Several jobs ago, I was a middle school dean of students. In charge of enforcing discipline, I regularly managed student situations that involved academic dishonesty, conflicts between classmates, and once — three young men caught walking on the school roof during recess.
In general, I loved my job, but keeping middle schoolers on the straight and narrow can sometimes feel like playing cards in a windstorm.
Dean of students at a middle school is a challenging job
I can’t remember if I’d seen the 10th kid that week for the same transgression or the same kid for the 10th transgression, but either way, I felt like my cards had most certainly been scattered. Defeated, I slumped to the cafeteria for my lunch break and sat down next to a colleague, who quickly noticed and inquired about my gloom. I think I was hoping for pity about my feelings of futility. Instead, he slammed his fist and forearm down onto the table next to me, startling me upright.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked, glancing down at his own oversized arm. He’d played hoops in college and now served as our middle school basketball coach.
“Um, your arm?”
“No,” he replied sternly. “This is you.“
“And do you know what THIS is?” he asked, as he used his other hand to repeatedly punch his own arm pressed onto the tabletop. This time he didn’t even wait for my response. “The kids,” he said. “And do you know what happens to the kids if you’re not there?” He removed his arm from the table and slow-motion punched at the air where his arm had just been.
With nothing to stop his punch, he now extended his fisted hand as far as he could reach, before splaying and wiggling his fingers to simulate particles dissolving into the atmosphere. “Your students need to run into you,” he reminded me. “It’s their job….so you need to do yours.”
Kids need boundaries to feel safe
This was no pity party. The coach had given me a pep talk. His words reminded me that, despite the monotony that week, I was serving an important purpose. Kids need boundaries to feel safe. And when they don’t find one off the bat, youngsters often keep pushing and pushing until they finally hit some wall or another.
That’s how they learn the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Worn down and exhausted as I was, I still needed to gather up my cards and keep playing the game. My middle school students were relying on me.
Last week, I was walking with a neighbor, a fellow mom of teens, who reported being asked by the parent of much younger children how she’d somehow managed to raise such solid kids in today’s world, as though healthy teens were some sort of impossibility. My neighbor, the parent of a dependable boundary pusher, had sort of scoffed at the question; she knew her children were just as wonderfully imperfect as the next mom’s.
Set reasonable boundaries for your teens and stick with them
But she also knew the answer: she and her husband had set reasonable parenting boundaries and didn’t waiver, give up, or shift position when their child repeatedly pushed limits…though it might have been much easier at the moment to do so.
Parents of healthy teens don’t condone underage substance use, but they do maintain open lines of communication in the event their child needs to lean on them in a crisis. They don’t move their child’s curfew to a later time to avoid uncomfortable arguments with a child who consistently arrives home late. Instead, parents of healthy teens dutifully, though sometimes warily enforce consequences. Every single time.
They set limits and expectations in keeping with safety and with their family values and explain the reasons for their rules to their kids. And they manage their own fears and worries while their children are busy bumping up against the world around them —exploring, failing, growing.
With love, they refuse to befriend their children, choosing instead to guide, mentor, question, cheer, and, yes, sometimes punish. In the end, parent-child relationships grow stronger for these efforts, and kids end up better able to self-regulate and better able to make sound decisions when it counts.
Like being a middle school dean of students, parenting can be a game of fortitude. Keeping our cards in a row and our boundaries in check can be challenging, especially in the face of strong adolescent winds. To all of my bedraggled parent allies, yours is important work, and the rewards are great. Stand strong and steady on.