Dear Middle Schoolers

dancingDear Middle Schoolers,

I admit it. I’m a sappy grown-up. I weep every time I watch E.T. and get choked up during graduation ceremonies. That scene in Toy Story when the Mom is getting ready to send her son off to college? Just. Don’t. Hell, a decent marching band can open the floodgates sometimes. So it’s no surprise I get a bit misty at your school assemblies. Blame it on a combination of nostalgia, music, and harsh fluorescent lighting. Blame it on the rain or blame it on the bossa nova. For the most part it’s simply watching a gym full of you all so gloriously oblivious to the world around you.

Your mid-pubescent bodies do me in every time. They are so FULL OF LIFE, ripe with it, fairly bursting with it, that it’s almost painful to see. From afar I watch you unfold those newly lengthened limbs. I watch you laugh with friends, watch you lost in your middle school dreams and nightmares. And always I am struck with the width and breadth of possibility in front of you.

You can be…anything. How breathtaking is that? The whole world is in front of you. You’re still lumps of clay; unformed, unpainted and unadorned, just waiting for life to come along and shape you into what you’re meant to be.

It’s intoxicating. And it makes me well up with the sheer joy of it all.

My son is one of you now. The other day I got to see how you spend your down time at an end of term holiday party. There was a room for karaoke and another for bustin’ a move. There was a room set up for games and another with snacks and hot chocolate. Yet with all that choice for letting your hair down and whipping your nae nae, there were still a few of you who sat, eyes rolling into the backs of your heads, too cool for school.

I wanted to take shake you by the shoulders. I wanted to say, Oh, honey child, if life’s got you this jaded at twelve, what the hell are you going to do when you figure out that being an adult is  all about filing out things in triplicate and saving for retirement? About arguing with the insurance company and trying to scrub skid marks off the toilet bowl?

Instead I’ll say this to you: sing the karaoke song. Get up there and belt it out, whether you can carry a tune or you drop it like it’s hot. No one’s going to remember you because you were too cool to join in. You want to be remembered? Be the one who gets up there and doesn’t give a shit whether or not you sound like Adele.


Dance like no one’s watching. Wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care. Because life doesn’t have enough dancing opportunities as a grown-up. All of a sudden you find yourself longing for a chance to shake your booty, which is hanging down near your groove thing. I think you kids call it bass now. But whatever, dance when you have the chance. They don’t come around as often when you start squeezing in work, food shopping, and the laundry list of other boring stuff that makes up 98% of grown-up-ness.

You can be anything. Don’t be bored. God, there is so much boring shit about being an adult. When you have the chance to spend an afternoon playing games with your friends and being goofy? Do it. Play a game of Connect Four. Let yourself get excited when the little discs slide into perfect formation. Be happy when you sink someone else’s battleship.

I know, I know. You’re waiting for life to really get going. It’ll get really interesting right around the next corner, at the next intersection, toward the next bend. You’re counting down the days until you’re grown up so you can go out and drink and smoke and drive and fall in love and have real fun. Truth is, what’s really lurking around the corner is going out to work every day and coming home to decide what shape pasta you can boil for dinner. Exciting stuff, I know. You’re waiting until the right man or woman comes along to sweep you off your feet and whisk you off to happily ever after land. I wish I could make you understand that happily ever after land looks nothing like what you think it does right now. There aren’t any unicorns for starters. And there is way more shouting.

swing kidsOh, sweet child o’ mine. Go forth and dance. Get out there and sing. Don’t bend yourself into a shape that you think is the right one. Don’t settle on a mold because you think it’s cool. You still have plenty of time to find your shape. You have time to break the mold. All the time in the world. Don’t be afraid of smiling, of having fun, of acting goofy, of screwing up the lyrics to the song. Don’t peak too soon. Don’t peak now. There is so much ahead of you, plenty of days to check your phone and roll your eyes.

Dear middle schoolers, trust me. When someone gives you carte blanche to sing and dance and drink hot chocolate in the middle of a Friday?

Do it.



The Santa Clause

Yes…and a puppy. Did you get that?
Yes…and a puppy. Did you get that?

In a few months, my son turns eleven. Like most kids his age, he dreams of owning an iPhone. Unlike many kids his age, he doesn’t have one. No iPhone, no smartphone, no phone of any kind. But before you start to feel bad for him, don’t. He has a laptop, an iPad, access to the family’s Netflix account and the double helix numerology of the WiFi password memorized. He’s not a kid who’s tech deprived, on any level.

So far we’ve drawn a virtual line in the sand regarding a smartphone. There are a lot of reasons why, but for this post I’ll just mention it’s another screen I need to monitor, another device I need to limit, another charger I need to worry about. Most of all, he doesn’t need one. To be fair, my son is not obsessed by it, he doesn’t harass us. Sometimes if a birthday or Christmas is approaching it will go on the wish list.

