was a rough time for a lot of adults. What I find interesting is that so many of us have negative associations with those years but we don’t remember exactly why middle school was difficult.
If that’s you, here’s a little refresher.
In my work with middle school boys I find myself repeatedly having the same conversations. It turns out they all struggle with a limited set of issues that just look slightly different for each boy based on his specific personality and specific life situation.
Here are the top five most common struggles for middle school boys, in no particular order. This list may or may not pertain to girls—I don’t talk on a personal level with middle school girls so I can’t speak authoritatively about their issues. I’ve tried to include struggles that boys have shared with me themselves. In other words, these are not just issues that adults commonly think middle school boys face. These come straight from what boys talk about:
- Swearing: Something happens with swearing between elementary and middle school. A switch flips and suddenly kids use curse words in their everyday language. For boys who have been shielded from those words and phrases early in life, this is a rude awakening. The sudden onslaught of swear words is confusing and frustrating for boys who try to maintain a clean mouth.
- Friendships diverging: Most kids are generally on a similar path in elementary school. There’s not much difference between well-behaved and naughty kids. Life paths start to diverge in middle school based on the decisions they make. Boys often find themselves growing distant from peers whom they once considered friends. As certain friends make negative life choices, boys find themselves in a tough situation.
- Finding friends vs. Negative peer pressure: Everybody wants friends. It’s a natural human desire and middle school boys are no different. Boys face difficult choices as they see their friends and peers making unwise decisions. Do they keep their friends and fit in by doing things they know are wrong? Or do they do the right thing, risk social ostracism, and potentially spend the rest of middle school feeling like an outcast? No one wants to be a “weirdo” or be made fun of but sometimes that’s the price boys have to pay for doing the right thing.
- Needing to sit still at school: Middle school boys are squirrelly and talkative—that’s not a secret to anyone. It’s unrealistic to expect middle school boys to sit at a desk, pay attention, and be productive at school all day. No wonder many middle school boys think school is boring! There are many passionate, skilled middle school educators who try to make classes engaging for boys, but the educational deck is stacked against boys of all ages. The American education system is set up to serve girls more effectively than boys. One easy solution would be to continue providing recess for middle school boys. They need it just as much or more than elementary-aged students. I’m confident that 30 minutes of recess would pay off in increased attention and engagement in other classes.
- Being short: Middle school is stereotypically perceived as a physically awkward time of life but I don’t usually hear boys talk about physical stuff. The one physical thing they complain about is being short or having a high, squeaky voice. By eighth grade many boys are hitting their growth spurt and getting deeper voices. It’s tough for the boys who are “late bloomers.” They usually do a good job of taking it in stride but they don’t enjoy the joking comments they receive from their more physically mature peers. The short boys just want to grow! Unfortunately, there’s not a lot they can do to control that process.
I wish adults had more control over these issues. I would love to flip a switch and make the tough stuff go away, or at least get easier, for middle school boys. News flash: That’s unrealistic! Now that I think about it, it’s probably good that adults can’t totally protect boys from struggles during middle school. The adversity can help form and build their character.
Despite our lack of control, what we can do is consistently support middle school boys. They need someone who can show them empathy, grace, and patience. Someone who can talk when they need to talk and listen when they need someone to listen. Someone to love them unconditionally when they feel unlovable. Someone to simply walk beside them throughout their middle school years. That can make all the difference in the world, even if they don’t remember it as an adult.