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by Brenda Stockdale, Head of Middle School
The other night I was chatting with a Fifth Grade parent, who looked at me, wide-eyed (the terrified kind of wide-eyed), and said, "Middle school is completely new territory for me!" Her son is nine months away from entering this unknown land - plenty of time for him to get his head around this exciting next step in his educational journey; but does anyone consider what the parents are bracing themselves for?
That's why Josh and I recently invited the current Fifth Grade parents to hear about what's in store for their children - and for them - next year and for two years after that, as they venture into the territory of Middle School. Some of them are current parents of middle schoolers, or, like Josh and me, have survived raising middle schoolers. However, many are going through this for the first time.
Regardless of their experiences, though, they just can't get enough information about this Bermuda Triangle of parenting. They've heard the stories or have had their own encounters with pre-teens disappearing into the abyss of adolescence - tons of homework, friendship roller coaster rides, social media mayhem, one-word responses to "How was your day, honey?" and closed bedroom doors. Sure, this is the stuff of the middle school years, but much of it can be explained by science.
Adolescence actually spans a decade, with pre-adolescence occurring during the ages of 11-14; mid-adolescence taking place from ages 15-17; and late adolescence lasting from ages 18-21. During this time, our children experience a crazy growth spurt in their physiological, intellectual, emotional, and social development, all in an effort to form their individual identity with the ultimate goal of achieving independence as they enter adulthood.
Picture yourself going through a complete remodeling of your body, mind, emotions, friendships, and beliefs - all at the same time! Do we blame them for being so darn moody and unpredictable?
What's going on, really?
Physically, pre-adolescents often experience a growth spurt on the way to approaching their full adult height and weight. The timing and rate of this process is unique to the individual, which is why you can line up a class of sixth graders by height and basically create a staircase. Some still look like cherubs, while others look like they could start driving next week. The amazing thing is that eventually, they all grow into themselves and actually look their age!
Intellectually, the changes can be more subtle. Our children go from being concrete thinkers with clear ideas about right and wrong, good and bad. They live in the moment and often act without regard to consequences for their behavior. They like to dispute anything we say, looking for justification. Soon, however, their sense of reasoning shifts, and they begin to see the subtleties of situations, weighing the pros and cons and considering others' points of view. Often to parents' and teachers' delight, they begin to think about the future, which includes planning ahead and realizing consequences (good and bad) for the choices they make.
Emotionally, the changes can be quite noticeable as middle schoolers assert their independence. They look to their friends for guidance and self-esteem and begin to pull away from their parents. They can push boundaries, become less affectionate with family members, and spend much of their time making plans and hanging out with friends. They're conflicted between craving the security and familiarity of home and family, and the exciting world of their friends and social opportunities. They pinball between being your cuddly, lovable youngster at home and jumping out of the car when you lean over to kiss them goodbye at drop off.
Socially, your adolescent's world explodes, as friendships expand to both genders, and friends throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, as well as to adults such as teachers, coaches, and friends' parents. Eventually, adolescents develop the capacity to embark upon romantic relationships. Don't be alarmed! The middle school version of this often involves "crushes," while dating is more prevalent during the high school years.
Parents can expect this period of raising adolescents to be tumultuous. You'll have to tolerate the mood swings and the paradoxical behavior. One minute your daughter wants to sit in your lap, or your son wants you to read to him before bedtime. The next, she won't let you give her a hug in public; he escapes to his bedroom and tells you to go away when you knock on the door. Your daughter comes home from school one day and announces she wants to work for Greenpeace; when you ask her to take out the compost, she says she has too much homework. Or, your son excitedly tells you about how much fun he had playing with the kindergartners during a buddy activity and then complains when you ask him to watch his younger sibling while you go to the grocery store.
The good news is that this time is also immensely gratifying. You'll see your adolescent develop a sense of empathy, as they internalize others' experiences and evaluate choices and consequences. You'll see how the values and logic you've imparted start to have a real impact on their sense of self, the people with whom they associate, the issues they believe in, and the decisions they make.
As I told a friend recently, "I love having adult children!" It's not because I didn't adore them as adolescents, but now that my children are in their '20s, I realize the closed doors, one word answers, and constant debates were worth it. They're fascinating people, and when we're together, it's like hanging out with a group of friends. We laugh, debate, and tell stories about the ridiculous things they said and did when they were in middle school.