Our graduating class went to lunch with me last Friday. I can’t imagine a more delightful group of 14-year-olds to be caught in a restaurant with. You’d think that after all these years together they might have run out of things to talk about, but of course not. The intensity
of their time together seems to have produced thousands of happy, relaxed, confident, open relationships. I am sure there are some issues still to be worked out but detected none.
The outdoor terrace in the back of Chow in San Francisco buzzed with their talking and laughter, and yet these teenagers got complimented on their behavior by the staff and other customers. Furthermore, although I was clearly odd-man-out, they didn’t ignore me but included me in their buzz. “How do you feel about leaving?” “What are you going to do in Decatur?” “How far is Decatur from Chicago?” “Remember when you took us to the woods?” …and so on. Mina even stood up and gave me a toast, thanking me for being their principal all these years and for making such a great school for them to go to.
A guy my age would normally feel completely out of it at a meal with a group of 18 middle schoolers, but I didn’t. Nothing seemed forced. All their moves seemed quite natural. On the walk to the restaurant, one girl saw me walking alone, came up beside me and started making conversation. A boy did the same thing on the way back.
I have often said that parents and teachers of middle schoolers should all be aware that these are children masquerading as adults. I still hold to that statement, but if it’s true, they had me fooled. They sure seemed like young adults to me. Everyone’s behavior was relaxed, confident and completely appropriate to the situation. Each of them glowed with their own peculiar version of self-possession.
Everyone knows that teenagers are self-centered, but that doesn’t mean they have to be selfish. It is entirely appropriate for children to be self-centered. The challenge for parents and teachers is to challenge Self to also be socially responsible. Contrary to popular opinion, it is something Self wants to do and will do, if we play our cards right.
Here’s the game plan. Parents and teachers need to do three things at once:
- treat them as decision makers
- maintain boundaries tirelessly
- love unconditionally.
In this context children learn—in ever increasing degrees of complexity—that Self requires relationships with others, and that the quality of those relationships defines the quality of Self. It is a winning formula.