Our family tradition is that your Christmas wish list can contain anything and everything, from fanciful to practical to all the adjectives in between. Each year my son adds a puppy…and an iPhone(insert new model # here) to his list. And each year there is a tiny flicker of hope that Santa may see fit to drop a puppy…or an iPhone(insert new model # here) down the chimney.

Ironically, it’s that very flicker of hope which has reinforced our decision not to get him a phone. Because frankly, if the kid still (sort of, mostly, kind of) believes in Santa Claus, he’s really not old enough to be doing anything which requires him to have a phone on him at all times.

I call it The Santa Clause.

The Santa Clause condition works like this: If you still believe in Santa, your play dates should probably still be about Lego and trampolines and playing outside, about talking or imagining or rainbow looms.

Ha ha ha. The iPhone5 is so 2014!
Ha ha ha. The iPhone5 is so 2014!

If you still believe in Santa, you should probably still be communicating with and to your friends without the need for instant messaging, Snapchat, iChat, youChat, WeAllChat. Especially at school.

If you still believe in Santa, your bedtime should most definitely be before that of your parents.

If you still believe in Santa, most of the books you read should be paper, most of the writing you do should be with a pencil, and most of the projects you do should still involve glue and poster board and shoebox dioramas.

If you still believe in Santa, you probably shouldn’t be on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter.

If you still believe in Santa, you likely don’t possess the judgement to decide what is or isn’t going to leave a lasting digital footprint.

If you still believe in Santa, you don’t need to watch R rated movies or television shows which regularly feature the word ‘f*ck. You don’t need to listen to artists who sing about rape or songs which glamorize sexist ideals. Actually that last one applies to all of us.

If you still believe in Santa Claus you shouldn’t feel the need to pepper your language with curse words. Santa sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows when your mouth’s been bad or good, so be good for fuck’s sake.

If you still believe in Santa, you probably shouldn’t be baring your belly button and your underwear should be safely tucked away. There is something very wrong with the idea of hoping Santa brings you a thong.

The Santa Clause is simply a litmus test, it doesn’t work for everyone. Obviously some kids are ready for independence earlier than others, for more mature content. Some kids do actually have a need for a cell phone–or at least more of a need–than most. If your child is old enough to be dating and sexting, if he or she is spending a lot of time by themselves in non school related activities, they could probably do with a phone. That said, they probably also stopped believing in Father Christmas a while ago too.

No, you can't have the Game of Thrones box set for Christmas
No, you can’t have the Game of Thrones box set for Christmas

As parents we have to use common sense and judgement. We all long for our children to stay innocent, to keep believing in Santa Claus. We go to great lengths to keep them sheltered from the worst of things. Yet at the same time we easily and eagerly give them the very tools which allow them instant access to the very things we are trying to shield them from. We want them to believe in Santa Claus but are surprised when we find them watching a YouTube video about Santa Claws and his Evil Elves on their iPhone (insert model # here).

The funny thing is, my nearly eleven year old is starting to broaden his horizons. He is, to quote myself, exercising those downy wings of his and learning to fly. He’s cycling to and from school, to football practice, to a friend’s house on his own. He’s able to stay by himself for an hour or so if I need to run out. So in the drawer, waiting to be charged, is a phone. Just a regular old Nokia, no screen. No games or data plan involved. A dumb phone, I guess.

I have a sneaking suspicion this is the year the Santa Clause will cease to be effective for a lot of things. Probably Santa Claus too.

Tweenage Wasteland

kids-and-cardsI’m suffering a case of whiplash.

Not from an accident in the pedal or be killed bike lanes of Copenhagen, but from watching my not-quite-eleven-year-old waffle back and forth between being a little kid and teetering on the edge of being a teenager.

Has there ever ben a more apt slang term than tween? When I was eleven and trying to figure out if it was still cool to play with my Barbies, while I was busy dreaming about the boy down the street and meticulously cutting out paper dolls, while I was fantasizing about growing boobs while playing with my Spirograph set and Fashion Plates, those years between kid and teen were just called awkward.

Surely you remember those years a little bit. The exquisite pain of trying to figure out where you fit in, the uncertainty, the sensation of growing right out of your skin.

The years betwixt and between. Caught between ages, emotions, between height and breasts and dropped testicles. Between a stirring in the heart and still being reasonably sure the opposite sex has cooties.

The other day my son was quite happily playing with his younger brother with a bunch of trucks in the sand, reminding me of that sweet, quick-smiling toddler of yore. Then he stormed off in a huff because of…well, I don’t even know what he was storming off about.

Was it something I said?

I have a feeling I’ll be asking myself that question a lot in the days to come.

Photo: Mary Ellen Mark
Photo: Mary Ellen Mark

He recently devoured the Divergent series in the space of a week….and followed it up by whipping through a series about a hamster named Humphrey.

