I never imagined Mikey as a sixth grade boy. I imagined him as a sixth grader, of course, which to me meant brilliant, with lots of friends and impeccable behavior displayed while doing many Catholic good deeds. That is not a 6th grade boy. (Turns out it’s not a sixth grader either.)
Mikey is a sixth grade boy, and let me tell you about sixth grade boys. Sixth grade boys forget to bring work home. They forget due dates. They mismanage free time at school. They make assumptions. They don’t ask questions. Sometimes, parents, they forget to turn in a test they have taken in class. How does this happen?
“Because we graded it in class and I got a 100%.”
“And when we get our tests back we’re supposed to correct the answers we got wrong and then turn them in, and since I didn’t get any wrong, I figured I didn’t have any to turn anything in.”
I was speechless. The Mister was quicker on his feet. “Wow. I…Okay. How did you think your teacher was going to know you didn’t get any wrong on your test if you never turned it in?”
It was like a little lightbulb went off in his head, and said lightbulb shined a big spotlight on the 0% that stood in place of the 100% on his progress note. (Which made me feel horrible.) It also shined a light on something for me: no one talks about how hard middle school is for the students, especially the boys. (Which made me feel angry.)
For the last few months I’ve felt like our family was the only one having these issues. When I tried broaching the subject with other parents, I got the “Little Johnny is doing swell!” line in all its various iterations. The logical part of me knew that couldn’t be right. No child is perfect. We’re raising children, not manufacturing drones.
But logic rarely overpowers doubt and insecurity, so I spent much of October through December feeling like a failure. Maybe I hover too much. Maybe I don’t hover enough. Maybe he’s doing too much. Maybe he’s not doing enough. Then one day, after a fight about I don’t know which forgotten assignment I thought, maybe it’s not just us.
It’s not just us. And if you’re reading this and are experiencing a similar situation at home, it’s not just you. A teacher confirmed this to me after a discussion about another missed assignment, again done perfectly and on time, but not turned in.
“He’s either acing his classes or forgetting everything. There’s no middle ground with him!”
“That’s sixth grade. It’s an adjustment year with a huge learning curve. Totally normal.”
“But I’ve asked other parents, and their kids don’t miss a single assignment, or forget schoolwork, or..”
“Eh. They’re just not telling you about it.”
We’re all guilty of that. We like to layer our lives with filters that smooth out the edges, but this isn’t an Instagram moment. This is life, and it should be real, and honest, and beautiful, and full of mess-ups. We do a disservice to our kids when we get angry with them at home but pretend life is grand in public. We teach them to lie, to deflect, and, worst of all, to never admit the slightest mistake. We do a disservice to ourselves, too, because if we as parents act as if everything is perfect, then we can’t admit we don’t know what we’re doing, we can’t bounce ideas off each other, and we can’t gain comfort in knowing we aren’t the only ones with a child who just started studying for a math test at 9:00pm the night before the exam. We don’t get the benefit of knowing this is all normal, expected even. And I bet if we did, we wouldn’t be so angry at our kids in the first place. Just a little angry, because, ugh, it’s still sixth grade.
Then I remembered a book I bought months prior on recommendation from a reader.
You better believe I dusted that thing off and jumped right in. I read That Crumpled Paper was Due Last Week: Helping Disorganized Boys Succeed in School and Life and realized, finally, I don’t suck as a mom and Mikey isn’t secretly plotting to kill me–at least not now, and not over school. Mikey is absolutely, positively normal. He’s behaving exactly as he should at this age and at this point in school.
Many educators and researchers believe there is currently a crisis in boys education, and if youve picked up this book, you may already be aware of it. Male students are, on average, between six months and a year behind their female counterparts when they start high school, and the girls stay ahead right through their senior year. The problem is clear to the parents who come into my office for the first time, typically at their wits end and sometimes near tears. The boy that they know to be smart, witty, thoughtful, and/or brilliant cant remember to turn in his homework and is failing several classes. The son who was absolutely precious as a young child started slipping as a middle schooler and has now become a headache of a teenager who just this morning forgot his English essay on the printer, has no idea that he has two tests tomorrow, and still needs to return his uniform for a school sport that ended two weeks ago.
I’m recommending the book to everyone not because it was absolutely amazing. If you’re organized and pragmatic, there isn’t much new to read, which is why the book is so heavy on success stories and anecdotes. I’m recommending it because it has the potential to be a huge comfort to parents. I know I felt good knowing Mikey’s “A one day, F the next” wasn’t unusual. There are some great techniques on getting your child organized, tips on how to change your attitude or approach, and practical solutions and strategies for tackling homework, longterm projects, and tests/quizzes. There are also entire chapters devoted to special considerations like learning differences, divorced/single parenting, and illnesses (yours or the child’s).
The most important messages for me were (1) change won’t happen over night and (2) tween minds, especially boys and especially at this age, aren’t developed enough to manage their intellectual and artistic achievements. Just because they can think like an adult, doesn’t mean they can manage like an adult. How I failed to make that connection for all these months amazes me. I tell parents all the time that just because a child can read a book five grade levels ahead doesn’t mean they should. Then, I remember that I’m a new middle school mom. I’m figuring it out as I go, just like Mikey. (That’s right, new moms! You will always be a new mom with your first born! Everything is new and difficult and worth it.) Realizing I’ve been a huge part of the problem this year as we adapt as a family to middle school was a tough pill to swallow, but I did.
Luckily, we are on the upswing. Things are getting better simply because my attitude and approach changed. We’ve already put in a few of the techniques from the book into practice here at home, as well as a few I developed on my own on the fly. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll share what worked and what hasn’t.
p.s. I’m happy to report that in the last couple of weeks the parental confessional floodgates opened. I’ve had some great chats with mothers (oddly, all them have daughters) who have provided me with a wealth of insight and a dose of healthy commiseration.