Developing independence takes time, and it is important to start this process early on. Middle school is a great opportunity for parents to shift over responsibilities to their kids to foster independence.
How much involvement should middle school parents have in each step of the process?
During middle school, parents need to assess and balance two main aspects – encouraging independent navigation of solving middle school problems, along with making sure that their kids aren’t falling behind. The question shouldn’t be how much involvement; the question should focus on what kind of involvement. First off, parents should never do for their kids, but rather should guide and prompt their kids on what to do themselves. This shouldn’t come across as directives, but rather as questions. By asking your kids questions, you are helping them figure out what to do on their own. For example, if your child is going to miss school, don’t send an email for them asking for make-up work from their teachers. This is the perfect activity to do together to help them get into the habit of doing this on their own. Middle school kids are striving for independence, but they also are seeking out means for efficiency. If having a parent help with tasks is the easiest strategy, they are going to use it! By asking questions, you can help guide them to doing things independently, and, even better, they will slowly want to do it on their own because it is quicker than having their parents ask them a bunch of prompting questions!
What activities should they help their kids with at first?
Ask your kids! See what they want help with. Something I learned early on is to always ask people if they want advice. If someone tells you no, then they aren’t going to listen to you anyway. Seek out areas that kids are willing to accept help in, and start there. If I had to choose the specific areas to help kids first, it would be self-monitoring (how well am I doing, and how do I know that?) and help seeking (who are the best people to ask for help for this problem). If we can get those two skills down, then we can focus on the bigger-picture skills that support independence.
Do middle schoolers become more independent naturally, as they develop?
Some do, some don’t. In elementary school, students are learning how to learn. In middle school, they begin using those tools from elementary school to begin learning curriculum. If a child did not master those skills in elementary school, they are juggling multiple tasks that they are not fully competent in by the time they are in middle school. It is important to realize though that students may not have the skills to be independent, but that does not mean their desire to be independent doesn’t continue to mature. This is where you can see tension develop between parents and their kids – parents know that their kids still need help, but the kids don’t want the help from their parents. It is a tricky balancing it. There are certain things that do develop naturally that can appear to be independence though, such as attentions and behaviors.
How can parents help facilitate this process?
Parents can help facilitate this process by encouraging a growth mindset. When there are poor outcomes (bad test grade, missing homework, etc.) parents should avoid punishments and emotional reactions. We should be approaching these as learning opportunities to do better. Instead of “You told me you didn’t need to study,” we should use language like “You thought you were prepared, what can we do differently next time?” This focus-on-the-future helps reframe problems as things to learn from, not things to avoid and ignore.
Should you be worried about smothering?
Yes! Supporting kids and their independence is the ultimate Goldie Locks balancing act. Each kid is different and, therefore, there is no right answer. What may be working for a friend and their children, may not necessarily work for yours. Just as we are expecting our kids to adapt to their worlds, we should be adapting our strategies as well.
Should you not help at all?
It is important to not think in extreme black and white thoughts. There is a balance that needs to be found. Parents can do everything right, but support for our kids often is dependent on how receptive our kids are to receiving help. If you and your child have a toxic relationship around academic work, then you may not be the best person to help them move towards independence. It really depends on your relationship and whether your involvement is adding value or not.
What’s the right balance for Middle School Years?
Our kids inform us of the right balance. What are they receptive to? Finding the right balance is no easy feat, and it is a journey in and of itself. The hardest part, when you find that right balance, your kids are getting older and then the balance will change again! As parents, you need to persevere through these constant changes. A major positive of this, your constant adapting will be modeling for your kids the type of adapting they should be doing as well!