Every now and then he snuggles up to me, lays his head in my lap and asks me to stroke his hair. Or he stomps away angrily, embarrassed, unsure. Still craving affection yet not sure if it’s cool to seek it out.

He asked a girl to the dance….and then asked Santa for a Build-a-Bear. He is mature enough to cycle to his friend’s houses independently, and yet still will only eat apples cut up into slices.

On a Thursday he went to see Jurassic World, and on Monday he happily wasted an afternoon watching PacMan cartoons with his brother.

Not going or coming, but both simultaneously. Still years away from being taken seriously by most of the adults around him, but with far more to say than a kid. Forming his opinions and ideas, not knowing where they fit into the big picture.

He is in the no man’s land between kid and teen.

Kids are tolerated, they are forgiven, they are smiled at and have their heads patted. They get away with things because they are cute and chubby and little. They lisp their toddling way into our hearts. Teens are tolerated because most of us have a vague recollection of being a teenager, of what it was like to use all your resources for that final push into grown up ness, when your bones stretch at night and you wake up a young man or woman. Plus, they sleep a lot and can make their own lunch, so that helps too.

34-Street-Games-GettyBut those years in between? They’re tough. Awkward. Tweens still exhibit all the goofy silliness of kids, but at ten, eleven, twelve, it’s not cute to us anymore. It’s annoying. They spout nonsense as if it were on tap, but instead of thinking it’s adorable like we did when they were three, we think it’s smarmy. They want to cuddle and yet they’re starting to smell. Too old for many things, not old enough for the rest.

My son still half believes in the tooth fairy and yet we’re talking to him about puberty, prepping him for deodorant and jock straps. Kissing scenes in movies are just starting to make him squirm. And we’re starting to squirm because he is. No wonder why he’s confused.

Tweens have to take that final, frightening step from kid to adolescent. They have the space of a few years to do it in, but there’s a whole lotta wasteland to cover in between, in which to be a tween.

In the meantime, I’ll prep my neck for the inevitable whiplashing back and forth.

No One Likes a Smart Ass, and Other Words of Wisdom for my Middle Schooler

class of 22My son graduated from 5th grade this week. Sayonara primary, hello middle school. There were speeches and a song, recollections and recommendations. Come August, they’ll be chucked into the murky waters of middle school to swim with the big fish.

That’s right, chickadees: in eight short weeks your macaroni art and phonetic spelling primary school days will be but a mere #nofilter memory. Not quite the big league, but the minors for sure.

I can’t top the ubiquitous Wear Sunscreen commencement address that resurfaces every year around this time. Frankly, I doubt a group of armpit farting rising sixth graders are ready for life advice. They’ve got to navigate the minefield of middle school and the perils of puberty first.

Still, the occasion calls for some words of wisdom, even if they’re not old enough for pearls. So son, while you dance your way through the tweenage wasteland that is middle school, here are a few tidbits to get you through.

Expand your vocabulary. Homer is epic. The Grand Canyon is awesome. Everything else? Not so much.

Always thank the person who holds the door open for you. Thank the lunch lady and the checkout clerk too.


While we’re at it, always hold the door open for the person behind you.

Ask the girl out face to face. Break up with the boy in person. Conversation is a dying art. Cherish it.

Never start a sentence with “No offense, but.”

Don’t worry about your health education teacher asking for a show of hands to determine who has gotten their period or already has pubic hair.

The older you get, the more paperwork there is. Work on perfecting a killer signature.

Always start with something kind.

The pimple is not as noticeable as you think it is.

A best friend who makes you feel icky inside is not a best friend.

You will remember your locker combination.smoking

If you think your mother won’t approve of it, don’t do it.

Don’t let anyone tell you what you’re feeling isn’t real. It is. But whatever you’re feeling right now does not define who or what you are.

There’s a world of difference between being the best and doing your best.

You can have more than one group of friends.

In twenty years, people will remember the name of the kid who wasn’t afraid to wear two different color socks. Be that kid.

It’s ok to want to cuddle your Build-a-Bear one minute and want to Instagram a picture of it the next.

The quickest way to piss off an adult is to roll your eyes at them.

No one likes a smart ass.

Learn how to shake hands. Learn how to look people in the eye. Learn how to introduce yourself. They are the keys to opening doors.

Teacher and schoolboyIt’s ok not to have a passion. It’s ok if your favorite class is PE. It’s ok if the best part of school is seeing your friends. You learn a lot more than multiplication in school.

There are going to be teachers you hate on a Snape level.

There are going to be teachers who don’t like you on a Potter level.

Find a genre you love and read everything you can find in it.

The next few years are going to be a whirlwind of whiplash emotions. You will enter middle school like a lamb and come out like…if not a lion, then at least a slightly older, hopefully wiser lamb. Most likely with armpit hair.

I’m ready.

Are you?