I first encountered “The Middle School Paradox” as a graduate student living in Boston. I was visiting a school when I saw it posted prominently on the wall -- six little words that would change my life.
“Know Thyself. Then, Get Over Thyself.”
The middle school journey is full of inherent contradictions. On the one hand, we do all we can to instill in our children a robust sense of self. Since the tween years are prime time for discovering who you are, we want to expose our kids to a wide range of hands on learning opportunities and diverse perspectives. At its best, this process develops poets who love to play soccer and violinists who love robotics. In other words, kids who are curious about the world and willing to try on many different “hats.” Hence, “Know Thyself.”
On the other hand, our children must also learn that they are not the center of the world. Instead, they are a part of several caring communities within communities – family, school, city, class, team – and that through their actions, or their inactions, they have the potential for great positive or negative impacts on others. We want them to gain experience; at the same time, we don’t want them to feel overwhelmed. Hence, “Get Over Thyself.”
I see these two contradictory forces at work every day in our school. In one moment, a student might be discovering a love for something they had never tried before. In another moment, I see students setting limits on themselves in order to manage their time effectively; or forced to consider the needs of others. This is never more true than in instances of middle school bullying. Students must question: What is my responsibility when I witness bullying? What if the person being unkind is my friend?
Helping children remain true to themselves while being a force for good is not a perfect or easy process. In fact, the developmental bumps during the middle school years are often built-in, so adults need to pay close attention and offer guidance as needed. Still, I like to think that from these contradictions comes great learning and growth.
I invite you to consider how the Middle School Paradox plays out in your own homes. When have you seen your children experience “Know Thyself” moments? When have you seen them experience “Get Over Thyself” moments? Share your thoughts.
Promoting empathy in middle school, edutopia.org
Emotional development in middle school, education.com
Schools are missing what matters about learning, The Atlantic