by Brenda Hunter, PhD & Kristen Blair
It's a rough, tough world for middle schoolers today. Not long ago most of these kids believed in Santa Claus. Now, barely on the cusp of adolescence, they are thrust into an adult world, stripped bare of the parental protections afforded previous generations. Under greater pressure than ever before—from the culture, from school, and from parental expectations—many kids are growing up at warp speed. For them, the loss of innocence has been profound.
Middle schoolers are coming of age in the most digitized and technologically advanced period of our world's history. Are they ever wired! For them, it's a media-mad world. Research shows they spend almost nine hours per day with media from devices, such as cell phones, iPods, computers and television.
Two-thirds of middle schoolers now own cell phones. Increasingly, kids are using their mobile phones to swap sexually explicit, even nude images of themselves, in a practice called sexting. Kids may think sexting is harmless, but it can be devastating to those who find that a private photo sent to a crush is suddenly on every phone in their middle school. Hope Whitsell, a thirteen-year-old, committed suicide after a nude image she sent to a boy went viral and she was shunned by classmates.
Moreover, mobile technology and the internet amplify bullying. Kids may send nasty texts, spread rumors, post hurtful comments on social networking sites, or even use a classmate's password to engage in cyber-impersonation. Of cyberbullying, one middle school principal told us, "It's constant. It used to be that what happened in a bad neighborhood or a rough neighborhood on Saturday night, we'd deal with on Monday morning. Well, now we're dealing with what happened online."
Other areas of parental concern? Dr. Mark Piehl, a pediatric critical care physician at WakeMed Children's Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, told us he has seen an uptick in high-risk behaviors in recent years, as well as an increase in kids trying to inhale substances to get high—hair spray, paints, and aerosols. "They're snorting psychiatric meds in the home—pain killers and antidepressants."
What about sex? Kids are making their sexual debut at earlier ages. One middle school teacher told us that while most seventh graders are not having sex, most eighth graders are. According to counselors we interviewed, oral sex in middle school is commonplace and fairly widespread, and kids just don't view it as sex. "It's no big deal," many kids say.
What sort of impact is all of this having on parents? They're riddled with anxiety and feel a sense of cosmic unease. Said one father, "Control? We've lost it. Control is impossible. It's an illusion." As a result of their harried, busy lives, many parents want to be their child's buddy, rather than an authority figure. So some parents have trouble saying "no"; some even turn their children into their emotional caregivers. Role reversal lives.
What's a parent to do? In our book, From Santa to Sexting, we suggest that parents reclaim their God-given authority in their children's lives. Parents have more influence than anyone else. Mom and dad, you are the spiritual directors, the moral teachers, the protectors, and the nurturers of your child. But you can only fulfill these roles if you are emotionally and physically accessible for hours each day. You cannot rear good children in absentia.
Remember: these middle school years are pivotal, and the choices your child makes may last a lifetime. But he can't make good choices without warm, consistent family time. Never underestimate the powerful role of frequent family dinners in helping kids avoid substance abuse and early sexual activity.
What else? Kids need family rules. Just as the prophet Nehemiah rebuilt the broken-down walls of ancient Jerusalem, parents today need to rebuild and fortify their family walls to protect their children—to know what part of the culture to allow in, and what part to keep out. The culture presses your child to grow up too soon, but he needs to grow up at his own pace. Joyfully.
Ours is a culture that long ago forgot that parental fences and guardrails make childhood possible.
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